Words Fall Short

Interview with Paul Butler

By Lisa Kehler


Words Fall Short, while created under the pretext of jazz, in reality became more of a comment on process. Some shifts are easily recognizable (subject matter change from part 1 to part 2), while others are of a personal nature, marking a significant breakthrough for Butler. Emerging from the perceived trap of a rather formulaic approach to his practice, ‘jazz’ in its essence offered him an entry point to a new method to creating. The show is less about jazz music and more about searching for the permission to try something fresh: creating the work not solely with the audience in mind, but as a way to move forward.

What has resulted is a significant exhibition of 14 collages in a spectrum of subjects ranging from jazz to palm trees to pin up girls. This is an important presentation of the internal struggles the artist has addressed throughout the 8 months of creating this show in an effort to find a new way of sharing his visual voice.

This interview took place over a three-week period, beginning on March 28, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

LK: Words Fall Short is based on a quote you heard while watching Ken Burns’ epic documentary on Jazz, correct? What was that quote, and can you explain its relationship to the visual?

PB: The quote was by Matt Glaser: “When we talk about music, the reason we use terms that sound vague is not because there is anything vague about music, but because music expresses human experience so specifically - in such specific ways - that when you attempt to find language to describe that, the words fall short. What’s falling short in that equation is language - not the music. Music expresses things about human experience that can not be expressed any other way - that’s why it’s so important."

The same can be said about art. This is why I was drawn to the quote in the beginning. I wanted to say things that couldn’t be expressed through words. With this exhibition, I’m trying to get back to the innocence I had before I became a "professional’ artist." Whenever I find myself experiencing an artistic block, I often turn to music as a parallel art form to help me navigate my way through it. For me, the jazz movement represents the ultimate creative freedom. I have the utmost respect for jazz musicians and their relentless pursuit of creativity, dedication to experimentation, and commitment to pushing the definition of the art form. With this series, I started with reproductions of classic jazz album covers as my source material to create a body of collage that employs and celebrates this creative freedom. My approach was to use jazz as a kind of permission to trust and rely on my instincts, allowing me to enter a state of mind - almost like a meditation - where I feel I’m serving as a channel for a higher creative energy.

However, at a certain point I abandoned using the album covers, trusted my gut, and just made whatever I wanted, whatever I felt worked. Since I was trying to make collage about creative freedom, I didn't want to paint myself into a corner.,.

LK: This project seems like a very natural progression from some of your earlier works, which draw from Dylan, heavy metal, and your top 100 albums of 2001. Do you feel that using musical source material enables you to borrow emotions from music and embed them in your work?

PB: I find guidance in terms of my overall practice in biographies on musicians. Bob Dylan is a perfect example. I get permission from his constant reinvention of himself - when he went electric in 66, then turned to country, then disappeared with his friends The Band to record The Basement tapes for fun, then got into Christianity in the 80s. Just when you think you understand what he's doing, he does something completely different. His priority has always been to do what he wants, not what he thinks his audience wants. There have been highs and lows in his career, but in retrospect, it all makes sense. They booed him when he went electric - called him "Judas" for supposedly turning his back on the folk movement. But now we recognize that departure as a key moment in music history. When I find myself in a creative rut, I ask myself - what would Bob do? Or when things are slow, I trust that this slowness is necessary to my overall creative practice. Each chapter in the journey informs the next.

With this jazz series, I don't find that I'm channeling or employing specific emotions, to be honest. The project really just serves as an excuse to create. As an artist you spend so much time contemplating what it is you are doing - what you are putting out into the world. Sometimes the toughest thing is just making it - good or bad. When I start a new series, I need to establish a concept or idea that I can work within - set up parameters in a way. Once I've worked it out, I can just shut that part of my thinking off and make work. I have to get in the right state of mind before I can create and sometimes that takes weeks, months, or even years. The truth is I'm coming out of a long period of creative blockage. Thinking about jazz helped me get out of it.

LK: What's changed for you, then, in this new work?

PB: First, I’ve had a very nomadic practice until recently –travelling with the Collage Party and Other Gallery in general. When I moved back to Winnipeg, my goal was to plant some roots and develop a routine. So I had as many tables built as possible that my space would accommodate so I could spread out and work on multiple collages at the same time. Music is a large part of my process, so a stereo is essential. After setting up my studio, I had to break it in. This takes time. I work at home, which comes with its pros and cons. There are of course distractions, like the couch and TV, so I started reprogramming myself by moving my TV and computer into my studio, making it the only room to spend time in whether I make working or not. I figured as long as I was submersing myself in my studio, I was getting back into the right frame of mind. So there were a couple months of just puttering about and becoming more comfortable in the studio.

I compare finding inspiration to fishing in a way. There is a lot of waiting around, but if you aren’t at the fishing hole with your line in the water, you aren’t going to catch a thing. I also remind myself of something Picasso said about making 99 bad drawings for every good one. So I just start making stuff without thinking about whether or not I will exhibit it.

For this show I produced 50 + works, but only a select few actually made the final cut. The works that fell onto the cutting room floor were all essential to the process though. The main thing that changed is I that I let go of both my own and my perceived audience’s expectations. I wanted to break free from some of my serial bodies of work - Art Ads, PMA, What's Within - I know how to make them. I wanted to have fun again, explore, trust more, and make images that I liked. Just create something with the faith that if I was in a pure creative state of mind, it would be successful. My definition of success returned to having fun and exploring.

LK: Finding this sense of satisfaction in your first hometown show in over a decade must feel right.

This is a homecoming for me in many ways. I'm returning to Winnipeg after years of travel and living in different cities, but I'm also returning to a more traditional, individual studio practice. After over a decade of working with and for other artists - running a commercial gallery, staging alternative pedagogies, hosting the collage party, curating at a public art gallery - I felt I owed it to myself to focus on my own individual output again. In the back of my mind, I always knew I’d return, and it feels incredible to do so. All these other projects have been extremely rewarding and educational, but I could feel myself losing interest in them. In some ways, I feel these collaborations were convenient distractions in that I didn’t have to face the challenges that come with creating something by myself. Experiencing artistic block made me realize how terrifying making art can be. You really have to put yourself out there. You feel vulnerable and naked at times, but when you are able to create something your are proud of, as I have with this show, there’s no way to describe the feeling. Now that I think of it, Words Fall Short not only describes why we as artists turn to expressing ourselves through art to begin with, but also the feeling you get when you’ve successfully done so..

LKTo quote Nina Simone, ‘Nuff Said! Thanks Paul.

PB: Thank you, Lisa. I’m really thrilled to be the inaugural show at the gallery.