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November 24, 2017
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Artwork by artist Kirk Bray. Photograph by Alina Kulesh.
Artwork by Kirk Bray. Photograph by Irene Kim.

If there is a place where history and time converge, a place to discuss victories and failures over whisky, artist Kirk Bray's home studio would be it. The past and present tidily co-exist here, through literature, memorabilia, found objects, and of course, Bray's own art. 

I quickly gravitate towards his work desk; it's a large wooden one that looks like it was a great vintage find and it's overflowing with paper materials of all sizes and textures, crafting tools and random objects. There's so much going on, my eyes leap from glossy pages to aged ones, from dozens of wee figurines to scattered old photographs. Books, magazines, framing mats, fabrics, records, an easel and endless painting supplies fill every nook and crevice. It feels like a treasure hunt, except Bray has already done the work for you.

The materials that Bray uses for his artwork are striking on their own, as well as when they're brought together by his vision. Each piece is meticulously crafted, with the utmost patience. And Bray knows a thing or two about beautiful craftsmanship: 13 years ago, he and his brother Chris founded BillyKirk, a seasoned leather goods manufacturer with a distinct Made in America aesthetic - one they adopted way before it was considered "cool".

Although Bray's backbone lies in oil painting, in the last two years he has been experimenting in the realm of mixed media art, taking collage classes at The Oracle Club in Long Island City run by artist Caris Reid. He reveals that, "Working with these new mediums has allowed me to loosen up and find more abstract forms of expression." Through found materials, he crafts satirical and beautiful images - some are witty, some are dark, and all are unpredictable.

On his desk I see something he is working on; men, individually cut out from a black-and-white photograph, are positioned to look like they are jumping - willingly but stiffly - into a bright red and orange pit of what's cut out to look like lava. I chuckle to myself - is Bray trying to tell us that we jump into our disasters?

Kirk Bray BillyKirk artist
Bray holds the scrapbook of Arthur Sturcke.
Photograph by Irene Kim.

On another one, a woman with hair much like Bridgette Bardot's - drawing me to conclude she's out of a 1960s publication - in a bright yellow onesie, sits on a pale blue mat, with her hands above her head, palms together, smiling, looking like she's meditating. Above her hangs a three-dimensional globe which reminds me of the one I had on a keychain in elementary school and how much I loved it, always grabbing onto it and thinking "I've got the whole world in my hand." Well, it looks like she beat me to it.

Bray pulls out an old leather scrapbook and starts to flip through the pages, carefully taking his time with every page. The scrapbook is filled with black-and-white photographs, magazine clippings and written notes; it belongs to the late artist Arthur Sturcke. Bray reveals that he recently acquired the scrapbook, along with several pieces of Sturcke's art and writings, baffled that Sturcke's family was willing to give them away.

It's easy to tell that Bray values time, places great importance on his objects and cherishes their sentimentality. His childhood experience explains these fundamentals behind Bray's work: "Growing up in Woodbury [Minnesota], I watched my city grow from 10,000 residents to nearly 50,000 in a relatively short period of time. This significant growth affected me in many ways, especially how I create and view art. My favourite wooded area became a Target store…Old Victorian homes were replaced by fast food and gas stations." 

Bray's work heavily relies on "recycling" the past - be it an old record or a LIFE magazine clipping - and on re-injecting the "charm" that was once sucked out of his neighbourhood. At a time when everything that's glossy and slick is coveted, Bray's artwork is refreshing.

After returning from my trip to New York City, I couldn't stop thinking about Bray's work and its re-incarnation and homage to time. I had to find out more.

One particular note that comes to mind is one that you can tell was being passed back and forth with a friend while at the opera. I had to buy a file cabinet to catalog it all so Arthur will be influencing my work for years to come.

Alina Kulesh (AK): How long have you been creating art and have you always had a similar approach of using found materials and re-purposing them to create your own artwork?

Kirk Bray (KB): I painted my first oil painting the summer before my freshman year in college. My dad had a bunch of oil paints and I was bored. I liked it and decided to take a painting class in college. The class helped me realise that I had a passion for painting. The professor didn't tell us how or what to paint; he only encouraged us to keep painting. I've been doing it off and on ever since. 

