|I bought a Chris Ryniak painting in Philadelphia back in 2004. It's a pink octopus looking thing with three eyes. I thought it was a nice piece, and I had a little spending cash for the first time in my life so I went for it. I had never really heard of Chris, but I enjoyed his use of color and the animal imagery he was working with. When we connected through the internet and phone we became pals; since then we end up hanging out once or twice a year and we're like old buddies. I think we get along so well because we're so similar- both family guys, both inspired by nature, and both of us have fishermen printer dads. Chris was recently in Southern California for the San Diego Comicon and we hung out.
- Jeff Soto August 2, 2008
Jeff Soto: First, how do you pronounce your name? I think I always screw it up even though I've known you a while.
Chris Ryniak: It's pronounced K-riss, dummy.
My immediate family has always pronounced it RYE-KNEE-ACK, which could be totally wrong and just the midwestern way of saying everything through the nose.
J: You live in Cleveland, I've never been there. If I was to visit, what would we go see?
C: In Cleveland proper, probably the West-Side Market on market day. It's a rad old brick building with all kinds of specialty and ethnic food vendors. There are a lot of pig, fish and cow carcasses everywhere in there, which as a vegetarian should put me off, but it's part of it's crazy old world appeal. Outside of Cleveland, maybe West Creek in Parma. The creek used to have a landfill next to it, so you find lots of glass fragments from the 20's in the creek in some areas. The creek bed is slate, so it looks like a road with water flowing down it, and there are some great little waterfalls... It's a pretty strange/awesome place, chock full of wildlife.
J: The creek sounds like fun, we could nerd out and do some bird watching. I think one of the reasons we've connected is we both have a love of nature- did you do a lot of exploring the woods as a kid? What was your childhood like? Do you have any good stories?
C: Hell yeah, the creek is great for bird watching, I've seen more different species of birds there than anywhere else around.
My Dad was/is and avid fisherman and would take us out fishing all year round. One of the little inland lakes that we used to ice fish on was surrounded by small ponds that we would go out to in the summer to catch frogs/turtles/snakes and probably some swamp diseases. When I was around 12, my folks bought this haggard old cottage on Harsen's Island, which is the delta between the St. Clair River and lake St. Clair. The property was surrounded by marsh, a wonderland for critter catching, which I did pretty much every weekend in the summertime.
My Dad and I found a HUGE snapping turtle crossing the road on the island once and rescued it and threw it in a bucket inside the truck cab to let go on the other side of the island after we got back from fishing. When we got back to the car, the turtle had climbed out of the bucket and was sitting on the driver's side of the bench seat hissing with it's mouth open. It took a while to reclaim control of our vehicle, that thing was super pissed.
J: I would love to see a Snapping Turtle, I don't think we have any native turtles- we do have land dwelling tortoises. I also grew up fishing with my dad. He did fish taxidermy for almost his whole life but recently retired from it so he could spend more time fishing in his float tube. Where did you get your art talent? Are your parents creative?
C: My parents are both creative in their own ways. They've run a printing business for the past 35 years, which I grew up in. I spent a lot of time there after school and during the summer seeing the processes involved. My Dad pretty much knows every machine inside and out and could probably do every job there himself. He used to draw a lot before I was born, but the business of kids and printing took priority over art. My Mom is a really good cook, and is awesome at sewing and stuff like that. Mostly though, they have just always been supportive of me being creative and have never questioned my desire to make art in one form or another. I think that support helped me more than anything over the years.
J: That's so weird, we both have dads that are down with fishing and work in the printing industry. It was cool cause I always had scrap paper to draw on, I'm sure it was the same for you. And you have two kids- do you draw/ make art with them?
C: My son is 7 and a half now and is mad creative. He filled up and entire sketchbook with a really elaborate video game that he designed, complete with character designs and layouts of the levels in the game. He'll literally draw for hours at a time, he's more focused than I am. My daughter is 2 and a half and she won't go a day without doing a drawing, either on herself, the side walk or on a tiny piece of paper. It's really great that they can just let loose and not be judged for it. It might sound mean, but I don't want to teach them anything, the stuff they come up with on their own goes against all of my learned conventions, and I think that's really great. If they ever ask me to teach them how to paint, I'll be more than honored though. Kids are rad, we should get mine and yours to do a collaboration.
J: Kids are crazy.. They have that unfettered creativity, they have no fear of failure in their drawings. It's awesome. My daughter always draws on herself, says they're her "daaatooos". I tell her not till she's 18! Speaking of tattoos, you went to school with Shawn Barber right? Got any dirt on him? How was your college experience?
