Mark Dancey is showing us around his Mexicantown home, hunting down copies of Motorbooty, the irreverent humor magazine he edited in the ’90s. “I’ve had them in the attic and the squirrels would take them — this place used to be infested with squirrels,” he says. “They’d raid them and make a nest. I’ve got all those guys evicted now though, so that’s good.”
It’s a bit hard to reconcile Motorbooty’s snark and crude drawings with the soft-spoken dude before us. Dressed in a button-up shirt, vest, and round wire-frame glasses, Dancey looks more like a substitute teacher than a punk rocker. He started doing Motorbooty after years of playing in hardcore band Born Without a Face and later, the Sub Pop-signed grunge band Big Chief — to him, there wasn’t much of a difference between Motorbooty and rock ’n’ roll.
“The easiest thing was black-and-white ink, and comics. It’s like punk rock — it’s the simplest thing,” he says. “You have three instruments, and a few chords, and you can call it a song. [Motorbooty] was my outlet for that sort of punk rock, do-it-yourself thing.” But Dancey says that after a while he grew tired of hiding behind all the snark, and that’s when he started oil painting.
“When you’re in a band or a magazine, it’s a group project,” he says. “If you’re going to be on your own, you better have something to show. When you put your name out there and you don’t have a band to hide behind or this group of people who are funnier than you, you’re just on your own, so you have to get better. I was just trying to play catch-up to stuff I should have learned when I was 20 but was too dismissive for that stuff.”
When Dancey started out, he consulted a friend who had studied traditional painting in communist Romania. “He comes from this tradition of figurative, classic oil painting — this old tradition,” Dancey says. “I went to him and said, ‘Here, I’m doing an oil painting.’ He just kind of shook his head.”
At the urging of this friend, Dancey went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to study the Flemish painting collection. “[My friend] said, ‘OK, I’ll see you in a couple hours. You stay here and I’m going to go smoke some cigarettes.’” That was Dancey’s art school.
Now, Dancey splits his time between illustration work (he drew the cover for this week’s Metro Times) and fine art oil painting. Perhaps in an homage to his black-and-white comic book days or punk rock’s simplicity, Dancey paints in mostly sepia tones. He paints on circular boards he routes out of masonite, working from models he photographs. “It was a breakthrough. I just like the circular boards because it’s unusual,” he says. “Also when you hang them there’s never a problem with it not being level.”
While on the subject of trying to create a body of work, Dancey suddenly waxes poetic, launching into a rumination on Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. “There was a great thing in there, where he says you have everything at birth, you have this mound of culture, of guys who lived their entire lives and produced all this stuff for centuries. It’s already there at birth for you to take and learn from, but it takes years of living — it’s a price of years and time it takes you to absorb all that stuff. Maybe by the end of your little blip of time you’ll absorb enough and be able to [add] your little contribution to the pile.”