In the Studio with John Damian Boychuk

I first encountered John’s work at Gearbox’s 2019 Juried Exhibition: Art + Movement. I felt like I was looking at a creature that might have hopped out of one my paintings. John’s strong use of color and the odd sense of balance piqued my curiosity and I pored over his artist statement and portfolio on his website. In his artist statement, he writes:

“They stand as 21st century semiotic depictions related to magical realism, mock-epics, or picaresque novellas. These rogue notions form from current socio-political, environmental, scientific or subtle traps of subconscious vibration.”

-John damian Boychuk

Aside from having to look up several words in his statement, I was totally hooked. I knew I had found another artist who spoke my visual language. I reached out to John last September, and asked him if he’d like to collaborate on an exhibition at Gearbox. Over the Fall of 2019, we traded studio visits, became friends and discovered our shared educational history at University of Michigan and California College of the Arts. It has been immensely rewarding to share this creative journey with John. Below is our conversation, compiled over several studio visits and phone calls.

What keeps you going as an artist? Where does your creative hunger come from?

First I believe unlike other professions, the only requirement of “Being an Artist” is to actually make art. I’ve always had somewhat of a chip on my shoulder. Growing up middle class has always had me playing the role of the longshot/ underdog. Maybe coming from Detroit put some of that there too. So when I think about what I want to do with this existence we call life- my answer has always been the same: Make Art/ stand for something. Combining these two concepts together has always left me in the studio feeling a pressure to succeed, no matter how great the accolades the last effort achieved. There’s this feeling of the next one will be better, and that constantly searching within the work/ material/ myself/ our shared experience as humans – for some kind of answer is where I go when making. I ask my art a question and we try to answer it together, this can lead to more questions and ends up in a questions become answers cycle. The only times I’ve had difficulty making in my life were when that cycle was interrupted and I had to kick start that fire to get the engine to turn over.

How do you strike that balance in your work? How do you make work that’s both emotionally authentic and outwardly addressing our environmental crisis?

Having a professional studio practice tasks me with showing up in the studio on regular weekly hours. This helps me have many projects going at once, so if something is drying or in a calm moment something else is burning with impatient creation. As far as staying relevant- the trick I feel is to consume the social/ news streams, yet know when to put them down. I am highly critical of a lot of things and this view- that I choose for myself what is important and what isn’t – is the beginning of negotiating this modern information landscape. Very much like critical reading from a high school english class, I believe only a portion of what is presented. In my search to understand that last little bit of unexplained data – is where I seed my work with the question/ answer effort. After I have a sense of what I want to discuss, this can defy words, I begin making my subtle trap of the unconscious, discussed by Artist Don Potts in his 1981 sculpture lecture at MIU. Since the works can take many months to complete, they also live in this world/ time with me and I view them as alive in this period. Upon death they are then displayed in the gallery for viewers very much like we do with our departed in funeral homes.

Now that you’ve had time to create and refine work with our title and theme in mind, I’m curious about the connections you see in your work to the process of mutation?

I feel that the word mutation gets a bad rap. It is a natural and necessary occurrence vital for life to flourish. We Humans feel that because we don’t understand or control mutations that they are negative. It goes directly towards my desire to create things/ questions outside of our modes of thinking to have mutations fundamental to my art making process. Chaos, chance, mutation, gesture these are all connected in my efforts of allowing moments to just happen- connecting me to the universe beyond my consciousness and understanding.

Can you talk about how you approach the stage of your sculpture where you go beyond the ceramic and into the painterly glazing stage?

I see the clay to ceramic process as mimicking that of the human life cycle. Dug from the ground as raw elements and combined into a slurry matrix, the clay has now been created- akin to a sperm/ egg. Through my interaction in modeling it, I give it birth unto the world in this form both of my choosing and the materials reactions to my pressures. As it dries the clay becomes mature and beings its old age. As it is fired and transitions chemically from clay to ceramics by vitrification, it dies to be reborn again as bisqueware. In this state it is pink, raw and exposed. Now this static unrefined lifeless husk can again be remade, asking me to see beyond what is in front of me and into the possibilities of what can be. This is where the painterly decisions manifest. As a painter looks past the white expanse of the canvas beyond the frame, I project color and movement into the work. This is a dance between the known of experience, the unknown of experimentation and happenings in the moment of application. All to be sacrificed again, and possibly more times, until the final piece emerges from the kiln now a phoenix of sorts at least twice consumed by fire meant to ignite the imagination and sense of exploration within the viewer.

How has the process of preparing for this show, and our collaboration been for you?

I find the process of showing as always stressful. In that I am constantly asking myself is this good enough or that isn’t good enough. Which is very different from the making aspects of the studio for me- where I’ll be asking questions within the works and reaching into the unknown of my self and the material. This time- working with Jamie has been one of the most enjoyable shows I’ve made to date. Although the same questions are present- Jamie and I have come together and had a shoulder to lean on so to speak with each other. I’m very grateful for him reaching out to me and asking me to do this show with him. We have a lot of past pedagogical experiences in common, but meeting him has helped me to re-ignite my artistic fires this winter.

Where do you see yourself going next as an artist?

I see myself going into more of an interactive immersive installation like the works of South African artist William Kentridge. As I’ve gotten more software knowledge through teaching Maya, zBrush, After Effects and Nuke- a whole new genre of expression has recently become available to me in the form of 3D digital space and video special effects. So some combination of object, video and animation is where I’m heading right now. I have a potential show in Shanghai that’s been on the burner for awhile, so I’ll revisit that logistical and creative challenge this summer if possible. Other than that I’m always open to the Universe connecting me with new experiences- so I’m looking forward to the new connections that will birth from this effort with Jamie, another random mutation on my life’s path.

See John’s work in Necessary Mutation at Gearbox, on view from January 9 – February 8, 2020.