When Charlotte artist Dan Nance moved to Ballantyne in the mid-2000s, he selected the biggest lot in his development that backed up to the woods. What he thought was a dry riverbed turned out to be a pre-Colonial Native American trading route that later served as a vital opportunity for local revolutionaries to ambush British soldiers during the American Revolution. This also was the return route for George Washington’s 1791 goodwill tour from Charleston, S.C.
For an artist who professionally paints history, “it was the weirdest trick of fate,” he said.
Though luck has played a role in Nance’s artistic journey, his hard work has solidified his reputation as a painter, innovator and promoter of history.
Nance recently returned from the 150th Celebrations in Gettysburg, where he officially launched “Gettysburg: Window in Time.” The iPhone app animates his paintings of Civil War scenes with words and sounds. Using the camera function, the app imposes Nance’s painting over a live look at the scene that inspired his artistic rendering.
As he showed “Windows in Time” to the masses, the recurring reaction was “breathtaking,” referring to both Nance’s art and the innovative approach of the app.
Artists who make a name in the historic painting world face a tough audience. Raw talent goes only so far – the slightest inaccuracy can ruin a reputation. Painters must balance artistic vision with thorough research and painstaking attention to detail.
“You really have to be half Indiana Jones, half DaVinci,” he said.
Nance made a splash as a painter at the age of 19. He spent countless hours in the library researching all aspects of the subjects of his paintings – which soldiers belonged to what unit, which general had what color horse, how many inches separated buttons on a uniform. Pre-Google, this was a true labor of love.
His first limited-edition print, “Battle of Maryland,” received good reviews and generated buzz. “Here I was, a kid, playing with the big boys,” he said referring to a community of artists sometimes twice his age. He continued making and selling prints throughout college.
With the advent of digital photography, Nance has perfected his technique. He has relationships with groups that perform reenactments, of which he has taken tens of thousands of photographs. He pulls from this library and creates a drawing blending his mind’s eye with historic evidence. When the research is done, he hits the canvas.
“Dan is a real out-of-the-box thinker – creative, energetic and bursting with ideas,” said Scott Syfert, president of The May 20th Society – a nonprofit that raises awareness of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The group championed “The Spirit of Mecklenburg” statue of Capt. James Jack on horseback on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Chas Fagan’s statue, dedicated in 2010, inspired Nance to research Charlotte’s role in the American Revolution and paint the “Battle of Charlotte.”
On Sept. 26, 1780, a small militia of 150 Americans dug in at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets, holding off 3,000 British soldiers. Their stalwart defense held Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s vanguard off for a little more than an hour. Though little-known, the Battle of Charlotte warned British forces that North Carolina would not fall easily.
As The May 20th Society conceptualized the Charlotte Liberty Walk, Nance came up with the idea of “Hand Held History,” an application that would make his paintings interactive on a smart phone or tablet computer. With faith in his craft, he hired a programmer to develop “Battle of Charlotte” as an animation with audio and facts.
“The guns fired, horses ran, and bullets flew – it was awesome,” Syfert said. “I thought, ‘We have to use this.’”
From Charlotte to Gettysburg, Nance is just getting started. He hopes to make “Hand Held History” a catalogue of historic experiences that reanimate the battlefields of Charleston and other sites around the Carolinas.
“Then the shores of Normandy, the pyramids of Giza, who knows?” Nance said.
Learn more about Dan Nance at www.dannance.com. Access the apps for both the Charlotte Liberty Walk and Gettysburg: Windows in Time through iTunes. Visit www.handheldhistory.com for more information.