To meet the sculptor Daniel Quinn, you must be prepared to travel.
Not necessarily physically: Quinn, 58, lives in an area of Montgomery County that despite its stately, serene and bucolic feel, is not far from the hubbub of Shady Grove and I-270. On other levels, though, a visit to the Quinn homestead is a throwback to a simpler time. Venture down the unmarked gravel driveway to where tomatoes and squash thrive in an overgrown garden, goats frolic in a pasture, stacks of firewood are lined up before a small but stunning house designed and built by Quinn’s late father, the noted D.C. architect Francis Quinn.
And then there’s the art.
Towering totem poles, sleek slabs of marble, clusters of carved wood and huge African-inspired masks: the neighboring McMansions and manicured lawns of Potomac seem a million miles away from this secret sculpture garden where wood looks like onyx and abstract art seems to be everywhere the eye can wander.
“I block things out with a chainsaw, but I try to stay away from power tools as much as I can,” Quinn said, showing the wooden box that contains the hammers and mallets of his trade–“oodles and oodles, all different sizes.”
His work has a unifying aesthetic, but each piece is unique. Sometimes he uses a high-end wood stain to unify the sculpture, shed water and protect the wood from the elements; sometimes he lets the elements have their way; sometimes he works in stone.
Quinn was commissioned to create a memorial marker in Carrera marble, for example—and the abstract sculpture he made from remnant stone brings ancient Rome to mind. Once he and a buddy liberated a chunk of what he calls Leesburg marble from a local embankment; that abstract sculpture, showcasing a matrix born of river rock and red sandstone, possesses the kind of wow factor that only nature can provide.
Nature is what it’s all about. Quinn’s creations can be shiny, matte or notched until they look like ancient artifacts, but they’re always created from what the earth provides. And what nature giveth, she sometimes, eventually, taketh away. “It’s losing game,” he admitted. “The insects always get in, so they do have a shelf life. Then again, I have stuff that’s been outside for 30 years.”
Weathered or not, Quinn says he creates his art from a purely aesthetic point of view. He has studied art and art history, draws on nature and experience, reads about African and Asian art and visits museums—but at the end of the day, the power is in the piece. And the artist is just another tool, building up or pulling out the beauty that is locked away in a lump of clay or rock or wood.
“I’m not trying to make a statement,” he insisted. “Yes, art can have something to say, but that’s not the main thing. Sculpture has to have power; that’s the main thing. And if it doesn’t grab your eye, it doesn’t have power.”
“I basically work out here,” he said, gesturing around the property awash in sunshine and shade, where birdsong fills the air and pines and deciduous trees canopy the rolling hills—and, ultimately, sacrifice their fallen limbs and expired trunks to his chisels, rasps and gouges. “My stuff is organic, natural forms,” Quinn said, when asked what inspires him. “The environment, the way that stones and wood project—the things I see inside of them, I always want to pull that out.”
Kind of like Michelangelo? The sculptor laughed. “You might as well ask Michelangelo why he did it,” he said. “If you’ve got the bug, you just do it.”
Quinn got the bug as a young man, although his outdoorsy-yet-art-drenched childhood played a big role in his aesthetic. The Quinn family traveled out West and up to Mount Desert Island, Maine, where they had a home; there was a lot hunting and exploring, and artists sprinkled throughout the family.
“I was doing some art as a kid in high school, nothing serious, and then I took a bunch of art classes in college,” he said, noting that he went to Thomas S. Wootton High School and attended Frostburg State University, concentrating in biology before returning home and studying at Montgomery College, which even back then “had a much better art department.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist,” he said. “I didn’t want to stay in a lab—couldn’t stand it. I liked art work; I liked being outside.”
Back then, he worked mostly in clay, and sometimes wood. “But I didn’t really start doing abstract work until I took some classes at Montgomery College.”
Quinn had a mentor there, noted abstract artist Leonard Cave, who founded the Washington Sculptor’s Group in 1984 and taught high school and college classes until his death in 2006. Quinn studied with Cave, took studio classes and even taught adult education courses—yet in the end, decided that a hands-on outdoor life as a landscaper, stoneworker and sculptor was the path he’d ultimately choose.
“Sometimes I sell sculptures with landscape jobs; occasionally, I have shows,” he explained, going over the steps of submitting slides and prepping installations for group shows with other artists, his disinterest in the process apparent as he stands amid his sculptures in his splendid plein air studio. “But I haven’t done that for years—it’s so ‘pain in the neck,’ too much work—and I didn’t sell very many sculptures that way.” He said he used to go around to art fairs, “you know, bring a truckload of sculptures, work a booth.”
But sculptures, Quinn notes, are hard to move. “Much harder than paintings and drawings and stuff like that.” So for now, buyers come to him, down the little gravel path in the heart of genteel suburbia, where time bends backwards, but the sculptures stand proud and tall.
To reach Quinn, email firstname.lastname@example.org.