Cory Bilicko talks about New Orleans with great nostalgia. The Southern artist says although it is a celebratory and upbeat place, there is darkness hiding in the forms of untimely death, natural disaster and other misfortune. Not long after he graduated from the University of New Orleans, in 1995, he decided to pack his bags and head to California.
Even after he moved, he was constantly hearing word of horrible mishaps that were occurring around the region in which he grew up. He says he lost many people close to him and it was awful to see a place he loved in such bad shape. But it is through these traumatic experiences that he draws the inspiration and subject matter for his acrylic paintings.
As of now, Bilicko, a native of Biloxi, Mississippi, is a man of many trades. He is currently a painter, a managing editor, a proofreader for an educational-publishing company and a part-time teacher.
Bilicko’s art has been featured at Galaxy Expo in Bixby Knolls, Greenly Art Space in Signal Hill, FreeSpirit Yoga Studio, and Long Beach Vegan Eatery. He will also be displaying his work in the Long Beach Open-Studio Tour in October.
In addition, he has been preparing for his exhibit Uneasy Jubilation, which will be on display at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., all summer. An opening reception will be held on Sunday, June 16 from 5pm to 8pm.
Your pieces for Uneasy Jubilation are inspired by very personal and tragic experiences. What kind of effect did this have on the creative process?
In 1999, my mom died in a car accident. To have someone I love dearly just suddenly and tragically be removed like that was, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. I went through a horrible depression, complete with self-destructive behaviors, financial indifference and, ironically, reckless driving. I knew that I needed to find something to quiet my mind so I could face the horrors of the situation and eventually heal. I didn’t really like talking about my feelings with people in my life. With family, I felt this responsibility to be the strong one so that they could cry and I could comfort them. With friends, I didn’t want to be an emotional burden. I felt compelled to deal with it on my own.
I was working as a substitute teacher at the time. One day, I was in a kindergarten classroom on my lunch break. There was this little easel, some paper and some tempera paint. I sat there and created this little portrait of my mom in half an hour. Right away, I found the therapeutic value in creation– taking tragedy and turning it on its head, making something beautiful out of it. And, yes, I used about 6 cents of taxpapers’ dollars for my own therapy. I’m sure it paid off, as it helped me return to being a more focused teacher.
Then, after 9/11, I was so freaked out. I’d been at the Twin Towers just three weeks prior, and I had several friends living in Manhattan.
I sat and drew this abstract view of the New York skyline, which consists of more than 3,000 quarter-inch squares. Sitting, focusing, listening to trippy electronic music and painting each little square one at a time really relaxed me. It brought me into this meditative state, and I felt peaceful. I’m very happy to say that my good friend Jenn is now the owner of that painting; she bought it at my very first art show.
So, basically, first and foremost, my art is my therapy.
The theme for Uneasy Jubilation is generally focused on celebration and death. Is this a common theme in all of your works?
Indeed it is, for the most part. I seem to always have my mom looking over my shoulder when I paint. She instilled in me a love for scary movies. For me, being alone at home during a thunderstorm, watching a horror film is a comfort; I know I’m not truly alone, because she’s there with me.
So, I have positive associations with dark subject matter. In the ‘80s, I listened to a lot of gloomy music, like Bauhaus, Joy Division and Skinny Puppy. I loved going to these seedy, underground bars in New Orleans and being with the freaks. I felt right at home, even though I’d get up the following Monday and head to class.
The pieces for your current exhibit seem to be very soft and rhythmic. How did you achieve this?
If they do come across as soft, I think it might be a subconscious effort to invite the viewer in a little closer. I love the idea of pulling people in, and then they realize they’re seeing something that disturbs them. That’s something I want to explore more in the very near future; it’s kind of like being a performer in a spook house. I love scaring people, but I’ve had to tone that down in recent years. Friends get mad, and then I feel lame. Plus, I don’t want to actually send someone into cardiac arrest; I just want to make them shudder or leave a lasting image that might haunt them. It’s this weird sense of power, like black magic or something. But I don’t think it’s sinister; I’m just inviting them into my world. They can leave anytime.
