Palos Verdes artist Denny Bales makes creation a lifelong passion
Art proves a healing antidote to life’s challenges.
- Written byTanya Monaghan
- Photographed byChristian Guerra
Creator of wood-burnished art. Artist who paints with light to live music. Music video designer for Gwen Stefani. Old-school vinyl deejay. Expert in Russian oil painting. Wooden furniture maker. Member of a surf band. Art teacher. Cancer survivor. Philanthropist.
He’s had enough of a journey of creativity and experience for 10 lives well lived, but all of these labels fit comfortably on one amazing man: Denny Bales. At only 34, he has the artistic force of a creator twice his age, yet he somehow blends his incredible achievements with a relaxed kindness and humility that immediately invites you into his world of light, color and joyful expression.
Denny is a South Bay local through and through; he was born in Redondo Beach and grew up in Palos Verdes. His parents still live in that same house. He studied art in high school but was way more into sports and surfing.
While Denny was always interested in art growing up, he didn’t realize his true potential until a life-changing accident. At 16 his leg was shattered after getting hit by a car while skateboarding. Due to injuries, he was forced to withdraw from school because he was laid up on a couch for six months and then on crutches for another six months.
“I wanted to do a design that doesn’t tell you what it is right away—something that is more introspective to look at.”
After he grew bored watching TV and playing video games, painting emerged as the only thing that kept his mind interested for long periods of time. An avid baseball player before the accident, he just couldn’t run as fast. So he packed up his bat and ball and started getting more into his creative side, exploring art and playing guitar.
His mother was the president of Art at Your Fingertips—a school-based arts outreach program in Palos Verdes—and Denny credits her as a huge influence. He says of the accident, “It’s unfortunate it happened, but I wouldn’t be where I was today if that didn’t happen.”
His passion for art grew in college at Point Loma University, a small private school in San Diego. He was taking random classes trying to figure out what he wanted to focus on. He had a foundation in art, so he booked a meeting with the chair of the art department, Jim Skalman, and showed him his art portfolio. Jim convinced Denny to be an art major and fast-tracked him into some higher level art classes.
Everything seemed to be going well until his sophomore year of college, when Denny was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He received the news on his 22nd birthday. He had to drop out of school to go through chemo and move back to Palos Verdes, where he had a great support system.
It was at this time that Denny linked up with the local PV plein air artist Daniel Pinkham. Denny’s mom went to Palos Verdes High School with Dan, and she thought it would be a good idea to distract Denny from his illness and give him some sort of creative outlet. So Dan took on Denny as a mentee, and they got together a few times a week in between his chemo treatments, which lasted six months.
This was the turning point of Denny’s art journey because he had this amazing mentor who allowed him to specialize in plein air oil painting—a landscape painting in an outdoor environment. Point Loma also very kindly offered him independent study and gave him credit for studying with Dan.
He became immersed in this traditional old-world Russian style of painting, listening to classical music while he created. His girlfriend, Meagan, jokes, “Unlike most of his contemporaries who were studying contemporary art, he has this old man living inside of him.”
Thankfully his chemo treatments were successful, and Denny was able to go back to college to finish his degree in San Diego. During his first year back at school, Denny started an annual charity surf event for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which started out at Rat Beach in Palos Verdes … hence the event’s name Ratopia.
Ratopia usually happens in December, marking the time of his last chemo treatment. This year will mark the 13th year for an event that gives to a cause that is obviously near and dear to Denny’s heart.
After he graduated from Point Loma with an art degree, Denny went on to get his teaching credentials and a position at Palos Verdes High School. He worked there for a couple years and continued his oil painting but also started experimenting with mixed media.
He then landed a job at Da Vinci Design—an El Segundo-based charter school—while throwing an art show in his backyard in Hermosa Beach. During his five happy years there, Denny started producing light shows for live music in Downtown L.A. For a year he worked full-time teaching all day and then put on light shows by night.
He really loved the live music scene, and getting paid to do his live light shows was a dream come true. He moved into it full-time. It was a whole new, exciting art form … he would pour color liquid over an overhead projector and manipulate it into different psychedelic forms, all to music.
It was part of a new movement in the music scene: a move away from electronica and back to old-school, organic, loose and authentic lighting. He uses analog computers mixed with old film and slides to give a vintage feel and create a unique experience each time.
He pioneered this new art form, and the work really picked up. He partnered with light show artist Mark Farrera to open their own venue in the warehouse art district downtown. They started booking shows on the weekend, eventually evolving into The Blind Spot Project.
He also partnered with some cool, up-and-coming psychedelic bands such as The Creation Factory and Frankie and the Witch Fingers. But his real breakthrough came when Gwen Stefani’s art director and crew visited his venue and hired him to do her “Harajuku Girls” cartoon video.
The energy was high and things were going great, but then the whole venue got shut down along with all other underground venues after the Oakland warehouse fire of 2016. Denny still enjoys doing light shows but is now pretty selective about whom he works with. Desert Daze musical festival is his favorite.
You can still catch Denny deejaying records every Friday night for Vinyl Club at Sophie’s Place in Redondo Beach. He also plays in a surf band named the Royal Rats around the South Bay and beyond.
Wood burnishing is Denny’s latest passion. He wanted another artistic option besides painting, so he started using the geometric lighting designs that he used as transparencies in The Blind Spot Project, penciling them on wood and burning the images into the raw wood grain.
He explains, “I wanted to do something unique. I wanted to do a design that doesn’t tell you what it is right away—something that is more introspective to look at. It’s calming, and you kind of make your own rules. If that’s on your wall, it’s something that is living with you. Whether you know it or not, it’s a subconscious thing.”
Although it is very time-intensive, Danny finds the process fun and rewarding. He is also getting into woodworking on all types of furniture. His beautiful wood-burnished designs can be found in Right Tribe in Manhattan Beach, and you can catch his next light show for one of his favorite bands Khruangbin on May 5 at The Observatory in Santa Ana.
Denny is a creator, a survivor, a teacher, a modern-day Renaissance man. We can’t wait to see what he makes next.
A longtime South Bay resident barrels through the wave of early-‘60s surf bands and clubs that once gave our Beach Cities a summer soundtrack.