Estate Sale Finds Create Midwestern Art: Chatting it up with BJ Carrick

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At the end of December, you mentioned you had some new work. What kind of creative exploration have you been working on most recently?

Yes, I’ve been going in some different directions over the past year or so. More three-dimensional sculptural assemblies, typically incorporating a particular historic object. For example, for my birthday last year my brother gave me two chunks of rusty iron that he collected for me from the hull of a ship that wrecked in Newfoundland in 1919. One of the chunks became a shark—not sure what I’ll do with the other one yet. I’ve been spending more time at estate sales hunting for old weird objects, and last week I found two old wood and steel mandolin-style cabbage slicers from the late 1800s. They’re beautiful and rectangular and will make great canvases for something. 

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During some of our exhibits, we’ve had guests inquire about the stories behind our artists’ work.  If you were to address these guests inquiries, are their any particular pieces you’ve created that have a unique story behind them that you would want to share? Do you think it enhances one’s experience with a particular work of art if that person knows the story behind its creation? Do you think artwork needs a story?

That’s a really interesting question. I do believe that for a piece of art to be successful, it should be able to stand on its own and be experienced with no explanation. But I also think a backstory can certainly enhance one’s experience. I was watching this video of Philip Guston recently, where he discusses completing a painting that was more or less okay, but he ended up painting over it because it didn’t meet his harmonic requirements. So if I’m viewing this “new” painting of his, I think it definitely adds to my understanding of it (and the artist) if I’m aware of the destruction beneath it.

As far as revealing stories behind my work: I don’t mind doing so, but each work typically comes out of a rolling, organic process that I don’t force. Like for these cabbage slicers (often referred to as “krauters,” so I’ve learned), I already have a good idea about how one of them will be used. A few months ago, mostly by chance, I acquired a copy of a German-language sociology book published in 1950 that used to belong to the German-American historian Peter Gay. I’ve removed several pages from the book and have been doing ink and pencil drawings on them, incorporating the text, and they are just about the right size to mount side-by-side across the slicing board. I’m still reeling at the death of David Bowie, and last night I drew what I guess you’d call a Bowie page. Bowie of course had a strong connection with Berlin especially, so the end piece is picking up steam and morphing into some sort of ode to Germany. 


Do you ever find the role as an artist challenging? Do you find art or its creation easy to talk about to non-artists?

I don’t really think of artist as role. I don’t talk much about my art to non-artists, or really to artists either. And that’s probably because it would be challenging, but I don’t really feel the need to discuss it. During the week, I spend 10 hours alone in a car, commuting to work, so I have a lot of time to think about conception and execution, which is great. And while I’ve collaborated with artists in the past, which can be magical, the vast majority of my work is done at home in my basement, late at night when the rest of the house is asleep. It’s a solitary affair by design, and that’s what I need.

Let’s talk about your process.  Your body of work varies from small pencil and ink pieces on paper to large abstract sculptural works. What prompts this wide range of expression? 

I don’t know, restlessness? I find it nearly impossible to do the same thing twice. Maybe an approach can be repeated, but then I might have to change the materials. Or maybe the materials are the same, but then I have to use them on an old bed sheet or something. When you go on vacation, you typically go to someplace new, right? I’d be bored out of my mind sitting in the same old hotel room over and over.

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Do you seek any particular emotional response from your work? 

Well, for me, I need to like the piece before I can even think about sending it out into the world. But whatever emotional response someone else may get from it…that’s between them and the piece.

Many of your pieces have been created from found objects.  When you work with these objects, do you ever find that a piece has a predetermined narrative based on its original purpose? Or do you select items with a vision of completion in mind?

I do think about providing a proper narrative for a found object, especially if it is one that is particularly unique. Maybe a decade ago I was wandering around some abandoned farm property in rural Tennessee with my uncle, and we found an old handmade iron plow point in the dirt that was at least 100 years old. I held onto that thing for maybe 5 years before the right opportunity to use it came along (it’s one of the “buildings” in the yellow Chicago skyline piece).

