Painting with fire

by Wayne Johns

Asked how he first started painting with fire, Walker Babington says he was just fooling around. “A friend of mine had a son that she named ‘Burning.’ And kind of as a joke, either for her birthday or his birthday, I made a burning of Burning. But it wound up looking really cool so I kind of took the ball and ran with it from there.”

Babington was born in Raleigh and grew up in Maryland, between Washington DC and Annapolis, but

he has ties to Greensboro as well. His mother’s family is from here; in fact, his grandparents taught at UNCG. He studied photography in college and says he eventually got tired of taking photo classes and wanted to do something more with his hands. He knew that he wanted to make images that looked like they came out of natural processes. “So when I first burned a piece of wood, I thought it would look like a piece of wood that had been in a fire, so that it had this ghostly image” that looked kind of like the person. But he says the result was a much clearer, high-contrast image.

If there is any similarity between photography and pyrography (literally “writing with fire”) Badington says that his burnt portraits “wind up being a photorealistic image.” He stresses that it wasn’t just pyrography he was interested in, though. He tried a dozen or so different methods, including rusted metal, melted wax and scratched wood among others. “I was trying to connect subject to media. So I was trying to create portraits of people out of things that somehow applied to them.”

One example is the portrait he did of his father. Babington’s father is a newspaper reporter who has worked with the Washington Post and,currently with the Associated Press; so, for his portrait, Babington says “I cut out layers of newspaper. First I made sort of a silhouette. Then I cut out more layers to create the shadows. When you look at it, it just looks like newspaper glued together in the silhouette of a man.” But held up to a window, with the light coming through, you see his father’s image.

Even though most of his works are of people, and the burned images look like them, he doesn’t really think of it as portraiture. “I always start with the piece of wood, or metal or whatever. I normally find it on the side of the road or in a dumpster, wherever somebody has thrown it out.” He said that initially he started using found and recycled objects almost out of necessity, because they were free art supplies. Plus, he adds, the old surfaces “have already gone through so much that they’ve already got some sort of story written into them.”

And rather than simply attempting to paint a likeness of the person, he says that what he’s after is “a certain feeling conveyed through some sort of gesture.” First he gets the model to act it out and pose in that place, then takes a photograph and works from the photograph to re-create that image on the surface.

He cites the symbolist painters as his main influence; his own work, he says, is “almost like a pop-art form of symbolism.” His favorite symbolist painters are Gustav Moreau and Odilon Redon. He describes the figures in their paintings as inhabiting “not-quite dreamscapes, but none of them are in really real surroundings. Some of them are kind of floating off in… not-quite purgatory, but just that place where you’re not quite paying attention and you’re not quite not paying attention. Sort of lost in thought. And I think that’s what a lot of my work is. For instance I’ll have the model pose for something and then we’ll be changing and she’ll be kind of not paying attention and I’ll try to take a bunch of quick shots and that’s when I really get the feeling I’m going for.”

We talked about the intersections of public and private art, and I wondered if he saw any similarities to what he does and graffiti art. He agreed that “it is kind of like graffiti art in that it’s creating something on a surface whose dimensions and color and what-not are already set. And taking something that’s already functional in another capacity and making that a canvas.”

He added that he recently realized that it almost seems like post-apocalyptic art. “You know,” he says, “the zombies have come and you’re out in some farmland and years after everyone’s figured out how to keep getting food and keep everyone alive and keep getting fresh water, eventually you’re going to want some kind of artwork and portraiture and the only things lying around are these used kind of half-useless surfaces. And maybe you don’t have paint, but you’ve got fire.”

Some of Walker Babington’s work will be on exhibit and for sale at Old Photo Specialist at 320 S. Elm St. in Greensboro for First Friday.

First Friday Art Hops happen the first Friday of each month in Greensboro along Elm Street and in Winston- Salem emanating from the corner of 6th and Trade streets.