Technically speaking, I experiment a lot, and I’m not always successful. I guess that’s part of being self-taught. I play with different brushes to see what effects I can get. I also use unconventional items to apply paint, like potatoes and tape. Last night, I felt completely burnt out, and nothing I was painting looked right. So, even though I’d spent about 10 hours on a particular painting, I completely covered it with a new coat, and then I started painting with my fingers. That piece will be in this show. I keep imagining telling people during the opening, “I painted this with my fingers!” and them saying, “Yeah… I can tell.”
You work mostly with acrylics. Why did you choose this medium, and what other mediums have you experimented with?
My friend and I would hang out, listen to music, drink beer and paint. He had all these blank canvases and acrylic paint. So, that’s how I started with it. I’ve played a little with watercolors, but I’m not good at it. For a while, I felt that I needed to graduate to oil painting, but I really don’t want to. I enjoy acrylics. I’m too experimental, I suppose. I mess up a lot, and acrylics let you paint over them. They’re friendly like that. Plus, they don’t emit an odor. I work inside, so I don’t want to inhale linseed oil and turpentine for hours on end. Plus, I’m seeing more and more acrylic pieces in galleries.
As a self-taught artist, did you ever seek an education in art?
I did take a general art class in 9th grade, and I took one drawing class in college. I don’t think I learned very much in those classes though. It was more about getting your feet wet. That’s why I still consider myself to be self-taught.
You said you paint in your studio. What other factors are present in your work setting?
The other factors present would be lots of coffee and really cool, tripped-out music, mostly with no lyrics. I also tend to get hot when I paint. It’s a rather intense and physical process. So I like to have a fan on.
Is there a piece that you favor more than others?
My friend Bill commissioned me to do a portrait of Madonna. It was the first painting I did this year. I was so intimidated by the thought of having to paint the likeness of this super-famous person and make it look realistic, that I ended up working really hard on it, and it actually came out great. That’s the piece I’m most proud of for technical reasons.
But the piece that seemed to speak to more people than any other is one I did of a woman standing among trees. It’s based on an image I saw when I was a kid during a hallucinatory fever episode. I had so many people express interest in it, and I ended up selling it to a woman during a live-art event. Then, she contacted me a few months later and told me that, when she had tried to ship it to her home in Texas, it was “lost and damaged.” I suppose that gives it almost a martyr status now.
Is there something you hope people can take away from your pieces?
I hope they take from it what they need to take from it. My work is rarely, if ever, an expression of one particular idea or feeling. It’s pretty open-ended. And I absolutely love hearing what other people see in my work. I learn a lot about myself during my own art shows, just by listening to people. I actually prefer to let them tell me about my own paintings, rather than vice versa.
Which artists have influenced you?
I recently discovered the surrealist painter Remedios Varo. I wouldn’t say her work influences me as much as it amazes me and activates my imagination. I’m not even really a big fan of surrealism, but she had an incredible imagination and was superb at creating this parallel universe that’s horrifyingly delightful.
I’m mostly influenced by music, I’d say. I listened to a lot of old jazz and New Orleans music while working on this show. It will be playing during the opening. But I also listen to a lot of Com Truise, Tycho, Boards of Canada, Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie.
How do you feel about others’ interpretations of your work?
I love hearing what others have to say about my work, even when it’s not necessarily positive. It helps me. A lot of artists hate attending their own openings, and some don’t even show up. But I embrace the opportunity to have some wine, see all my work on walls and, most importantly, be with people after spending weeks and months alone in my little studio.
How has your art shaped who you are today, or who you want to be?
Art has saved me from deep depression, and it has started defining who I am. Sometimes when people ask what I do, I say “artist” first, just to see how it feels. And it feels right.
As for who I want to be, it looks as if I’ll never be anyone’s grandfather, and I’m cool with that. I’ll be perfectly content as that eccentric, old, bald-headed man who lives alone and listens to weird music and makes strange paintings with his fingers… and potatoes.
Cory Bilicko is managing editor of the Signal Tribune.