Jason Botkin is an artist with an incredible talent that shines through diverse supports and mediums all over the world. He has exhibited in Canada, the United States and Europe. He is a Co-founder and Director of EN MASSE, an ongoing series of large-scale, multi-artist collaborative black and white murals. In our interview we talk about “stepping out of our daily routines in order to stop, and reflect” and how “geometric forms are swallowed by the imagined inner workings of internal landscapes”.
Tell us about your name? What are the origins of the name Botkin?
Russian I believe, stemming from the term botka, a tall pole used by fishermen to strike upon the water’s surface in order to stun and catch fish. It may have also been a nickname for someone who made or used the tool, or perhaps to a tall, lean person.
It’s an uncanny fit in all three categories, especially when whacking away at those ‘waters’ of the unconscious mind with my pencil, desperately attempting to grab hold of some bejeweled magical creature from below on paper.
How did you start painting and creating? Was your family supportive of your creative initiatives?
I’ve always made art, with some rare exceptions. What child that doesn’t love to draw and paint?! The artist is someone who simply doesn’t quit, no matter the cost.
My family has always been extremely supportive of this game, even when I myself wasn’t feeling it. My mom is a woman of extreme creative energy (i.e. ‘force of nature’)…a fantastic writer. My dad is a clergyman, embedded in a deep spiritual life of prayer and ministry. They both see who I am.
In present time, I’ve got two adolescent kids and an ex wife who also stand behind my efforts. I’m endlessly grateful to them for this love and help.
Do you remember your very first creation as child and afterwards your first work as an artist?
I have early memories of drawing and coloring. One of the first is from the age of 3, during a Sunday School morning in Denver, where I grew up. My teacher was admonishing me to keep the color inside of the lines of the page…I was disgusted of course…with teachers like that, who needs enemies?
Do you remember the moment when you said to yourself “Yep, we have something here, i’m on the right track”?
This realization still comes to me in waves. As I grow older, the waves increase in size and frequency. it’s a powerful, exciting experience every time one hits the shore; each time it leaves something new, but en as it recedes, something else is always taken back to the sea.
This process has much to do with my self-confidence as an artist, and the level to which I can hold myself responsible to the task and tools at hand… a work in progress.
How would you describe your style and your technique? Tell us about your creative process. Is there any other techniques you would like to learn?
I do a lot of drawing…this is the core of my work. I rarely create what I’d refer to as ‘paintings’.
My process is very intuitive. I’m drawn to a number of diverse issues and ideas, often totally unrelated to Art. The work then emerges organically from this pool of thoughts, ideas, and concepts, and it is only in hindsight that I understand how the images all fit together.
I like how Constance Naubert-Riser (Honorary Professor, Université de Montréal) describes what I do:
“By its strangeness, the unusual sense of detail, and its oneiric (dream-like) style, the artist makes nod to Flemish painting, as well as those of the Venetian school, thus ensuing a dialogue between the past and the present.
In effect, Botkin endeavors to have us “see” an interior transformation, by finding plastic methods that obligate us, by force of their expression, to step out of our daily routines in order to stop, and reflect.”
As for techniques I’d like to learn, that list is without end! I practice flexibility by working with a wide variety of mediums; new materials challenge, frustrate, and thrill me. It’s only when I get lost in the process that I feel I drag up with something truly interesting in my work.
Tell us about the central characters and objects of your works. What inspires you to create them? What inspires you in general, in your everyday life? Who would you call your personal inspiration?
The work is primarily figurative; characters turned inside out, dressed in their emperor’s finest; bodies unwrapped to explore inner worlds, emotions, and ideas; vapors and clouds permeate architectural structures of unknown purpose; buildings chart impossible perspectives, cities in chaos; geometric forms emerge from and are swallowed by the imagined inner workings of internal landscapes.
I’ve always had a huge crush on the work of Van Gogh, Otto Dix, and Francis Bacon. Each was for me a study of the sublime…being able to capture pure joy, and at the same time, a profound darkness, even terror.
The work of the great three Mexican Muralists set me on an early path towards large-scale, politically/sociologically charged efforts. Throw into that mix a deep fascination with medieval woodcuts/engravings, especially those of the Alchemists, et voila!
Would you call street art an evolution of the art movements? What art movement and painters inspire you the most?
I do think ‘street art’ will take a place in history, though I’m not sure in what way exactly. This story is still being written, and there are many people working hard to understand and refine its power, especially given the incredible corporate interest that has been invested into it (for better or worse).
Street art has done much to globally democratize art, making it available in a very immediate way. At an important point in time, without coincidence, this activity vigorously challenges the economic fabric of our world, violating the financial model of scarcity and value that rule and too often oppress the world. Street art, or art given freely, without a price tag, epitomizes the notion of creative abundance. We could all use a bit more of a reality check on this point.
At the same time, for these artists, it is an extremely compromising position to be stuck in, especially when attempting to make a living off of one’s creative efforts alone.
As such, this ‘movement’ inspires me enormously. It can be an incredibly powerful call to personal and collective change. So many of the artists I’ve come across in this territory are fiercely intelligent, spiritual, and political in their work. Some have become very famous, while others seek to avoid that light, while making work that is no less profound. I meet so many people who march to the beat of their own drum despite the incredible obstacles…each inspires me tremendously to step up my game.
