“A colony of things” – B.C. artist James Mulchinock on driftwood and baseball marks

photo 4James Mulchinock, you gather, arrange and transform easily accessible objects—or their residue—such as driftwood, coat hangers, baseball marks. Have you turned your childhood passion for collecting into an integral part of your art practice?

James: I think most artists become collectors through necessity. Depending on your approach and medium, you need collectible stuff as the raw material for both ideas and even as material for the work.

Have you entered the hoarding zone yet?

James: No, but give me time and space. Having a childhood passion for collecting helps, especially when faced with the choice between keeping or ignoring interesting stuff one encounters in day-to-day travels. I’m inclined to keep. It may take years before I use it, but that day always seems to arrive.

You told me that you always have a clear concept of what you want to achieve before starting a piece of art. What is the story behind the two large driftwood pieces in “A colony of things”?

James: The two large pieces in Colony of Things using drift sticks started as both concept and process. Years ago, I did a quick study sculpture using drift sticks. At the same time, I was painting more and more on raised wood cradle canvasses, so I thought a lot about painting above the actual traditional painting canvas. Is it possible for me to paint on a non-canvas (surface of beach stick ends) surface a couple inches out from a wall? That’s the idea. But it sat, like a lot of ideas, for a few years. Finally, the itch to create from that one concept was too much to ignore any longer.

James Mulchinock, for the last month these 2 large wall stick sculptures caught my eye every time I was passing by them in our gallery XChanges. First as close-up, unique items with their own beauty and second as part of a group or colony of hundreds of individuals. The sticks’ individuality is disguised when incorporated into the larger mass. In fact, the viewer is hard pressed to identify this mysterious mass as originating from the beach.

James: The large wall stick sculptures are part of a series about the transformation of hundreds of natural wood beach drift sticks into a state of duality. The original organic character of these beach sticks is transformed from an item of utilitarian function into a relief surface of uncertain scale, texture and colour.

photo 1Does that mean your exhibition A Colony of Things is about the dual behaviour of individual marks and objects?

James: Indeed. This larger mass hides the individuality of its members by the sheer volume (300-2000) of collected items or marks.

Your exhibition also contains several paintings (for lack of better word) with a reference to baseball. I am not a baseball fan at all, but these pieces of art keep fascinating me. Tell us more about the concept behind them and why your back hurt so much working on them, you could not get out of bed for a day or two?

James: The baseball drawings, Painting the Corners, came about after several seasons traveling with my son’s elite baseball team to the various baseball parks across British Columbia. When you have hours to kill waiting for the team to complete pre-game warm-up, you notice things: weathered structures around the ball field, marks of baseballs left on dugout walls, cleat spike marks on dirt, grass, and wood. Baseball is not kind to baseball diamonds. However, for an artist, the marks left behind tell a story of the game itself: dreams, emotions, repetitive skill development, it’s all there in what’s left behind.

Making the drawings was a simple trial and error process of what works to capture that erosive quality about the game. I settled on coating baseballs with compressed charcoal and dropping them on pristine drawing paper. Months later, I attempted to do two drawings in one day. With over 500 marks involving repetitive major body motions, I pulled muscles in my lower back. I had to go on the 15-day disabled list.

Your paintings capture the story of specific games in a very special way. How?

James: They represent the violent, yet delicate population of marks made by a baseball on a surface. It explores the controlled randomness of repetitive mark-making and is part of a larger project of documenting chance marks. While each mark leaves a delicate trace of individuality, as a mass they transform into something with its own form and distinctive character.

The marks left by baseballs, bats, and cleats on the worn and impacted surfaces of baseball diamonds strike me as a metaphor of youth, the role of sports in growing up, and even the drama and decay of dreams and ambition in life.

baseball painting by James

What do the Toronto Blue Jays have to do with your paintings?

James: The series is based on six games played by the Toronto Blue Jays professional baseball team during three months of their exciting and successful 2015 season. My process is to drop a charcoal-coated baseball onto the drawing paper, which has a penciled 1:1 scale rectangular strike zone representing where the real life pitch crossed home plate.

I have always been interested in collecting: childhood collections of similar cultural and non-cultural items such as postage stamps, leaves, and hockey cards. When organized and mounted for display, the individual items yield to the collective appearance of the group. Even prosaic and utilitarian collections of firewood, nails, and lawn trimmings have perhaps unintentional meanings when brought together. This work explores and transcends the formalistic qualities of known natural materials and ready-mades. Both series takes the familiar and transposes it into the mysterious.

photo 3Being an artist can sometimes be frustrating. What are the obstacles you have run into preparing “A colony of things”?

James: Installing Colony of Things involved the same technical challenges and frustrations experienced by any installation artist. In this case, it was hanging a very heavy wall sculpture on a stud-and-drywall gallery. We were once taught how to draw, paint, and make art. But most of us aren’t carpenters or welders. Yet, we forge on into those trades unprepared to meet the requirements. So, figuring out how to do something in a trade you’ve had no training or experience in can be very frustrating and potentially dangerous. If you’re smart, you cultivate friendships with carpenters and welders.

James Mulchinock, thank you very much for this interview.

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