Where to draw the line: A Conversation with Bette Burgoyne and Jed Dunkerley

I sit down at a bar at the north end of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with two artists whose work is the definition of obsessive, both in technique and content. Neither of them identify as OCD or autistic.

The venue is called Joe Bar. Located next to Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts and owned, staffed, and curated by a handful of Cornish grads since 1997, Joe Bar is the most likely of unlikely places you’ll find excellent art tucked away in the city. Unlikely because it serves crepes and beer, has garish green walls, and is super cozy, none of which are particularly helpful settings for displaying artwork. But none of that stops some of Seattle’s most interesting artists from hanging their work there. -Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor

Joe Bar

Currently scattered around the space is an exhibit of 26 ink-wash drawings called Where Things Go. It’s the work of artist Jed Dunkerley and it chronicles the compulsion of a “young man who organizes all of his earthly possessions according to alphabetical proximity.” Dunkerley doesn’t show this kind of work very often. You’re more likely to see him in a performative capacity, singing in productions and showing up at events as part of the performance trio PDL.

Bette Burgoyne has shown extensively all over. She typically works with featherweight, white pencil marks on black paper, building up accretive clouds and mysterious, organic abstractions.

Bette Burgoyne | Mote, 2012, handmade paper (India), colored pencils, 18 x 13 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

They’ve never met. We seat ourselves at the only table left in the bar, located in a cramped loft upstairs. Dunkerley is eating a salmon crepe and notes that he looks like a giant in a dollhouse. Burgoyne unpacks a 1960‘s cosmetic traveling case. Inside are half a dozen small drawings and at least 40 white pencil nubs, each one sharpened to a perfect point. She places a drawing called Closure, along with a few others,on the table.

Bette Burgoyne: It refers to cranial closure, when plates form together.

Jed Dunkerley: It looks like sutures.

BB: I was calling it quits with a friend of mine, and I kept thinking of the word “closure.” There’s a lot of art out there with skulls in it. I wanted to draw a skull but not just the same skull that everyone does.

JD: Is your work generally from your imagination? No visual aid?

BB: I draw just out of my mind. I have a lot of imagery in my head though: other art, pictures taken with electron microscopes, the interior of cells. For me it becomes a study of light and of imaginary light sources. How directional light might refract off these imaginary things.

JD: Some of these look like membranes and ganglions. And the Denver International Airport.

Amanda Manitach: Do you have a background in medicine or science?

BB: No, but I grew up looking at lots of magazines like Scientific American, and my mom worked in the medical field, so there were always lots of books and encyclopedias lying around with photographs of medical things....some of them not so pretty!

Burgoyne’s pencils.

JD: I feel like we might have the exact same story.

AM: That’s why I thought you guys should meet. In your statement about this show you discuss OCD. You’re not diagnosed with OCD, yet you consider yourself obsessive. Talk about that.

JD: I feel more comfortable when I work in definable series and the alphabet is something I’ve visited several times because it sets limits. I sometimes feel more free to create when I have given myself a little box to create inside of.

BB: I know exactly what you’re talking about.

JD: I’m a high school teacher and for about five years I’d volunteered on the weekends taking kids on backpacking trips. On one trip we went up to a yurt in Icicle Creek. We were bedding down for the night, making a nest inside the yurt, and some kid asked where the trash was. We had a bag that someone had tied to a telescope in the yurt. I said, “the trash is tied to the telescope.” All the sudden it was like lightening struck. I grabbed my notebook and started writing down this series of ABCs and stayed up until I had written them all. I rendered them in ink wash, which I haven’t used in years and has its own weird, obsessive qualities. The whole project is a perfect storm of obsessiveness. It only made sense that the subject be about obsessive behavior.

Jed Dunkerley | T,  2012, ink wash on cold press watercolor paper, 7 x 8 5/8 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

BB: Do you have to hold your breath when you’re doing certain brushstrokes?

JD: Yeah, I have weird breathing patterns that I’m not totally conscious of. I do weird things with my face. I’ll make the face of the character I’m drawing.

AM: How long did these take to make?