AK: At first introduction to your recent work, it's evident that a lot of thought goes into each piece. Your works are constructed with a commentary, yet they are still visually awe-inspiring. When you're creating, do you think about the message that you want to send or do you simply follow your instinct and see where it leads?

KB: I believe it's a combination of both but in the beginning [of] a new piece I feel it tends to be more instinctual. One thing I have learned with collage in particular is that there is a lot of editing that goes on and I think as a particular piece develops the message or meaning appears. I try to be witty with the subject at times but many pieces are purely abstract or graphic so there is less meaning involved.  

AK: Do you ever create simply for the sake of creating something beautiful?

KB: Sure, I try to do that every time I create a piece. Though it can be a frustrating process at times, I find it to be therapeutic and a part of my life I can control.  

AK: When I was at your studio, you briefly mentioned that something that excited you the most is "age and texture." Tell us why.

KB: I guess because it's real, it's authentic and unpredictable. Someone can try and duplicate age and texture but it's not the same, it won't feel old or smell old or crumble in your hands if you're not careful.  

Artwork by Kirk Bray.
Photograph courtesy of Kirk Bray.

AK: You work heavily with paper and found objects. What inspires you the most about these materials?

KB: Besides the age and texture, I'm inspired by piecing together objects and giving them a new form and setting. You never know when you find something if it will ever be used; it may sit around for years until you find the missing piece that somehow belongs to it. I can be very critical of my work and have to remind myself that it's okay to use a particular piece of paper or an image that I hold dear because I will always find something equally special. That's the beauty of working with found materials and knowing that often the hunt to find them can be equally inspiring.  

AK: A big part of creating collage-type work is thrifting through and collecting materials that you can eventually re-purpose in your art. Can you tell us about your most precious finds or a recent find that you're crushing on?

KB: I recently discovered a stash of old cardboard record box sets of mainly classical music. The records are typically in bad shape or missing but the boxes and sleeves they came in are beautiful. Many show the yellowing circular pattern of where the record has sat for so many years. If the box lids are in good shape I'm hoping to collage them and fill them with resin, something I have done to a lot of oil paintings painted on found cabinet doors.

AK: The late artist Arthur Sturcke has been your recent inspiration. Can you tell us about him, and what you've learned about him through his work?

KB: I haven't been able to find a great deal about him as an artist, I know he was showing work in the '30s and '40s in Greenwich Village. I also know he kept everything and was an avid scrapbooker. He spent hours clipping newspaper articles and pasting them in these beautiful scrapbooks that are works of art in their own right. He was a pacifist, an avid reader and enjoyed music and poetry. He was a close friend of the poet Kenneth Patchen, who was said to have been the first poet to have a reading with jazz music playing in the background.  

I carefully cut out a row of ballerina's from an old weathered LIFE magazine article Arthur had kept. I placed the dancers on a modern looking platform to give them the illusion that they are dancing high above the ground.

AK: How are you using Sturcke's artworks and documents in your own creations?

KB: I'm not using his artworks per se. I'm using a lot of the old worn paper that he kept and many of his LIFE magazine clippings from the '30s and on, amongst other things. I have a lot of notes and lists that he kept. One particular note that comes to mind is one that you can tell was being passed back and forth with a friend while at the opera. I had to buy a file cabinet to catalog it all so Arthur will be influencing my work for years to come.

AK: Can you describe to us one of your artworks that includes some of his work, that you are either working on or have created?

KB: I recently did a small collage on the back of an old photograph mounted on heavy grey coloured card stock also known as carte de visite. The card stock is beautifully worn on the edges. I carefully cut out a row of ballerina's from an old weathered LIFE magazine article Arthur had kept. I placed the dancers on a modern looking platform to give them the illusion that they are dancing high above the ground.

AK: It's really rather beautiful what you're doing, because to me, essentially through the use of his work, you are re-incarnating him and in a way, also paying homage. Is this how you view it?

KB: I like to think so. I know you can learn a lot about someone from the things they hold near but it also makes me wish I could have sat down with him and learned more about his life firsthand. It would be great to one day have a show with some of the work that I have created using his papers and objects hanging next to his art, sharing a wall. Somehow I think Arthur would like that too.

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