Jeff Ballard is searching. Like so many other souls, he is seeking that inexplicable trail, the elusive marriage of space and time, and our purpose within it. Comforted by solitude and the ever-pulsing company of his own thoughts, Ballard keeps himself open to whatever the universe may be trying to whisper into his subconscious. He quells the unknown with his study of relationships, seeking out intent and purpose between loved ones, nature and even God. As an artist, Ballard’s work is exploratory, his paintings giving reference to the struggle of just trying to make sense of it all. There is a painful awareness of the flux in life, if only to give fuel to further push through to clarity, and give an understanding glance to the metaphysical.
Jeff Ballard was raised in Sioux Falls, and received his MFA in painting from the University of South Dakota. He teaches art at Dakota State University and the University of Sioux Falls, where he is also the Gallery Director. Ballard is a co-founder of the Sioux Falls publication “The Local Artist,” a biannually released magazine featuring ten local artists a year.* Chatting with Ballard was a delightful, moving experience, and I am thankful for the opportunity. ~Amy
*The Local Artist is accepting submissions for their 2016 issue until October 19th. Apply here.
What is the path that has led you to where you are today?
I knew I wanted to be a painter when I was in preschool, I think. It’s kind of funny, because you know how in preschool they pull out that crepe paper and tempera paints and they let you go with it? I remember having some red paint and dipping my brush in and painting the best way I knew how. I just loved that experience; it was fun for me. I feel like I’m always trying to chase that experience again. As you get older and you go to school for art, it becomes your passion, you become more serious about it. There’s the fun and exploratory nature of it, but things become kind of stale. I just like the fluidity of painting, that’s where I fell in love with it. I had a few years where I wanted to be a trucker for a while, but I decided against that. (Laughing)
I continued to make work, I went to school at USF for my BA. I was going to go for graphic design initially, but decided I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. It felt like it was the practical and responsible thing to do, so I shadowed a guy at Alpha Graphics and it was just the most boring thing I’ve ever done. Sitting and watching a guy work on the computer was awful for me. I was going to do Art Ed, but the education classes were just killing me. I wanted to be in the studio, I was sick of making power points and brochures and things like that. I decided to get my emphasis in Painting, and I picked up an Entrepreneurial minor, and that’s been good.
As an artist, you need a little bit of business sense. I’m not an expert, but it helps to know how to market yourself. I was talked into going to grad school, and applied to USD last-minute. I went down there for three years and commuted; I really loved it. I’d always known that I wanted to teach, but didn’t know at what capacity or level. I really clicked with college level students, because they’re really passionate. They’re at a fun time in life where they’re away from their parents.
What are you currently doing?
Right now I’m building a series of canvases, I have four, four-foot canvases. I’m in this awkward transition period between just getting out of grad school and experimenting again. You get locked into this intense thesis project, and you’re building a huge exhibition. Right now I’m tinkering, I’m trying to figure out how to shift gears, or introduce something new. I’m playing around with some cyanotype processes with photography. I’m dabbling.
Do you have anyone that has been a mentor for you in your creative process?
I feel like I didn’t really have that until I got to college. I had really great elementary art school teachers, and then in high school I had great teachers, but it was a different one every year. It was hard to connect with somebody, to have a mentor type relationship. It wasn’t until I got to college, Ceca Cooper was a really great painting teacher for me. She allowed me to free up a bit, to experience that preschool type painting, just learning how to paint again. There was an elderly man in undergrad that I chased, he was an artist in residence, he was retired so he had nothing to do but paint. He was always in the studio. He would tease me, ask “What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?” He was constantly pulling me into the studio, getting me a little bit more serious about it. I think if it weren’t that, I don’t think I would have gone to grad school, or taken up a career in art. I feel like most of my artistic career I’ve not really had peers that I worked closely with, or friends that were artists. It was a lot of solitude, working out things. That’s how I work through my artwork, self-reflection.
Do you feel that you enter the mentoring role to any of your students that you’re teaching now? How do you feel about the process of teaching others?
I think I do. Just naturally I think I’m a teacher. You fall into that role, because that’s where you are at. I really love it, being an artist. I think it’s a lot of fun, it’s an interesting profession. You have a lot of kids whose parents are really concerned about them succeeding, and different things like that. For some parents, it’s the worse thing their kid could do. I’m so lucky that I have parents that were very supportive of me, and let me do my thing and got out of the way. They encouraged me along the way. I look at some of my students and they’re really trying to take art seriously, but they have all these people around them that are telling them that they’re going to fail. It’s an awful thing. It’s terrible! (Laughing) So if there’s any way that I can help in some way… I just love to get them excited about it in a safe environment where they can explore. That’s my ultimate goal. If I teach them anything, that’s a bonus. I’m creating an environment where they can be creative. That’s goal number one for me.
