Spring 2016, Josh Leeker and I collaborated to burn approximately 500 drawings, oil paintings, and watercolors outside of a dilapidated warehouse where we share an art studio. We destroyed the bulk of artwork I made in high school, college, and as a beginning graduate student. It was dangerous. It was windy, the materials were toxic, and, as my wife kept warning, “you are making a terrible mistake.”
To burn your artwork, particularly your student work, is not unprecedented. I got the idea from Gerhard Richter who did a very similar thing as a way of demarcating the beginning of his professional career. In our collaborative photograph, To Start a Fire, the flames represent that same demarcation. Our flames cleanse away old ideas, hack-handed technique, and imagery that are no longer relevant to my vision.
As a young artist I was trained to sign everything, to save everything, that when I become famous, all of these archived pieces will have value. In reality the portfolios of old work acts like excess luggage carried through an airport during a hectic layover causing back pain and building anxiety in my stomach. Preserving this old work acts as a sea anchor, slowing me down turning my career into a controlled drift.
I had no doubt in my idea to burn the old work. It doesn’t have value anymore. Selling or exhibiting outdated work broadcasts my technical errors, naïveté of ideas, and floods an already gluttoned market with images and objects that no longer represent me. Through beer and cathartic punk-rock nihilism I would clean out my basement and develop a new line of creative production.
I thought it would be fun. I was wrong. These works had unforeseen weight. Their significance lies in triggering memories from the times and places where I was when I made them. My friends, my stories, and my youth were in those pictures. A poem written as a birthday present by a roommate taped to the back of a gouache Caravaggio master’s copy transports me back to living in Brussels, my exciting life and wonderful friends. An amoebic figure drawing reminds me of my painting instructor from Luther College allowing me to pose the model for the day’s drawing session; my first practical experience in what would become a career as a University art faculty.
I strive to make work that is authentic, contemporary, and emotionally resonant. I wanted to make a beautiful document of the event and I enlisted Josh Leeker, my collaborator, for that purpose. At best, the photograph is a distillation of time, creative content, and academic inquiry. We have made something authentic, beautiful, and emotionally significant from what was yellowing in my basement. At worst I felt pain similar to ending a romantic relationship or moving from a home I have loved. I have taken some time to grieve the loss but do not regret the experience.