Alley Islands muralist Dane Khy is ready to tell more of his story

The artist’s collaborative mural will be on view during the festivities taking part in the alleys around downtown art gallery Blockfort on Saturday, May 6.
A collaborative mural on the exterior wall of Blockfort.
A collaborative mural on the exterior wall of Blockfort.Dane Khy

During a rare rainless night in the wet last week of April, Dane Khy joined Andy Smith, Ross Hardy and Rob Mounier to sketch out the four “giants” that make up their collaborative mural, painted on the eastern exterior wall of the downtown art gallery Blockfort. 

Each figure has its own personality, from the mohawked, ogre-esque figure wielding a keytar to Khy’s skeletal canine, which looks back over its shoulder towards its neighbors. And yet, there’s a natural interplay between the four figures, which Khy traced in part to the long-developed bond formed among the artists, three of whom share a studio space at 400 West Rich.

“We’re in group chats and getting out there and painting [murals] on Lookout Supply,” said Khy, whose collaborative mural is one of a handful that will feature at Alley Islands on Saturday, May 6, a daylong celebration of art and music that takes place in the alleys around 162 N. Sixth St. and includes performances from Joey Aich, Son of Dribble and OG Vern, among others. “All four of us, our styles are distinct, but they work well together. … I feel like it’s always completely honest with these guys, and I think it really helps that we can share feedback. We’re not afraid to put up something we’re working on and be like, ‘Hey, please roast me.’”

Khy said this type of no-holds-barred criticism has been essential to pushing him from his comfort zone, particularly as he transitions deeper into fine art, which he pivoted toward early in the pandemic after years spent in graphic design. With graphic design, Khy said he typically had to follow certain rules or conventions, where painting gives him complete freedom of expression. “And that’s something I’m still trying to figure out,” continued Khy, whose paintings tend toward the surreal and mysterious, his canvases often centered on dogs.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be someone who never experienced a significant loss, like a family member or a close friend,” the artist said. “But I remember losing my first dog when I was in my early 30s, and that really impacted me. She was 9 years old, and I’d had her since she was 8 weeks, and it was very sudden. At the time, I think I was just trying to find ways to cope with the loss, so I started doing all of these drawings and paintings.”

More often than not, Khy paints pit bulls, a tendency he traced to the time he spent working as a volunteer at Franklin County Dog Shelter, where the breed turned up abused and mistreated far more often than any other. Rendering them in gorgeous color gradually evolved into another way to celebrate the overlooked, the forgotten, the discarded.

Painting has also become a way for Khy to connect more deeply with his emotional side, which he said he kept walled off from his family as a child. “Growing up Asian American, we’re sort of taught to suppress our feelings,” said Khy, whose parents emigrated from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. “We didn’t talk much about emotion, so those rare times when you do it’s painful, because you have no idea how to articulate them.”

It’s an upbringing Khy has wrestled with more since becoming a new father, intent on breaking that family pattern and maintaining a more open, emotional bond with his daughter as she grows up. This has also led to more honest conversations with his parents – many initiated by his wife – that have opened his eyes to their experiences growing up in Cambodia and later fleeing amid the genocide. “Hearing the stories and the things they went through… I try not to bring it up all the time,” Khy said. “I’ve been learning so much about Cambodian culture, and I would love to create a series where I explore some of that history.”

These explorations of family and self will likely fuel and shape the work as Khy continues to find his voice as an artist – a process he is still working his way through. “I don’t think I’ve fully discovered who I am,” he said. “Every time I’m asked to write a bio about myself, I’m stumped. … I mean, I know my story’s in [the work], but sometimes I feel like I’m all over the place. I don’t know. Maybe now I’m finally steering in that direction I need to go.”

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