Underground Art Union Featured Artist: December 2007
Traversing the Subconscious: Bryan K. Ward
Interview by Brian Sherwin
Brian Sherwin: Bryan, tell us about your youth. When did you first realize that art was going to be an important part of your life? Can you recall any early experiences that are directly linked to the work you create today?
Bryan Ward: I knew by the time I was four that I wanted visual art to be a part of my life. I remember receiving praise from my peers through school and this building of self confidence at such a young age helped me focus on visual art. One of my memories that seemed to really affect me was when I was in an art class when I was fourteen and for the first time really looked through a book of Dali’s art. The painting “Face of War” stood out to me, and I remember thinking “I need to do art like this”.
Sherwin: Tell us about your educational background in art. Where did you study? Who were your mentors?
Ward: I spent nine months at the Art Institute of Seattle, it was a worthless school for me and I realized rather quickly I wanted to focus on fine art and not commercial art. From a recommendation by a teacher at AIS I found a place called The School of Visual Concepts, this was a non-credited fine art school in Seattle (the school has since changed into a more commercial school). I attended for three and a half years at times exchanging janitorial work for classes, taking figure drawing, oil painting, water color, pastel, drawing etc, it was a worthy school but in the end I had no degree to show from it. In 2000 I attended Phil Jacobson’s misch technique seminar in Austria for a month and then an extra week of learning with Ernst Fuchs at his home outside of Monaco, both of these were great experiences and opened me up to new processes of painting and new friends in the Fantastic/Visionary art world.
Sherwin: You devoted yourself to music for a few years. How did music relate to your visual art? Is there a connection? Have you continued to create music? Also, what types of music do you listen to while creating your art?
Ward: Since 1995 or so I have been playing keyboards and have manipulated sounds and samples and integrated them into a band format. I am a detexualizer of sound, I have an ear for what I do, but ultimately feel I am not really a musician. The first project I was a part of was a kind of post-crust punk band called Christdriver, we recorded and toured the US and West Coast. After disbanding some members started a new project called Black Noise Cannon, it is a continuation/evolution from the previous band, but we have made our songs longer; more dynamic and more atmospheric, the music is essentially dark, heavy and loud. I wouldn’t call it punk, metal or industrial, but fans of those genres may find something they like in what we do. Being in a band and creating music with a group of people is another essential part of being an artist for me, but it is a completely different expression than visual art. When I draw or paint it is a solitary experience, but working with a group it is learning to work with a collective and creating something that could only be made by the people working together in the band. Music is a universal language, it speaks to everyone, like visual art it can cross language and cultural barriers, although music can move people in ways a painting cannot. Both are important but I do find sitting in my studio making my art is ultimately the most fulfilling form of expression for me. As far as what I listen to when I paint; I like listening to music without vocals, sometimes vocals distract me so I love listening to scores of films especially Popol Vuh, they did much of the music for the German Director Werner Herzog. Or I listen to music that creates an atmosphere with or without vocals, bands like Swans, Angels of Light, Neurosis, Godflesh, Jesu, Mogwai, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor. Sometimes I listen to classical, country, folk, punk, metal and dub, whatever I’m in the mood for.
Sherwin: I’ve read that you enjoy the psychological theories of C.G. Jung. How does the study of psychology play a part in your art? Do you focus on the human condition with your work? What other themes do you tackle?
Ward: I can’t say I‘ve studied Jung in very much depth but I do appreciate some of the ideas he has touched on; like his collective unconscious concepts for instance. The following Jung quote rings true to me for some of the darker visions that I create “If I had not translated emotions into images, I might have been destroyed by the contents of the unconscious”, I feel being an artist and being a part of creation can really help process or expurgate negative experiences. It’s interesting about this collective unconscious; I think we can draw images from this place and that it’s somehow connected to our DNA. These myths or archetypes that make up who and what we were and are, each stream of moving images comes from within us and is collective but remains very individual to our personal experiences. I think DNA carries the message of the essence of our biology and the memories of previous generations. The blood that flows through our veins is not just our own, it is filled with every generation passed down to us, a gift from our ancestors. I feel it is the artist’s job to draw out these experiences and share them with our communities. I do find that I tend to dwell on the human condition, particularly on our mortality. I think one of the main differences between animals and humans is our awareness of shedding this mortal coil, and I think by my creating art about our ultimate demise, helps me come to terms with the inevitable. I had a dream recently where I was on death row, unjustly, and no one could help me get out, the fear of knowing the State was going to put me to death at a precise moment set up by some bureaucrat was unbearable, it was a truly frightening dream. I take from dreams too and tend to throw in some social commentary in some of my art; I think the state of the world politically affects every aspect of our condition and now more than ever there is the butterfly affect, where we can affect the whole world with the decisions we make or tolerate in the corridors of power here. So I like to play with critiques of the modern political paradigm with out beating it over people’s heads.
Sherwin: You’ve studied and visited several visionary luminaries– H.R. Giger, Prof. Ernst Fuchs, Alex Grey, and Prof. Philip Rubinov Jacobson– to name a few. Can you recall your experiences in meeting them? For example, how did your interaction with H.R. Giger impact your artistic creation?