JD: I feel that’s like asking someone who’s in a long distance relationship, “how long have you been dating?” I worked on the line work on and off during the school year. I did about one per week, then I completed all the ink wash in about three weeks. I build up the washes slowly, usually about four passes. They develop like a photograph.

AM: Which was the worst letter?

JD: X. I’ve done a few alphabets before and every time you get to X it’s the same goddamn xylophone and xenophobia, xerox and xbox. And you’re tempted to make a verb that starts with ex- instead of x. I went through that process and came up with four or five versions, but every way you slice it, X sucks. Then I had an epiphany that I should just make the character drawing X over and over again. He’s drawing like 200 X’s on glass and slowly inking them all in, one by one. Finally I found a way to deal with X! Of course it was one of the first to sell.

Jed Dunkerley | X, 2012, ink wash on cold press watercolor paper, 7 x 8 5/8 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

AM: Bette, your images are so amorphous. How do you begin a piece?

BB: It is like feeling around in the dark, drawing on the black paper. Then the shape starts to form and suggests something. Part of me is always saying to myself, “don’t do that shape again! Don’t copy yourself.”

AM: How do you deal with that tension...not wanting to repeat yourself but following an intuitive, inner vision?

BB: I sort of feel like I’m signing my name over and over again. And as I’m signing, the signature changes. If you come back a week later, it’s slightly different.

JD: Do you have to stay in a piece till it’s done or can you put it to the side and work on other pieces?

BB: I have to do that. I have to put pieces to the side or else I’ll go crazy. Crazier.

Bette Burgoyne | "Forest" portion in progress, 2012, black paper, white pencil  (8 H x 30 feet L). Image courtesy of the artist.

Bette Burgoyne | Cloud Chamber Bowl, 2011, black paper, white pencil 20 x 25.5 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

AM: How long does it take you to finish a piece?

BB: I’m making a piece called Forest that I’ve been working on since March. It’s past half done now. I looked up the word “obsessive” last night just to make sure it was what I thought....it has negative connotations sometimes. People think of it as a psychosis, right?

AM: I co-curated an obsessive drawing show about a year ago and I indulged some of those connotations, for better or worse. I questioned a lot of the artists in the show about their practice and found that across the board it was pretty much masochistic, but also pleasurable. People hurt themselves all the time drawing that way. When I do it I have to put Ben Gay on my wrists every night.

JD: On my back!

AM: It’s physically exhausting but so pleasurable, a little twisted.

JD: It’s fulfilling.

BB: I think you’re right. I know that anytime I start a new drawing, I feel like I’m having an affair. Maybe it’s the same brain chemistry, but it feels like an affair.

AM: Cheating on an old drawing? You mean the pleasure of it?

BB: I get out these old drawings...and some of them need help “at home” or whatever, but these new drawings....!

JD: Some of my girlfriends have thought that I was having an affair!

BB: Yes, don’t they get a little jealous for you and your love for your drawing your making?

JD: I’ve starting dating artists. It makes a little more sense to me. So when I say I’m going to my studio they’re not gonna be like “he says he’s going to his studio but I just don’t believe him!”

BB: I had a relationship with an artist once.

AM: Did it work out?

BB: It’s funny. It can get competitive without either of you even realizing it.

JD: It’s a balance between finding someone who really understands me and my compulsion to produce, my obsession with technique, but who isn’t doing quite the same thing.

BB: That’s why you need to date a dancer.

JD: Don’t get me started on dancers! (laughter)

Let’s just say I think part of this—to a fault—is that it’s way more cerebral than physical. To the point that I think there should be a class on ergonomics for drawers. Whereas a dancer is constantly conscious of their posture and breathing and everything that makes their body a finely-tuned machine, the drawer is constantly like, “I’m gonna make all my muscles hate me!” It’s an absurdity of scale. Especially for me, this huge 6’4” thing that’s focused on a pinpoint, all of my energy going into something as big as the end of a needle. When you draw this small, you wonder why wouldn’t you have a really tiny, three inch tall person doing this. Why does a giant person push the limits of his ability to see?