Can you describe your work for anyone who may be unfamiliar? What are you trying to convey? What types of pieces are you creating?
I’ve dealt with a lot of parts diagrams with my dad, he owns a paving contracting company in town. I used to work with him on the job. I’ve done that as a job for like thirteen years, and it is hard work. Being in a small business, he has to pay for a lot of the repairs, and a lot of things have to be fixed on-site. So, if something happens, you take it apart, figure out the problem and put it back together. I feel like diagrams, in that way, you have all these different pieces, this array of parts that you can kind of understand how they fit together. They’re designed for a purpose. A diagram communicates process. It’s about a bunch of objects in flux, it’s about objects with potential, with purpose. That symbol of the diagram is really important.
To me, as I grow through life, I’m constantly placing little bits together, and trying to understand the direction or the intent, the purpose. The whole of the object. It’s a frustrating thing as a human being to only be able to see a certain time and a certain place, through a very limited window. I constantly try to push the way I see beyond myself. I feel like that’s an important exercise. There’s a lot of different ways you can go about talking about diagrams, about parts.
A couple technical things I do, it’s all acrylic. I pull these diagrams from a bunch of different catalogue type sites. I pick them purely on aesthetic, based on how they will fit in an environment, or with a person. Usually I combine them with people, and they are interacting in a certain space. It’s kind of this surreal experience where these awkward diagrams are floating or wrestling in a certain way. It’s about the interaction, or the person’s response to those pieces. It’s just so much about process. Everyone has their story and deals in different ways.
How did you get started with this series? I know you worked with your dad, but what prompted it?
I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [Robert M. Pirsig] and that book was really influential for this series. There’s one point where he talks about sculpture, and talks about a rotisserie. When you have these instructions, a rotisserie can be assembled in a million different ways, but there’s only one right way to assemble it, to make it work. He says whatever solution creates the best peace of mind. It’s kind of a feeling, how it feels when things click into place and they make sense. The object works and you have faith that it works. That creates some peace of mind for the individual. That’s what led me into the series a little bit, that combined with my background.
Can you tell us more about the machine from your thesis?
I’m dealing with parts, so I went to a junkyard and I thought that would be part of my process. I went to Nordstroms and Ewe Pullet and just walked around. I found this beautiful piece, this really nice engine block. Underneath it’s really intricate, has a bunch of different things. I really didn’t know what I was going to do with it, so I just took it. I took it home and started taking it apart, not know what I was going to do. I did a couple of drawings of it and nothing was really working so I just let it sit on my desk for a couple of weeks. I let it mull in my head.
I started finding different pieces. I found this little pulley, so I attached that on there. I made a piece of wood so it could fit together, then I attached these legs to the bottom. I was learning how to engineer this thing at the same time. I would run into a problem and I had to find a solution to fix it. I felt like that process communicated to what I was doing in my paintings. It took me an entire year to build this thing. I ended up painting it, figuring out how to display it. I didn’t really want it just sitting in the space, because it was so much about process for me.
I ended up filming it a bunch of different ways. I put it on a white sheet and I laid the parts out like a diagram and assembled it that way. It was interesting, because it left people in suspense until the end. I wanted to take it a step further and communicate better with what my paintings do, so I brought it into an environment. If you see from the video [view short version here], I shot it all in reverse. (Laughing) I had to walk backwards in the frame. From the video, I’m catching the pieces in the air, but I’m really throwing them. It was an interesting process to figure out how to make that happen and make a magical experience where I walk into this random place, set up a camera and this thing materializes. It was beautiful too, because I took it to the riverbed and I didn’t understand what the purpose was and why I was building this thing. I put it on the sand, [turned it on] and it started to work it’s way down into the earth. That’s beautiful. That was the purpose for this thing.
Are you showing anywhere right now?
No, this is my most recent piece. I took this to Minneapolis, that was the last show that I had.
What gallery was that?
It was at the Northrup King Building. I can’t remember the specific gallery space, but they rented it. The show was called Body and Machine. It’s a non-profit organization, they call themselves Make it Move. They’re promoting kinetic artwork in Minneapolis, kind of regionally.
Who are some of your favorite artists, or people you look to for inspiration? Anything that you draw inspiration from beyond asphalt?
I’m a painter, so I just love really beautiful paint. Eric Fischl has always been someone for me. Mark Rothko– the colors. I feel like a very naive person when I say those two names, but I just love those two artists. I haven’t thought about this in a while. I’ve always liked Rauschenberg, how he naturally pulls images together and makes them work.