What is your message to your public?
My work contains many messages, but I have no one particular message to the public other than the fact that I am here, a witness to this time, place, and idea. Great art inspires me to strive for better as a being, in every facet of whom I am, what I am here to do, and my potential for personal. I strive to make work that would do the same in others.
Is there any work in particular that you are mostly proud of?
I’m hard on myself. There are very few pieces I remain truly proud of. This dissatisfaction, or perhaps better called a striving toward the ‘ideal’, keeps me working. When a good work comes, it’s a special relationship for a moment.
Would you call yourself a street artist? Who would you like to collaborate with from the art world and in what form of expression?
No, I really don’t. I think of myself only as an artist…one that is trying to avoid labels at all cost. I’m lucky to carry a practice of street art, and then have the flexibility to jump into a gallery, museum, or studio environment, completely driven by what I need and want to express at that moment.
As for collaborations, I’ve got a list a mile long!
A huge part of my practice/body of work up to date has been very specifically about collaboration, in the form of the EN MASSE project. This is a multi-artist collaborative platform for artists from very diverse backgrounds and techniques to come together and explore the creation of works greater than any individual could create on their own, always in black-and-white.
Through this project I’ve collaborated and become friends with over 300+ artists internationally. This process has been one of the great pleasures of my life, and at the same time, contains an incredible volume of personal work.
How would you describe the actual situation in the art world?
There’s an amazing article by William Deresiewicz, entitled “The death of the Artist – and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”. Far as I’m concerned, he’s nailed it.
In your opinion, what is the best part and the worst part of being an artist?
The best is that part that all entrepreneurs and visionaries face, which also happens to be the worst …it’s that part where you get to get up every day and construct your reality, for the day and toward the future. Everyone does this, however, I feel some are more sensitive to the process than others, and even fewer take responsibility to change their realities.
Making art is terribly frustrating at times, and has been often (by choice) accompanied by very little monetary gain. However, it is a process that brings me such enormous pleasure…one of the greatest in my life…I work hard to find myself repeating this formula as much as possible.
What was the most challenging piece that you’ve painted?
I’ve got plenty of really challenging wall experiences!
The most recent was this past summer, painting a giant wall in Cozumel (Mexico). This production saw me fall off the top of a defective ladder on the second day of nearly 6 days work, bruising both heels seriously. This left me hobbling around with a very sketchy scaffold, a replacement ladder, the relentless heat, and pain…one helluva ride.
The wall was a portrait of late great Jacques Cousteau, painted for the PangeaSeed: Seawalls (Murals for Oceans) project, designed to raise public attention toward the environmental problems facing our seas. This mural was recently visited by Jean Michel Cousteau and Dr. Sylvia Earle, two living giants of oceanic preservation…I’m feeling very blessed!
I could list a few EN MASSE walls that throw in the complexities of collaboration at big scale under pressures of time, but I’ll spare the gory details. Needless to say I’ve probably lost some years off the end of my life.
Tell us something about you that nobody knows
The things that nobody really knows will probably die with me, like that time I farted in church, and blamed it on Jesus (I mean…really…he knew I would!).
If one day you would have to stop expressing yourself through art what do you think you would do?
Community organization and activation is a big part of my practice, on a number of extremely pressing issues. This would continue in some for or another. I would also plunge myself much more profoundly into my spiritual studies.
It’s hard for me to think in these terms however…life without expression through art…nearly impossible.
You traveled around the round, and you’ve been to some great countries, do you have any dream destination that you haven’t seen yet?
Northern Africa! South America. Siberia. Istanbul. Damn…that list is long…it grows by the day.
What would you call the most significant and powerful moment that you’ve experienced during your travels?
I met a woman in Miami a few years ago, who had just returned from Egypt. She spoke of protestors who had recently been killed by government troops, trying to defend/protect the work of street artists who they likely did not personally know.
I was profoundly stunned by this account. Would I give my life to defend the voice of another?
And if so, what would that work be? The biggest question…am I making work that others might consider that valuable?
Game changing questions…I ask the same of myself every day.
Tell us about your upcoming projects and your Parisian projects. Where can we see your work in Paris or in other parts of the world?
I plan to dump myself in the studio this year and get some serious work under the belt. This is the place where I’m free to explore, research, get lost, and find the good stuff. Not exactly sure what I’ll do with that work, but my hope is that it far eclipses what for now I can only predict.
A coming Paris-based project would be amazing, but sadly, not yet on the radar. My time in Paris has been largely an exercise in rain and cold…I need another shot at that place.
I’ve got some work in that city, but I’ve forgotten how to direct people to those locations. If you’re super curious, drop me a note, and I’ll dig up the addresses.
Painting there was an incredible …Parisians wear their opinions on their shirt sleeves, and never for a moment hesitate to share both positive, and at times extremely negative feedback. After getting over the initial shock of this full frontal assualt, I quite fell in love with this uniquely Parisian attitude…so free in their passions and opinions… very refreshing!