The Intentional Life of Brady Wilks

By Jenny Cutler Lopez on January 3, 2017
Brady Wilks, East City Art, alternative process, transfer, photography, dc artist
Brady Wilks

In the photographic transfer world, Brady Wilks is well-known and well-liked. Soft-spoken, he communicates in the same manner that he creates—with a peaceable intention to clearly express himself. Wilks is a photographer and an artist who uses alternative processes to transfer his photos onto mediums such as canvas, glass, wood, and metal. A transplant from Southern California, he moved to Maryland with no clear idea of his future, “with no direction and no career. I just cut off everything and left,” he says.

Since his move to the east coast, Wilks married, graduated with an MFA, became a father and an artist, secured a teaching position in the art department at Frederick Community College, and sold every piece from his first art show. Since then, he has gone on to garner representation with Tilt Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, publish handmade books, and show his artwork in numerous exhibitions. It seems his intention to start over on the other side of the country was the right move.

Wilks melds his methodical intention to his art with his creative mistakes. His book Alternative Photographic Processes: Crafting Handmade Images (Focal Press, 2015) shares his personal experiences and lessons on how to use “alternatives to popular techniques [for image transfers] and how to control and incorporate process flaws. If you learn the process, you learn how to control those things. A lot of times people will make a messy image and say ‘look at this cool thing,’ but with a little bit of practice and with intention, you can do it purposely and put it where you want,” he says.

Wilks says his attention to detail and his intention are “contrived. I don’t think of that as a bad word because it means really thinking things through. When I compose, everything is aligned. Micro-composition–composing the photo before taking it.”

But art is not just for the full-time artist; Wilks believes art is for everyone. “Even if you don’t have an artistic intent or don’t plan on showing the work or you’re just using art as therapy—half of my work is just therapy—just make something, just create something. And I think more and more people are realizing you don’t have to be skilled with a pencil or camera to call yourself an artist. There are so many forms of expression.”

He keeps on top of the latest methods and resources by teaching students of all stripes from those fulfilling elective requirements to advanced graduate students. “None of it feels like work and I’m involved in the process of photography whether they are learning it or making it. They show me or inspire me by stuff I’ve never seen before. And I hope I do the same for them. I’m the facilitator and let them do their thing and when I see something I feed it. The last thing I want to do is download all my crap onto them.”

Brady Wilks, East City Art, alternative process, transfer, photography, dc artist
Brady Holding Trees at the End of the Earth at the same location a year after the original image was made.

How do you deal with harsh criticism? Have you ever had a surprising comment? Where?

Harsh criticism is pretty rare for me.  I do have some work that gets interesting comments but for the most part, feedback is mostly positive.  If there is harsh  critique out there, people are keeping it to themselves.  I think part of that is due to the nature of most of my work that I share.  They are inherently pretty and have some novelty if you are unfamiliar with processes.  So even if they don’t understand the content or my own intent, the experience is usually positive.  I like to think that everyone has something to teach me, so I certainly don’t mind response.

Do you have any rituals?

Making art for me as a whole is a bit of ritual.  When I am going out to photograph, I typically work alone, listen to music while traveling to my location and then spend some time quieting my mind at the location.  Giving my brain something to do is important as well.  I tend to count arbitrary things like how many white cars I have passed or how many trees line the edge of a property.  Eventually as I get to my spot I change gears and don’t have much to think about at all.  I walk around with a bunch of gear and when I connect with something, I stop. As for printmaking and the crafting of my physical objects the ritual comes with the steps needed to make the work.  Preparations and process become the ritual.

What are you thinking about in the studio?

When I’m in the studio making art from my images I typically don’t think about much other than intent as it relates to process.  I really like to use the characteristics of the medium so I’m thinking about that a lot.  I know what to do in order to get certain flaws or abnormalities and I like to place them around the edge or in specific areas for texture. After reflecting on it more I suppose I also think about my past and the symbolism in the work, what it means, what the title is going to be, etc.  At one time I wouldn’t title anything but I’ve liked seeing people be put on a certain path with the title.  When people lean in to read a title or check the number against the title list, I’d like to hope they are looking for a clue.

How do you know when you’re done?

When working on my various bodies of work, I don’t think I’m even really done.  Two or three projects have me adding to them and making new shows with a new round of images.  Occasionally I will make art for a specific idea or purpose.  For example if I get a show that I’ve shown work before, I wouldn’t show new work from the same series.  I would probably further develop an unresolved idea and hash out a bunch of ideas.  I know that I’m done when I can maximize gallery space without being crowded and have a few pieces left over from the hanging to take home.  As for my main bodies of work, I’m never done.  At least not yet.

Quick. First three favorite artists that come to mind?

Andrew Wyeth, Sally Mann, Brad Kunkle.

Your greatest success and worst failure?

The first solo show I had in my new home of Maryland was a huge success.  I nearly sold half of my show opening night and sold the rest within a couple months.  That was a huge win for me because it was a new series, a new adventure.  Contrary to that was when I had two solo shows back to back, and works in two group shows over the course of 3 months.  Out of 60 something pieces of art I only sold one.  I was feeling low and for the first time realized I needed to give up selling work as a requirement for success.  I reasoned with myself that, sold or not, I would still make the work.  It’s part therapy.  A positive came later as I sold much of the work outside the shows after they came down but I couldn’t help but feel a little unvalidated.

Brady Wilks, East City Art, alternative process, transfer, photography, dc artist
Giants and the Dynamic – Acrylic Gel Lift / Transfer on Wood

What part of NoVA or MD do you visit for inspiration?

A lot of my work starts out in the field and this region is full of those.  Forest interiors, farm land, parks, battlefields and many places along back roads.  Driving around NoVA, MoCo, western MD, northern MD, and the southern part of PA is a good start.  I find myself frequenting the C&O canal simply because I can walk a long time and find stuff otherwise inaccessible by car.  Occasionally I’ve taken a mountain bike out on the trails but I feel like I miss things.  It’s a good idea when I have to go some distance and have a preconceived idea of the location, otherwise I just walk.

Have you ever regretted selling a piece and why?

I can’t say that I’ve ever sold a piece and regretted it.  One of my conditions is that I constantly try to make new work, unless it’s a collection or a series that needs to tour around a bit.  In fact, if work that I have sits around too long I destroy it or reface the substrate for new work.  It’s a rule that keeps me working, keeps me showing new work, and keeps potential patrons invested in seeing how I grow and where the work goes.  I have a few people who have purchased several works and have turned into great friends.  It’s nice for them to know that their investment in me and the work isn’t simply aesthetic.  I also love being able to show them the value as it increases and evolves.  I love selling work.

Find out more about Brady Wilks at his website, on Instagram, or through his  instructional book.