What about your external environment?
Like my everyday? I read Ponty a lot. I read a lot of that kind of thing. The visible and the invisible. Existentialist philosophy. I read a fair amount of Kant. I feel like relationships are important to me. I think that’s something that’s been consistent in my work. I really like portraiture, I try to avoid it, I don’t really want to be a portrait painter. But I like painting people, and I like spending time with people while I paint them. A lot of my work has to do with people’s interactions with me and my interactions with them. It’s an important aspect of my life.
Do you primarily paint your family members? Or is it outside of that realm as well? The pieces I’ve seen all seem to incorporate them.
Yeah, a lot of my family, mainly family members. I feel like that’s part of me understanding where I’m coming from. These are people who you grow up with and have a very large impact on you. You watch them grow and you watch them change and you know them more intimately than anyone you could point off the street. I start there because I feel like I could make a painting that’s honest about somebody. It’s always through how I see that person, so that person might see that painting and may not think that it’s accurate. I think that’s the way of the artist or painter. You’re true to how you see things. Relationships are really important to me.
This question stems from you background with USF, and your Christian roots… Is there a relationship between you, your artwork, and God?
Yeah, I think so. I am a Christian, and that’s a tough thing to align yourself with sometimes. There’s so much hurt that happens in the world by people who call themselves that, so it’s really hard to put yourself under that label, especially as an artist. I feel like you can pigeon-hole yourself when you call yourself a Christian artist. I don’t think it should be segregated. The term secular is often thrown around. Why is there a distinction? Does my artwork come off as overtly Christian?
No, it doesn’t. Not at all.
I sometimes feel guilty about that. Like I’m trying to hide or be crafty about it. But I feel like I’m trying to be honest, and it’s hard to be honest and not cliché. It’s hard to be an honest Christian painter. It’s not like I’m painting everything beautiful all the time. The last painting I did was for the Spectrum show [at Exposure] and my mom just died this last year and so things are pretty tough, you know? Things aren’t always beautiful. Art is such a great outlet in a way. I think that I try to stay open to the process of placing objects and placing things on the surface and trying to make sense. I just push through it.
A lot of frustration has been coming out in my work lately. My thesis exhibition was very much about frustration. You don’t have control. We feel like we have a lot of control. Like, in America we have a lot of freedom to make choices, which is awesome. Your mom being diagnosed with cancer, you never know what’s going to happen at any given moment. These pieces are just scattered all over the place and you’re left to deal with what you have in front of you. That’s such a profound and dangerous and scary place to be, but it’s such a beautiful place to be, because there’s so much potential to be made. My mom was the person in my life. She was a huge supporter, a great person. It just pisses you off.
Did your mom expose you to any art in Sioux Falls?
No, neither of my parents are really artists. I think my dad is a very mechanically minded person, he’s very creative in that way. My mom was just a really loving and nurturing person. They allowed me to do what I wanted to do and got out of the way for it. They provided for me when I needed them to; it was good.
Do you want to tell us more about your involvement with The Local Artist?
We do a jury process every November, and we do an open call for submissions. We had a fair amount of submissions last year, but we’re hoping to get significantly more this next year as we get the zines out and gain traction. We distinguish ourselves in that we call ourselves a Free Paper gallery. We’re presenting it in a way that is very pristine, but that is also very ephemeral. It’s free and it’s paper. It’s not a walled institution. I feel like the layout is very clean.
Our goal is to really strengthen the arts and the arts community and the engagement of the arts. Every year we pick ten artists through the jury process and we give detailed feedback to people who weren’t picked for their submissions. This will allow them to take this feedback and hopefully submit to national publications. Our hope is that people will grow beyond Sioux Falls and start showing nationally or even regionally. Two issues right now is what we’re operating on, five people per issue, with one featured artist. It consists of artist bios, they’re very brief, but the purpose is to have something outside in the community. It’s very accessible that way. It’s a stepping stone to enter into the art environment. Sometimes I feel like the art community can feel like it’s this underground society that people aren’t really aware of, or they don’t really know how to enter it. Maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully this is something that will help.
What else would you like to see happen within our art community? Possibly make it more enticing for people to stay?
It’s hard because there’s not a lot of reasons to stay sometimes. I get why artists move away from here. It’s hard to make a living as an artist. I’d like to see more art being sold and supported. I’d like to see more local public work. I’d almost like to see an arts district. I feel like it’s kind of leaning towards that. I’d love to see a building or a street you can go to and it’s all galleries. More local fine art galleries that aren’t framing galleries. Something else. Somebody has to step forward and say this is important. It takes a lot of people.