C: College was fun, mostly because of my peers. I think you get out what you put into art school, at least in my experience. I busted my ass and didn't do a lot of partying, but was stoked to see what I could pull off next with my art. Shawn came in 3rd year and we hit it off immediately. We both had crazy intense work ethics and would constantly critique the shit out of each other's stuff. I still don't know anyone who works harder than him.
Shawn used to have a roomate in college that would do all kinds of crazy shit, like drag in homeless crackheads and strippers so he could draw them. He had a girl naked in the bathtub covered in dead squid once too. The best part of it was that Shawn was the Resident Assistant. Oh yeah they would have screaming and arm punching contests that always got out of hand, Shawn usually won.
J: I never met Shawn in person but I could see him winning in a slugging contest. Ouch. Do you have any tattoos? Or strange hidden piercings?
C: Oh yeah, he only had a few tattoos back then, he's all hardcore sleeves now, boobs on em and all. Awesome! As for me, I'm blank, except for some awesome scars. I saw your Regino Gonzales armpiece though and got all jealous. He'd be my first pick for sure. No piercings, but I do have a gold tooth.
J: That's pretty fucking pimp. You have a thing for teeth in your paintings and sculptures.... care to elaborate?
C: I do have a thing for teeth don't I? crap! I've always had some sort of problem or another with my teeth since I was a kid, so I was constantly aware of them. But I think I like the idea that they are bones that are totally protruding out of the body, but that doesn't freak anyone out. People always seems to point out my "thing" for teeth, but look around, everybody has them, you see them all the time, people just don't paint them a lot I guess. That's it, I claim teeth painting for me, I got that shit on lock!
J: What freaks me out about teeth is if you look at a toddler's X-ray, you can see the adult teeth just chilling up there. It's so alien looking. If I remember right you have molded your own teeth and used them in sculptures. I've been enjoying your painting abilities for a while but it seems you've been making more sculptural works than before. They're pretty crazy, sorta cute but creepy. I think the teeth freak me out, or maybe it's the beady little eyes. How did you get started making these? What materials do you use? What do you want to make next?
C: I've made molds of my own teeth and my son's for a few of the sculpts. His were awesome because they were all gnarled and crooked and two adult teeth half grown in, like any 6 year old. I've really only been sculpting for a couple of years now, I dabbled with stuff throughout the years, but never like this. The material that I use for the main part of the sculpture is an epoxy clay, much like plumber's epoxy. It has serious pros and cons, like the two hour working time before it starts to set. The thing I love about it is that it air dries hard as a rock, so I can work any size, I've done a few huge ones. The teeth are cast in resin and then I sculpt new gums over them with Sculpey. I'm pretty much making this up as I go along, probably the wrong way.
I want to go in a couple of directions with the sculpture now. For the most part I've been making what effectively look like movie monster props, and I think i want to simplify the paint jobs for some, and make the others look even MORE real. I'm really getting a kick out of it though, I wanted to be a creature effects guy since I saw Star Wars as a kid, now I get to do it, without art direction.
J: The interview question I always have a hard time with is 'what's your work about?' For me, it's always changing, and I'm a visual person so it's a difficult question to put words to thoughts. But I am curious, what's it all about? I have my ideas, but let's hear what's in your mind.
C: I'll bet that that you've come up with is WAY better than what my intention is. Most of the work is really selfishly motivated in that it's all kind of about me and my emotional experiences throughout my life. Like yours, mine is always changing as well, but so is are my viewpoints on things and how I deal with things as I get older and have more responsibilities. I'm not a preachy person, I definitely have my stances on politics, spirituality, animal and human rights and all that, but I don't put that stuff in the paintings for the most part. I suppose if you look at my paintings over the last 7 years or so, it's like an autobiography or a journal cataloging how I was feeling at the time about whatever.
Oh man, that was difficult, can I change my answer?
J: No that'll work. I am curious though, you touched on animal rights just now, and I know you're a vegetarian. Is there a connection or are you just eating healthy? I always play with the idea of being at least a part time vegetarian for animal rights issues but.. I like meat, and I struggle with it...
C: I became a vegetarian for health reasons, I was really overweight, super high cholesterol, and my doctor told me that he had a thirty year old patient die of a heart attack. That was a big wake up call to me, so I went vegan for a while and started exercising. I dropped my cholesterol about 100 points and lost as many pounds. The fact that I wasn't consuming any animal products and was healthier than I had ever been really got me thinking about how lazy I had been in my thinking about the food industry, and how animals have just become products. I loved meat like anyone, but I didn't need it, it's been really personally liberating and has changed how I've thought about consumerism as a whole. I try not to push it on anyone though, there is enough stigma against vegetarians and vegans. People can make up their own minds, but I know that I'm making a small impact myself. There are always exceptions to the rule as far as organic and humane livestock farms, so I'm not going to say that stopping meat consumption is the answer, I would just really like to see things done with a lot more respect for life, be it cow or not.
