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Omaha Magazine

No Going Back: Finding Freedom in Canvas

Dec 28, 2020 09:25AM ● By Chris Bowling
Dany Reyes with his painting

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The paint splashes across the canvas. It’s late at night in the basement of Elva’s gallery on Vinton Street in South Omaha, and Dany Reyes is hard at work.

In pinks, blues, and greens, the 34-year-old traces across the canvas, trying to find something in the faces of pop culture icons and ordinary Omahans alike. Occasionally the acrylics splatter. A few years ago, he thought only a bad artist made those kind of mistakes. Someone who can’t do this for a career. Now he embraces them.

“There’s no wrong in there,” Reyes said. “Especially in the way I paint. I did it that way, and that’s how it stays. And whoever enjoys my art, appreciates it for what it is. It’s just free.”

Throughout his life, Reyes said, he rarely felt free. Always shy, he kept his head low during school. When he graduated, he couldn’t go to college due to his noncitizen status. All he could do was work manual labor jobs.

In 2018, he decided to give it up. He wanted to paint.

Since then, he’s built a name for himself, sending commissions across Omaha and the country. But it didn’t come without perseverance and risks—a belief with no safety net that this is what he was meant to do.

“I created my freedom in canvas,” he said.

Reyes’ family immigrated to Los Angeles from El Salvador in the early ’90s. He learned about America through classic movies and TV shows such as The Simpsons and Step by Step. But when it came to making friends, he was lost.

One day, another first-grade student named Gabriel asked if Reyes wanted to draw. Soon Reyes was drawing all the time, imagining fantastical scenes in marker and pencil or recreating his favorite superheroes. In fifth grade, a teacher asked him to do a 5-by-5 square-foot illustration of Martin Luther King for a school assembly. Soon everyone started noticing Reyes’ talent.

“My self esteem was really low,” he said. “I wasn’t great in school. I wasn’t the best in math or anything,” he said. “So being good at this gave me an empowering feeling. Like, ‘Hey, I’m not good at the rest of the world, but in this, I am.’”

When Reyes moved to Omaha in 2000, he kept taking art classes at South High. But after graduation he couldn’t find a direction forward. He wanted to go to college because, to him, it seemed like all good artists did that. But without a social security number, Reyes couldn’t apply for grants or submit college applications.

All he could do, it seemed, was get a work permit. He drew off and on through the years, but never anything serious.

“I didn’t have [any] future,” he said. “There was nothing for me. I was going to work until I died. And I was never going to do anything other than that.”

 His wife, Amanda Finn-Reyes, could see the effect it had on her husband. The couple met in 2013, got married in May 2016, and now are raising four children. Finn-Reyes said her husband had jobs that helped pay the bills, but he never stayed anywhere long.

“He was never somewhere where he felt like his work was validated,” she said.

In September 2018, Reyes was working as a crane operator at a steel mill, the best job he’d ever had at the time. One day, he decided he’d had enough. If he wanted to accomplish something with his life, it felt like time was running out. He wanted to become an artist.

The decision shocked Finn-Reyes, whose mind went to how the family could pay the bills and buy food if one parent was a struggling artist.

“When he said that, I don’t want to say I was upset,” she said. “I was just worried. What happens if this doesn’t work? How long do we give you to figure this out?”

The couple agreed Reyes could have a few months to see if he could realize his dream. 

He started creating paintings and trying to build a clientele. Sometimes he’d stand on the corner in the Old Market hoping someone would buy a painting or share his work.

Soon the word started to spread, commissions started coming in. After a year, Finn-Reyes stopped asking her husband to get a part-time job. This past year was even bigger for him. He started working with Elva’s on Vinton Street. At night, or during the day if his wife has a slow day of work, he paints in the basement, working on several commissions a week.

When he was a kid, he used to draw the things he wanted that his family couldn’t afford to buy. Now he has a savings account, and he and his wife bought their first home together.

“I never thought I was going to be that,” he said. “I was always just a paycheck-to-paycheck guy.”

Reyes’ style centers around portraits contoured in a mess of bright colors that’s reminiscent of the pop culture movement. It’s rooted in his American education through TV and ’90s pop culture, but it’s also the eye of a shy person who wants to see things for what they could be.

It’s part of the reason he doesn’t paint skin tones normally, or try to make his work hyperrealistic. It’s a messy, authentic reimagination of life.

Then COVID-19 happened.

In April, Reyes and his family went to a quinceañera in Grand Island. Not long after, the community became a national COVID-19 hotspot, and Reyes started feeling symptoms. Before long, he was in the hospital.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t die,’” he said. “‘I’m finally doing something I love. This can’t take it away from me.’ It felt like the end.”

But Reyes recovered. When he left the hospital, he sent back a painting of Superman as a gift for the staff who cared for him.

The experience showed him what he needs to cherish in life—is family and the opportunity to make a living off his passion. But more than anything, it’s reinforced that he can’t lose this freedom. Because now that he’s tasted it, he can never go back. Toward that end, he is currently able to lawfully work in the U.S. and is in the process of obtaining citizenship.

“Every time I went left or right, I was restricted because I’m not from this country,” he said. “I just became so upset. It was so unfair...There was something about me that nobody really saw. But when I paint nobody tells me, ‘Dany you can’t do it that way. That’s not how it’s done.’” 

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This article was printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.


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