Arts » Visual Arts

The dragon slayer of Gen Con

How a local sculptor turned the hobby that saved his education into a successful business

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After passing three roundabouts, a sea of suburban stitched homes and well manicured lawns, there is one house that stands out. It's ordinary in every way from the street. In fact, you would never notice the dragon's head knocker on the door or the small gargoyles along the front step unless you were walking right up to ring the bell. Inside, however, is a different story. Oils, acrylics, prints and sculptures (meant to look like the hunted heads of fantasy creatures) all tile the walls. Nearly every spare shelf is home to monsters and dragons of every kind. It's a fantasy lover's dream.

It's the home and live-in studio of David Lee Pancake, a Greenwood-based sculptor, who will be showing at Gen Con for the fifth year in a row. And yes, Pancake is really his last name. His German ancestors changed it from Pfannenkuchen several generations ago. As you can guess, it was not fun in elementary school.

Like so many artists, his visual endeavors began at a young age. But for Pancake it meant so much more. His drawings and vidid colors would mean the difference between graduation and a downward spiraling educational current.

Midway through his eighth grade year Pancake was only testing at a third-grade reading level. The following summer he was visiting a cousin when he stumbled across a comic book for the first time. Leafing through the kaleidoscopic pages fueled his desire to follow the dialog. Slowly he began to work his way through it.

This was around the same time that astronauts were setting foot on the moon, sparking his interest in space. He recalls going into a comic book store and asking for any titles that took place in out in the cosmos. The shop owner didn't have any, but he did have a fantasy novel. He handed Pancake a cover that pictured a mouse holding a ray gun. The notion of no pictures wasn't too thrilling, but he decided to take a crack at it anyway. By the end of the summer he read 33 books. That fall, his reading scores had jumped from that of a third-grader to a college freshman. The principal even made him retake a reading test in his office, just to prove he hadn't cheated.

Pancake began to furiously draw all of the characters that were captivating him. Pages weren't enough; soon his drawings were overflowing onto his bedroom walls. His mother eventually gave up and let him cover the room in Captain America and any other character that came to mind.

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It wasn't until years later, when he and his wife Kathy were running a small graphic design firm, that the possibilities of sculpture opened. He met an older woman named Jennie Roller, a fantasy sculptor. She invited him to tag along to Windy Con in Chicago where she was selling artwork. From then on, pages and walls couldn't contain his mythical creatures.

Though he still does paint, Pancake identifies as a sculptor more than anything. For him, the level of detail and reality he could achieve was intoxicating. Today, his dragon scales are all razor sharp, and the wingspan on his Gen Con feature alone is 11-and-a-half feet tall.

His attention to detail was born from a level of artistic scrutiny that kicked into a whole other gear once he decided to pursue art full time.

In 2003, he sold the graphic design business. And in 2005 he and Kathy moved to Indiana so he could be an art director for a furniture company. It was five years later, on Nov. 20, 2010, when he left the stability of a 401K and threw himself into his artwork.

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"Once you say 'yes, I am a professional artist' it's a big step," says Pancake. "But it's a step that has to happen. Once you do it things unfold before you. You start treating yourself a little differently, the shows a little differently, the general public a little differently. ... It's very important to do it."

He has had his fair share of struggles with going full time. "You always get this push back, 'you can't make a living with art' or 'you can't do this or that with art,'" says Pancake. But by the books he is doing very well. His sales have doubled almost every year since 2010. The secret, he says, is to "find your fan."

"They respond by telling you what they want," says Pancake. He makes a habit of listening to requests and following through. Among the conferences he attends, Gen Con "has a different flavor to it." Large fantasy cons have allowed him to sell out nearly all of his inventory, design pieces for cosplayers and even book covers or custom characters for fiction authors. Hans Cummings was one of those artists when he commissioned a praying mantis creature. Pancake even included the detail of an iPad in its hand.

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His artwork is not what you would see in a traditional gallery space. In fact, he sees that as an unfortunate division between worlds.

"Look at how Marvel has dominated the movies," says Pancake, sitting on his couch beneath a series of fellow fantasy artists' paintings. He explains how pop culture has made geek culture mainstream over the years, and yet the artwork is still separated. 

"If you do illustration or if you do fantastic art, fantasy art, that's some how not the same as ... fine art. I don't view it that way," says Pancake. "I think there is way more talent that you will see at Gen Con than you will see at [some] galleries ... Sometimes when you get into the fine art community they treat it very cut-throat and competitive. ... This community, the fantasy community, it's not that way. ... It feels very good to sit around with these artists. You don't feel like you are in competition with them. You feel like you are in a community with them."

See him at Gen Con:

When: July 30-Aug. 2

Where: Convention floor of Gen Con. Look for the ominous dragon over his booth. 

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