J: That's really cool, very interesting. I remember seeing a photo of you years ago and you look like a different person now, congrats man. It's honestly pretty inspiring. I have been thinking about the products my family consumes, not so much with meat but with products and packaging, and what we throw out as opposed to what we recycle/reuse. To me your work always has a slight environmental theme, are these some of your concerns as well?
C: I've always been impressed by places in nature that don't look like man has ever touched them and often wonder if the world would be better off without us. American culture has really lost sight of things, and we get wrapped up in immediate entertainment and convenience, which has made us blind to where it's all coming from. A lot of simple acts when done by a mass of people over time create a huge detrimental impact on the environment, like drinking bottled water and using plastic grocery bags. I've tried to cut down on the amount of waste that I generate (well not me personally, everybody poops), but it's pretty difficult when everything is overpackaged, like you said. Do we really need a bag in a box inside plastic shrinkwrap? It's in everything though, from how many homes are built per year, to how few effective mass transit systems there are. I think our generation has the daunting task of helping the world be a little more mindful of what we're doing to the amazing place that we live.
J: I think the younger generation and ours to an extent are up for the challenge. I started noticing it in school ten years ago, the product designers at my college were starting to look at renewable materials, using paper instead of plastic, and focusing on recycled mats. It's in the air, and people for the most part are aware of ways to clean up their act. I know nowadays there's far more opportunities to recycle and our kids are going to be growing up with it much more than we did. My family always saved soda cans but it was never for environmental reasons, it was for the cash. Things are changing though, there's progress being made on many environmental fronts. I have a lot of hope for the future, and I can see it in your art too.
So to jump back to art again, what is your process like? Do you sketch a lot? Do you paint with oils? Tell us a little about your creative process.
So to jump back to art again, what is your process like? Do you sketch a lot? Do you paint with oils? Tell us a little about your creative process.
C: Once I come up with an idea I do some sketches, I used to do it all in my sketchbook, but I had this weird thing happen where anytime I opened my sketchbook I felt restricted for some reason. So now I draw on loose sheets of scraps of uncoated proof paper, it seems to hold the pencil really well. If I'm painting an animal or any realistic elements I try to print out between 3 and 5 different photos to work from. I do that so I'm not just copying a photo, but finding the common denominators in the reference that make up the essence of the subject.
I build all of my own cradled boards out of hardboard and poplar, then gesso and sand them. I really wish I had an intern to do this step for me, it takes a lot of time and energy away from working on the art.
Next I prime the board with what I like to call "Optimus Primer", a concoction of acrylics, mediums and water. Next I transfer the drawing by eye with paint, I never liked projecting things, something always got lost for me. When I start applying paint it gets all out of hand an messy and probably makes no sense whatsoever. I render things from dark to light then back again and do a lot of color glazing. I use a toothbrush a lot to build up layers, I guess that goes with my tooth thing. Oh yeah, all acrylics, I could never get the same color control with oil, plus they dry way too slow and I'm super impatient.
J: Oils... I know what you mean. They dry too slow for me too. Who are some of the artists you've admired and why?
C: I was really into stop motion animation as a kid and guys like Ray Harryhausen, Willis O'Brien and Phil Tippet were king shit. They built AND animated the monsters for movies like King Kong, Clash of the Titans and Star Wars. I think that's what got me into monsters initially, those guys were making life from nothing. I had some awesome Mercer Mayer and Dr. Suess books when I was little too, it's great that I can show that stuff to my kids and it's still relevant.
When I was 11 or so, I started skateboarding and really got into the cats that were doing their own deck graphics, like Andy Howell and Ed Templeton. I think that really gave me the spark of realization that maybe drawing crazy shit could actually make me a living. Since then my stuff has really gone all over the place and I'm finding new inspirations everywhere. The new wave of painters out there right now are doing some amazing things, like Walton Ford, but I'm still more moved by sculptors. Ron Mueck and Robert Lazzarini to name a couple, they're really pushing some amazing boundaries that can mess with your brain like crazy.
