Derek Kaplan’s life, in some ways, mirrors his art. A self-taught abstract artist, his life’s calling started as an idea of what he wanted to be, rather than a concrete plan.
With roots in Zimbabwe, his path would lead him to London and then ultimately to New York City. While always being talented with the brush, his early career as an artist was derailed by poor marks in a high school exam. As is often the case, the talent wasn’t enough, and Derek had to experience more of the world in order to harness the inner passion and confidence which would manifest itself on the canvas.
He went on a sojourn that took more than fifteen years and a dozen career changes before finally coming full circle back his true calling. Armed with more knowledge and a better understanding of the world, the trials and tribulations of merely existing, and a renewed passion for art, Derek Kaplan became a revelation. Having only had his first solo show two and a half years ago, his artwork has completely sold out in galleries such as the Couture Galleri Contemporary Art Space in Stockholm, Sweden and the Chelsea Art District in Manhattan.
Proof positive that success isn’t often a straight path, Derek shares with us his journey, his advice, and a glimpse into his hopes for the future.
The Guy Society: You were an extremely talented artist in high school, what made you pursue other career paths?
Derek Kaplan: I was, now looking back at it. But it didn’t feel like it at the time. You see, I took a big knock when I was given an unexpected C grade for my O level art exam in high school. I then felt mediocre and questioned my ability to become truly successful in the art world. I ended up leaving school with no sense of direction. My first real job was a junior shipping clerk. I then began modeling and ended up moving to the UK. There I had dozens of jobs over the years, but it really took 15 years until I fully found my way back to my art.
Artist Derek Kaplan in his studio
The Guy Society: You seem to embody the phrase “if it’s meant to happen, you’ll find a way.” Was art always in the back of your mind when you were doing other things?
Derek Kaplan: The years that followed school were a bit of a struggle, trying hard to find out who I was, my purpose, and where I could fit in. I did occasionally step into an art store and browse around. I closely observed the people there, both envious and thankful I wasn’t any of the quirky, eccentric looking characters hustling around in their own world. The truth is this, at the time, me becoming a successful artist was so inconceivable I would never dare give the thought consideration, not even for a moment.
The Guy Society: What was it that made you take the leap from a secure future to risking it all for your dream of being a full-time artist and what was that process?
Derek Kaplan: Being self-employed gave me the opportunity to take up painting on the side. A good friend of mine saw my work and believed in me, so he marketed my art through word of mouth. A year later my art was selling and paying me more than my business was. I remember that moment a bell went off in my head with the message ‘Derek you could be a full time artist now if you want to!’ The busier I became with my art, the harder it was running my business. I remember the day I decided to let go of my business in London, to become a full time painter in New York. The risk paid off.
Derek Kaplan at work on an original
The Guy Society: You grew up in Zimbabwe but now live in New York. Does your location inspire your artwork and how do you think your art differs now?
Derek Kaplan: New York is a city that I feel at home in. I love its raw energy and grittiness which I find encourages my creativity daily. Yet my inspiration nearly always comes from nature itself, and is often derived from Africa in some way.
The Guy Society: Art, as a career, has huge similarities with any form of entrepreneurial-ism. You struggle and dream about the success but many people give up before they make it. You are a highly successful artist. What was the driving force behind your determination to succeed?
Derek Kaplan: I have always believed there is a ‘force’ above at work, watching over us, and secretly wanting you to succeed, but testing you. I have certainly suffered more than my fair share of failures and disappointments in life. Yet looking back, everyone of them lead me on track quite perfectly to where I am today. Never give up. In some sense, I feel I am a better artist now than I could have been because of the journey I have had to take.
The Guy Society: What advice do you have for someone wanting to become a full-time artist?
Derek Kaplan: Don’t listen to anyone’s opinion when it comes to your artwork! I know so many artists who take criticism to heart, feel wounded and think they are not good enough which is crazy. I had an art teacher at school who said to me once ‘opinions are cheap commodities’!
I receive many emails from artists who I think are so talented asking me for advice, yet I’m shocked to see how often they are insecure, and even ashamed of their work. The most important thing is that you believe in your work, and be proud of it no matter what. In this day and age we are blessed with social media and multiple digital platforms to share our artwork across the world. There’s never been a better time to get your work out there. Spend time developing your profile, share stories about your art, and your journey. Even technophobes have no excuse not to build an online art profile.
STORM SIZE 40 X 60 X 1.5 ACRYLIC ON CANVAS
The Guy Society: Success can create stress on relationships. You and your husband Fredrik must be two of the busiest people on earth. How do you ensure you achieve a great work/life balance?
Derek Kaplan: When Fred gets home, no matter what kind of a day he has had, he leaves his ‘day’ outside the front door. He walks in with a clear head and heart, which is amazing. I have been learning to do the same myself, although this hasn’t been as easy for me at times. Our home is our sanctuary, so the rule is we don’t bring any stress or problems home with us – we leave them behind.
SINCE I FELL FOR YOU SIZE: 48 X 72 X 1.5 INCHES ACRYLIC ON CANVAS
The Guy Society: It’s evident from your social media that you’re an avid traveler. What’s your favorite destination so far and where’s one place you’ve yet to travel that you want to go?
Derek Kaplan: Fred and I love to travel. We actually have many destinations we love but our hearts always seem entwined with beaches and sun. My favorite place is the Maldives so far. I still want to take Fred to Cape Town and also visit the Galapagos Islands.
The Guy Society: Your art evokes so much emotion, as do you when you speak about it. Of all your pieces, is there one that stands out from the rest and why?
Derek Kaplan: Each piece I have created is special and symbolic to me for different reasons. And over time my preference for some may change to others. But the one that perhaps stands out most is ‘Got My Own Sunshine’. In short this relates to my own personal journey in life. It’s the idea that every one of us have our own sunshine inside, something special to offer to the world, even on days when you feel you don’t have the sunshine, it’s there within you.
GOT MY OWN SUNSHINE SIZE 40 X 60 X 1.5 INCHES ACRYLIC ON CANVAS
The Guy Society: What are your goals for 2016 and how do you ensure you’ll hit those goals?
Derek Kaplan: My first goal is to take a long indefinite break from commissioned work so I can focus again on the adventures of painting through being spontaneous and reactive to the moment. I also want to do some shows this year.
The Guy Society: I just want to say a huge thank you for joining us. It’s a great privilege to talk to someone with so much deep-rooted passion for what they love. If you have any final words for our readers, I’m sure they’d appreciate it.
Derek Kaplan: My pleasure and thanks for having me, hope you come by and visit me in the studio!
Connect with Derek:
*Research and material support lent to this article by T.J. Humphreys*