Tethered and Inspired by Jonestown

At the conclusion of Painting Stories, my article in last year’s edition of the jonestown report, I wrote “I’m still producing the Jonestown series.” That is no longer literally true, in that I’m no longer working with Jonestown directly as an subject, but the project has had a profound influence on my artistic practice. Studying the tragedy has allowed me to isolate meaningful themes. It also taught me a lot about the type of subject I feel most able to construct artworks from. The distance of subject from my personal experience frustrated my attempts to construct a powerful work, and it’s why I moved on from Jonestown.

Before I started working with Jonestown, solving formal problems was the thing that kept me engaged in my work. As I became more comfortable with my style, I started to grope about for more meaning. In hindsight, I turned to Jonestown because it inherently contained many of the themes I wanted to address. At the time, I felt like I was getting punched in the stomach. I didn’t know what that feeling meant, but I knew I had to follow it. Religious belief, group imposition on the individual, dignity of the subjugated, sexual perversion, these themes resonated with me, and I knew I had to work with them.

At first the impact of working with these powerful subjects was plenty to keep me engaged. After a time however, I noticed diminishing returns, and became restless. There wasn’t any overt problem, but rather a lack: a lack of richness, a lack of clarity. The confidence and lushness that comes from personal experience was missing. I tried to make up for it by doing a ton of research, immersing myself in that world. In the end I realized there is only so much I could construct, so I moved on.

Now I have started making a diary comic about my life, in hopes of isolating and fixing in my memory the things that are meaningful to me. I use these comics as composition aids, conceptual tools and as art in themselves. Both the positive and negative space of my Jonestown project taught me. I’ve learned how to start isolating concepts that are meaningful to me, and received a powerful personal response on what type of input I can construct those concepts out of. When I paint, I’m still working with many of the themes from Jonestown, but now on my own terms.

(Nick Burgess can be reached at nathral02@gmail.com.)