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In an earlier interview, you mentioned living in different parts of the country at various stages in your life.  How have these experiences influenced your work or do they impact your work at all? How do you think travel, different landscapes or subcultures influence those that view your work?

I was a bit of a mess existentially when I moved away from Chicago, so you could say it was a running away, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I’m grateful I got to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, then in Boston. Encountering people and ideas from other places is never a bad thing. It helped me get back on my feet. I’m sure these experiences affect my work somehow, but I don’t think about it. I suppose I’ve been trying to focus more on the local over the last few years, now that I’m back in the midwest, but then again I’m working on a piece about Germany, so what do I know!

You’ve shown your work in large scale juried exhibits, private events and online.  Which setting do you feel suits your work best? Or where do you feel most comfortable exhibiting your work?


I think art is always going to be more visceral when you see the physical piece. Especially something like the three-dimensional assemblies.

When you begin a new painting, do you make smaller studies of work on paper? 

Sometimes, yes. I’m not a great figurative artist, so if I’m doing something that calls for a bit of realism, I have to work especially hard to get it right.

You have a background rich with knowledge of literature and music.  Do these other forms of expression influence your work? Which art forms impact you the most?

They’re all part of the soup, yes. I bounce back and forth through phases of absorbing (e.g., reading, museumgoing) and purging (e.g., drawing, sculpting, writing), and they sometimes overlap. This week what’s most important is drawing and listening to Bowie’s Blackstar album, but next week I might be back to writing my fable of the hedgehog and the frog.

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What medium do you find the easiest to create within? What medium is the most challenging for you?

I guess I’d have to say painting with oils is the most challenging, but only because of the extended drying time. Sometimes I get antsy because I want to move on to the next step of a project, but I might have to wait because something is still wet. I’m especially fond of working with wood. 

What combination of observation, found objects, imagination and your own personal memory have in your creative process? 

It’s all in there, but it’s probably different for each piece. It’s not something I’m consciously aware of during germination or execution.

The Studio often utilizes the work of artists to promote social awareness.  Do you find yourself aligning your work with any particular mission or cause? Do you feel compelled to use your art for any higher purpose? 

I don’t think about art in this way, but the majority of my work involves animals. It’s certainly safe to say I have a deep connection to (and concern for) the environment.

Local art scenes vary from city to city. What is your local art scene like? How important is exposing yourself to the work of other current emerging or established artists to you personally? Professionally? How have large museums’ curated works, like the Art Institute of Chicago (for example), impact your artwork? Do you think artists have an obligation to study the masters?

I live in a town of about 25,000 people and there is a small art scene here, but I am not too involved in it, for no good reason other than I’m a bit of an art loner. I spend a fair amount of time at the Art Institute and other smaller museums (like the Smart Museum in Hyde Park, an invaluable hidden gem), and it’s incredibly important for kicking my brain into gear when I’m in need of it. The masters are (usually) masters for a reason. Always keep, at least, one finger on them.

How important is it to you for an artist to be classically trained? What do you feel is the role of arts education?

Classical training works for some, no doubt, and I feel strongly that schools should have arts programs. But I don’t think it’s at all a requirement in order for an artist to be great.

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How do you manage it all? How do you manage the demands of  family, career and time for your art? Do you think the demands of life take away or enhance your work?

It’s certainly an insane juggle. I wish I could figure out a way to take 5% of the energy of my 4 year old and zap it into me around 7pm each night. I’d be much more productive! I don’t think I’d be making art every day even if I had the time, but I certainly appreciate and try to make the best of the time I’m able to steal away late at night in the basement. 

Where do you want to see yourself in five years? What kind of impact do you want to see your art make on your community? Or the public in general?

It would of course be great if I could sell a few more pieces over the next few years, because frankly I’m running out of room in my house to store all of it! I’m not a goal-setter. I prefer to let nature take its bumbling, organic course, but I would like to buy an old camper van within the next 5 years. Maybe use it to try some plein air painting.