Ward: I can honestly say that spending time with Ernst Fuchs was amazing; I wasn’t that familiar with his work before I spent time with him. In Austria I had a chance to go to his museum known as the Fuchs Villa and then to a church he is painting The Apocalypse Chapel in Klagenfurt, which is his Sistine Chapel. After seeing his works and spending time with him, watching him paint for 10-14 hours a day was incredible. I had previously never used the term master for anyone, but I felt I found someone that the title fit. His grasp of color, different styles, masterful technique and his mystical blend of Judaism and Christianity make for an unparalleled artist in my opinion. He has a fine balance of the macabre and the angelic in his works, something I feel a kinship with or at least something I strive to portray in my art. From Monaco I took a train to Switzerland and stopped in the HR Giger Museum. I was much more inspired by Giger through my youth so it was actually more exciting for me to visit him than it was Fuchs. I hadn’t expected to be invited to his house, but when he found out I was at Fuchs’s house (who is Giger’s mentor) he invited me to visit him at his home. Seeing Giger’s paintings in person was enlightening to his technique. We as fans usually see his work sized extremely down to look like a very tight airbrush piece, but in reality many of his works are huge and very painterly, with drips and smears, it looked like airbrush fine art as opposed to more graphic art. I didn’t really have much work with me to share with Mr. Giger, but I had enough that he did give me a general critique which I took to heart. He thought that I had a hard time with color, which he pointed out that he had too. He said that was why he started with black, white and grey works and then eventually working in one color at a time with his monochromatic pieces. He suggested that I do the same and that way I can learn to work with values more before I jump in with too many colors. Both Giger and Fuchs were impressed by my ink work and the creative imagination that I have. My struggle has been working the two formats together, marrying the detailed images of my drawing with the use of oil colors. This is an ongoing process and I feel I am still figuring out a technique that seems right for me.
Sherwin: When viewing your work I see a certain connection to nature. Many of your paintings involve decayed wooded areas… and many of your figures seem to have an earthy feel to them. Can you go into further detail about this connection?
Ward: I can attribute that to having grown up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. In Seattle we have access to two rugged evergreen covered Mountain Ranges, the Cascades, and the Olympics which border the Pacific Ocean. The Temperate rain forest of the Olympics is amazing in its ability to decay everything in a cool wet rot. Where the trees are covered in bright green moss and look like they have rioted on the earth, dripping from the constant rain and grey skies, this environment has affected me considerably. My connection with nature and the elements has been a strong influence on my use of organic subjects in my art. More recently I have traveled three times to the Amazon jungle in both Brazil and Peru; these trips have also had a profound influence on some of my newer works. I feel observing and taking in nature reveals to us that our true nature is nature itself. The air, the plants, the beasts, we are one, all connected. We humans especially in the West tend to be hypnotized by stuff, things dazzle us with their brilliance and yet underneath it is all a distraction from the natural world. The material tries to conqueror nature, but nature doesn’t care for our folly. I try to share these concepts through my art.
Sherwin: Bryan, what are you working on at this time? Are you involved with any upcoming exhibitions?
Ward: In June and July I was part of two different group shows in Iquitos Peru, both shows were with local Indigenous artists, one of them being an international conference on Shamanism. Also I have recently been included in a couple of online magazines. Right now I am working on my largest painting yet, it is 9 X 3.5 feet, I am painting an apocalyptic landscape based on the burning oil fields in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Working this large has been liberating for me, even though I am a detail orientated artist, laying out a piece that large lets me use my whole body to experience the painting. I have recently completed a pen and ink piece that before I finished it, I had enlarged onto a canvas and am now painting. So for the first time I will have two relatively similar pieces explored in different mediums, I am excited to complete this. Also the other night inspired by this web site I spontaneously started a Temptation of St. Anthony pencil drawing that I hope to get done soon. As far as any shows, I have some individual pieces that I plan on entering into group shows down the road, but am holding off a solo show until I get this new body of work completed. Sadly I am one of those artists that have a shitty time selling my art and getting it out into the world, I don’t feel much support in Seattle for the type of art that I do. I am looking to try and get into other cities, so if anybody reading this has a gallery or has a suggestion where I could show please feel free to shoot me an email.
Sherwin: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the motives behind your work?
Ward: One thing I am proud of that inspires my art on the periphery is that I am a single parent, it’s not always easy but constantly challenges me in new ways all the time, and inevitable helps me focus on what is important in life. In fact my daughter Kali is a model in one of my newer paintings, which she really gets a kick out of. Entheogens have been a great motivation for me and thus my art through the years. “Entheogen” is a somewhat new word to describe the use of vision inducing plants or chemicals in a ritualized setting for the purpose of healing or divine inspiration. I have been using these substances for decades as a way to explore consciousness and to work on actually healing physical and emotional ailments. Entheogens can also contribute to detaching our allegiance to the State; they hurt completely the ability of the State to control our thinking, and I think this is important for artists, free thinking people and society as a whole to experiment with these substances. As I mentioned before I traveled to Brazil and Peru, I was brought to these beautiful countries by the desire to experience the shamanic inebriant Ayahuasca, which is a medicinal brew used by many tribes in the Amazon for centuries. It’s a truly amazing experience and I can’t really do it justice here, but interested folks should really look into it. In a nutshell, it is like the best therapy, medical doctor and vision inducing substances all in an incredible admixture of plants that come directly from the earth, nature’s therapy, nature’s doctor. It’s not all fun and games and can be hard work, but many times I am blessed with visual inspiration for my art that is virtually unparalleled.