J: Dude yeah, I saw a show of Robert Lazzarini's skulls several years ago in NYC, it was amazing! It really fucked with my perception, I felt like I was off balance the whole time. I started getting dizzy even. Thinking of skulls always makes me think of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. They have a wall of human skulls, that like the Robert Lazzarini sculptures take you to a different place and totally mess with your brain- not in a "whoa trippy" way, but a "whoa these were people at one time" sorta way. I saw that you blogged about this place on your Darkened Forest blog. http://darkenedforest.blogspot.com/ I don't know how to turn that into a question, just wanted people to check out Darkened Forest because I think it's pretty dope. I thought of a question... what do you know about a Baby Ruth turd left for Mark Murphy? What happened that night?
C: Thanks man, I'm glad someone is reading Darkened Forest. My good friend Mandi Spayd (who's an awesome fabric sculptor and soapmaker) and I just wanted someplace to dump all of the stuff we find that inspires us, so we started the blog.
I think it was more like four Baby Ruth turds actually. I had heard the stories of how someone dragged dog shit across the floor in Mark's house in previous years at his party, so I conspired with the rest of the artists to make sure this party didn't go down without some steamy loaf action. There was a two for one sale on Baby Ruths at the drugstore, so it made for an inhumanly large pile, with nuts.
J: Yeah at Mark's party the year before someone stepped in cat or dog poop and tracked it all over. There were poop footprints everywhere, it was pretty disgusting. He was not very happy, that's the last thing you want to wipe up at 3am. Glad you guys carried on the tradition. Next year someone has to get crazy and do an "upper tanker". Maybe The Chung will step up.
After that topic there's no real way to segue into this question, but weren't you and your wife high school sweethearts? Jennifer and I also met pretty young and she's been supportive throughout my career with all it's ups and downs. I realized we touched on your kids, your parents, but not the most important person behind an artist. I've never met your wife- what's she like? How did you guys meet? Does she make art too (Jennifer ALWAYS gets asked- and nope she doesn't make any art)? If you had a week to ditch the kids with family where would you guys go?
C: I had known Tricia since I was 12 or 13, my brother dated her sister, and she was hanging out with him by default I think. I was really mean to her back then because anyone who liked my older brother was bad news in my book. Fast forward to high school, we ended up commuting together with a mutual friend to a school for advanced placement classes every day. It took me a good six months to wear her down, but she gave in eventually. We got married in 1998, while we were both still in school, I guess it just made sense to do it anyway. She's always been mad supportive of all this craziness, I don't think she's ever said no to anything I've wanted to do, partly because she knows I'll weed out the dumb shit before I come to her. She's pretty creative herself, she sews all kinds of clothes for the kids and herself, she's done stained glass and made a few plushes that I designed. Between her job as a nurse and kids though, it makes it hard for her to do that stuff, I keep hoping that as the kids get older everything will ease off a little for the both of us.
We were lucky enough that my folks took the kids to Disneyworld for 5 days while we went hiking in southern Ohio. It was nice, we got time to check out some really great geological formations and do some quality hiking, as well as just sitting in quietness. I still want to pick up and go to Iceland someday, that place looks amazing.
J: I think this interview is almost done, there's a few basic stupid questions people always seem to ask that I haven't asked. Here goes...
Music? What do you like to listen to?
Music? What do you like to listen to?
C: I have musical ADD, I kind of listen to a lot of things. Although I spend most of my time listening to chugging gutter rock like Clutch, the Sword, Mastodon, old Deftones as well as some real hip hop like Aesop Rock and The Roots. I have a thing for Sigur Ros too, depends on the day I suppose.
J: What about TV? Movies?
C: I don't watch too much TV other than kids shows these days, you know the drill, YO Gabbba Gabba, Blue's Clues, Dora etc... but I watch some good cartoons with the boy like Chowder and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. It works out, because I'm a man-child. I really dig Coen brothers films, pretty much all of them. But I think may favorites are all animated, Akira, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, NIghtmare before Christmas, and lately Tekkon Kinkreet. I could live in any one of those.
J: Favorite color?
C: Orange. Did I get that right?
J: Favorite beverage?
C: Dude I don't know, depends what I'm eating. I like me some Mojitos in the summer.
J: Favorite book?
C: I really just started reading heavy books a few years back. So far I'd say The Terror, it's a great piece of historical fiction, complete with a huge Arctic monster.
J: Favorite plant?
C: Moss, especially on rocks.
J: Last question! What do you have coming up and where can we see your art in person?
C: I'll be showing a few pieces with the infamous Mark Murphy at Miami Art Basel this year in December, later I have a two person show at the Yves LaRoche Gallery in July 2009, then a solo at Copro Nason in February 2010.
You can always come to my house to see my art in person, or yours Jeff, I know you have at least one.
Thanks Chris, that was fun, I appreciate the dialogue man!
Interview conducted by artist Jeff Soto. Check out his website: jeffsoto.com
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