Jed Dunkerley

AM: Absurdity of scale is something you encounter with obsessive practice. I think of artists like Paul Noble or Stephen Wiltshire, who draws expansive landscapes from memory.

JD: And Wiltshire is autistic. It’s interesting, the work of autistic artists. Locally there’s Gregory Blackstock. He only ever uses one size piece of paper, grids it out, and however many boxes he’s got that’s how many varieties of spoon, or jeep, or tree he draws. He hand letters each one and it looks like it was made on a letterpress. I wonder, can you get to that point of focus without having some sort of definable, clinical disorder?

BB: I don’t know if it’s a disorder?

JD: I know....I’m just using that terminology.

AM: We can all function pretty well....

BB: Speak for yourself!

JD: Most artists are somewhere on the spectrum, but where do you reach that tipping point? It’s almost like your ability to relate socially is inversely related to your ability to fixate on something.

BB: When I’ve been drawing for four hours straight I get slightly....what’s the right word to use?...messed....non-functioning for a little bit.

JD: God forbid someone interrupt me in the middle of one of my drawing binges! Probably much like the guy who was eating the man’s face off in Miami when the cops came!

AM: Duly noted! I won’t interrupt you.

JD: When the studio door’s locked and the phone’s off....

AM: Do you actually lock the doors and turn your phone off?

JD: No, the opposite is true. As long as it’s not a direct interruption, I’m always trying to distract myself. If I go for fifteen minutes at that small a scale, my eyes start doing weird things. I have to run around and do exercises or else I’ll get headaches. Something happens with my urinary tract when I’m drawing where I have to go pee every ten minutes. Which is kind of great, it gives me a natural break.

(laughter, then looking around at nearby patrons nervously)

Do you find that deadlines for shows dictate when a piece is done? Some of your drawings you could probably still be drawing.

BB: Yes, I could.

JD: At what point do you decide it’s done?

BB: I’ve never had to quickly finish a drawing because of a show.

AM: You do show a lot though. You finish the work well ahead of time?

BB: Yes.

JD: You’re one of those kids.

BB: I continue drawing whether I have shows or not because I have to draw. That might be the compulsive part. I have to.

Bette Burgoyne | Deciduous, 2010, black paper, white pencil  10 x 5 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

AM: Every day?

BB: I wish. Sometimes I have other things I’m required to do. But even when I’m working on other things, usually I manage to fit in a half an hour. “God, I just need to draw, just for a little while!”

AM: Get a little fix!

JD: I’ve found if I didn’t have show deadlines, I wouldn’t know when to stop. I could draw the same pieces over and over again. I was still painting these pieces up to the week of this show. There’s something fresh about not obsessing about something, but there’s something to be said about obsessing.

BB: Sometimes I keep going and keep flogging a drawing. Sometimes by flogging it you come to a good place, a point you wouldn’t have otherwise reached. But I have some real dogs. I’ll keep coming back to them. Keep torturing them, tenderizing them.

AM: I want to see one of those!

BB: It’s like I'm rubbing and rubbing with my pencil until the drawing starts to curdle and a genie pops out. This image has been on my mind because it keeps happening. It's something never mentioned in art school, probably because it can create a situation that stunts artistic growth? If one is painting or drawing one piece for too long it can fester, no....?


Where Things Go will be on view at Joe Bar through October 8, 2012.

Jed Dunkerley is an illustrator, performance artist, and full time high school art teacher in Seattle, WA, who is glad to have given over the sum total of last school year's creative output to obsessively-compulsively chronicling the wonders, eccentricities, and awkwardness of obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Bette Burgoyne graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in 1986 and received an MFA at Mills College CA in 1991. She practiced and taught art in San Francisco for ten years before returning to Seattle in 1997. She is the recipient of numerous awards and her drawings and sculptural work have been shown nationally. Solo exhibitions include New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure, Mincher/Wilcox and Headlands Center for the Arts. Recent exhibitions include Transillumination at Vermillion Gallery (Seattle) and Scroll at Amo Art (Waitsburg WA), along with group exhibitions at Davidson Gallery (Seattle), Roq La Rue (Seattle), and Lexington Art League (Kentucky).

Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.

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