From an early age, Nikos Rutkowski knew that he wanted to be an artist. He’s taken classes at at the Columbus College of Art & Design since he was seven years old, and continues to spend at least a few hours per day working in his studio.
In 2007, Nikos spearheaded the launch of the popular Urban Scrawl event series as the President of the Franklinton Arts District. Heading into its sixth year, this annual event series has helped cement the neighborhood as a destination for for creative young people.
We spoke recently with Nikos to find out more about his artistic upbringing in Columbus, what inspires his work, and why he continues to dedicate himself to this community.
Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your background as it relates to being an artist?
A: I don’t know exactly when I knew that I was an artist, but it was early. It wasn’t really a decision that I ever made, it is just something that always was. I suppose if my parents hadn’t been so incredibly supportive of my pursuit, maybe I wouldn’t feel the same way. Both of them are creative people with keen interests in art and culture, and they never led me to believe that there wasn’t a reason I wouldn’t be able to succeed as an artist. They enrolled me in as many art classes as possible as early as was possible, including CCAD’s Saturday Morning Art Classes (which I attended from first grade through the end of high school, and later taught for several years).
When I was five or six my family moved to Olde Town East, which at the time was not a particularly safe neighborhood, and there was only one other child on my block. So I spent the bulk of my youth alone, drawing and making things. I think that this helped to develop my creativity, and trained me to be able to focus on making art to the exclusion of all else. These two traits have served me incredibly well as an artist.
Q: You also attended High School at Fort Hayes, correct? How did that affect you growing up?
A: I did attend Fort Hayes for their Fine Arts Vocational Program which was junior and senior year of high school. I actually went to a local Catholic high school, which was an odd experience for me being raised in a non-secular/atheist household. My sophomore year I was allowed to skip their beginning art classes, but I wound up not getting along with the art teacher at all. In fact I disliked her class so much that I had a competition with a fellow student to see who could get the lowest grade by mid-term. I whipped him with a staggering 14%.
Which was a BIG sign that I needed to get out (at least from her class). One day I ran into a student changing into her uniform in the hallway, and found out that the reason she got to come in late was because she was going to Fort Hayes half-days. Several weeks later I was meeting with Ken Valimaki and Phil Arena about admission to their program. It was a competitive program to get into, and if I remember correctly I was sweating bullets until I got word that I was in.
It was an unique opportunity, and I can’t begin to describe how amazing it was to get away from my regular high school and be with other kids who were as passionate about creating art as I was. (It was a testament to how incredible the program was that kids from both Dublin and Worthington high schools, Columbus Academy, and other schools with great art programs competed to get admitted). For two years I got to spend half of my day, five days a week, creating art with a level of freedom that I didn’t get in college until I was a junior! At Fort Hayes I was allowed to experiment with ideas and materials without worrying about what the outcome might be– something that I needed in contrast to the rigid and constraining nature of my regular high school. However, their program was no walk in the park. Valimaki and Arena instilled a pretty hardcore work ethic into us, one of their favorite phrases was “as an artist you’re only as good as your next piece.”
Q: I personally recall seeing some of your artwork a few years ago at a show at Junctionview and remember it being quite dark. But a few years later there seemed to be a dramatic style change toward more colorful work. Was this an intentional decision, and can you tell us about that transformation?
A: Well, my best guess about the “dark” images is that they were from a group of drawings that I made for a horror themed Halloween show that a friend of mine organized. The details of that period of time are a little fuzzy for me, but I seem to remember that the opportunity to participate in that show coincided with a period of “underemployment” for me. In response to my financial woes, I had the brilliant idea that I would try to get gigs as an illustrator. Around the same time I also did a series of brightly colored cartoon images based on some of my childhood drawings. Together both sets of images wound up getting me accepted by a local creative placement agency, however no illustration work ever actually materialized.
The whole endeavor wound up being a bit of a trip down the wrong path for me. For one thing creating those pieces sapped time and energy away from my fine art, and obviously they created some misconceptions about who I am as an artist for people who were encountering my name for the first time. I don’t necessarily regret making those pieces. They were actually pretty nice, but I never considered them to be “art” in the same sense as the work that I’m really passionate about.
That time in my life felt like a real uphill battle, I was still reeling from some personal turmoil, and when I think about it I can’t for the life of me remember how I was managing to scrape together enough money to survive. I was throwing a lot of crap at the wall back then and the only thing that really stuck was “Urban Scrawl”. The silver lining of my underemployment was that the first Urban Scrawl Festival would have never happened under other circumstances. All of the research, e-mails, and phone calls it took to get that project off the ground simply couldn’t have been accomplished if I had had a “real” job at the time.
Q: What inspires your artwork?
A: I’m not sure that inspiration ever really comes into play for me anymore, or maybe it’s more a matter of not actively seeking inspiration. I calculated once that in my life I’ve had more art teachers than most people have had regular teachers. I’ve also spent a lot of my free time over the years reading books on art history and theory; and magazines like Art In America and ArtForum. Every time I’d step foot in my studio I’d feel the weight of art history on my shoulders; I’d hear the voices of professors and teachers arguing and contradicting one another about the validity of this concept, or the proper technique with that material. Eventually I had push through it all, and stop falling under the influence of anyone– stop being “inspired” per se.
I’m very dedicated to my work, and it’s a very rare occurrence that I don’t go up to work in my studio. Even after working 12 hours straight at my day job (which happens frequently) I’ll still make it up to work on art for 2-3 hours before going to bed. My work ethic precludes the need for having identifiable “inspiration”. In my opinion creative people simply don’t always have time to wait for inspiration, they just have to push through and keep working. I believe that drive to create no matter what separates a professional artist from someone who treats art as a hobby.
I currently employ a deliberate yet ad hoc method of working, when I’m in my studio I work in a balance between complete intuition, and rational analysis. When I have a white substrate (be it paper, canvas, or board) before me, I force myself to make a mark just to get the ball rolling. Then it becomes easy to make another, and another. Sometimes I’ll cover up everything that I’ve just done, or I’ll sand it down, or I’ll take a torch to it. Then I’ll make more marks, or collage on top of it. After all of that I’ll stand back and stare and figure out if it’s working, and then either a plan finally forms or I just keep making marks. I never let myself think about how expensive or precious any of the materials that I use are. The idea that mistakes can be made has to be avoided at all costs. I had to make myself believe that nothing is ever a mistake in art, just an opportunity to change direction.
That’s one of the reasons that I stopped making cut paper and resin pieces. The process was very long and nit-picky, the general formal movement in each of those pieces was established early on, and then it became a matter of cutting and gluing down paper– sometimes for months or years on one piece. And then everything hinged on getting those coats of resin just right. One day I realized it was time to move on, and change things up; no matter how much I love that body of work. There were just too many places for things to go wrong in the process, and I was seeking a level of “perfection” that proved to be a fool’s errand.
Q: Last but not least, can you tell us about any upcoming shows where people can see your work?
A: At the moment I don’t have any definite shows lined up. My focus lately has been on getting gallery shows outside of Columbus, and I’ve been taking a lot of steps toward that goal. I’ve got a lot of irons on the fire at the moment, most of which I can’t really discuss yet. But I’m sure that my work will be up around town for people to see before too long. If anyone is interested in receiving updates about shows they can e-mail me at email@example.com and I’ll put them on my mailing list.
More information about Nikos Rutkowski can be found online at NikosFyodor.com.