Edward A. Burke Interviews Edward A. Butler

eab: I think the primary thing people are interested in is the source of your art, in other words, where do the pictures come from?
EAB: I don't actually like to talk about art.
eab: But you're a painter.  Who else could be better suited to give us some insight into the creative process, particularly as it applies to you?
EAB: I don't have any insight into the process.
eab: You’re telling me that after having spent your life painting pictures you don't understand the process?
EAB: Yes.
eab: Then how do you paint what you paint?
EAB: I don't know. Pictures come into my head and I paint them.
eab: What does that mean?
EAB: That means I think pictures and I paint them. I try to paint as many as I can but most get away. There are too many to paint them all. It's not a conscious process. The pictures are there. They've always been there. I can't explain it anymore than I can tell you how I make my arm move when I want it to. It does, it always has. I don't know about the process.
eab: So there seems to be some contradiction here. Many of your paintings have a person in them—a particular person. If you're just grabbing these images from a moving show inside your head then how do these specific people get there? Do you know and catalog so many people that your interior picture show is populated by these individuals?
EAB: I like to paint people. Faces are fascinating. But the paintings are not about the people. They are not portraits in the strictest sense. I add the specific person but that's incidental. The specific people are really interchangeable. I just enjoy painting different people. But they are simply the star of that particular painting as I saw it. The face doesn't make the painting what it is.
eab: So do you consider these to be portraits?
EAB: I don't know.
eab: People are interested in the process. They want to know what it is you're saying.
EAB: I paint, I don't say. Writers say. You look at my stuff, you don't listen to it. You don't read it.  I like to think that people may have some emotional or intellectual response to my work. I just don't feel it's up to me to tell them what that should be.
eab: Do you have a message?
EAB: No, but I believe I have a purpose. You don't need one to have the other.  If you stand a bunch of people on a hillside and let them look down on a valley. They don't need guidance for their thoughts. Each is going to have his own. Yes, I'd like to evoke something in them. But only because what they see is beautiful, only because what they see is interesting. I do my part. I paint the picture and hang it on the wall. The rest I'd like everyone to bring with them.
eab: After the people, your work took a new direction.  Was there an event or a moment that pushed you in this new direction?
EAB: No.  They are not so different, really. When I was painting people, they were all in an environment. If you look at my first still life paintings, you'll see it is not much of a leap to expand the picture to the point where you could have a figure standing there. Step back, add a figure, and it looks very familiar.
eab: Would you say you have narrowed your focus?
EAB: I would say I have intensified my focus, not narrowed it.  I am looking at a much smaller area and, therefore, can examine things more closely. It's a close-up, more concentrated.
eab: Do you approach them any differently than you did the paintings that had people in them?
EAB: No, it is all painting.  All of the elements are the same: color, form, light, shadow, depth.
eab: If it's all the same, then why the change?
EAB: I am not a painter who has an artistic theory or intellectual point of view to explore. I think pictures and then I paint them. Some things interest me, others don't.  When I was young I met a guy who was a jazz musician and we became friends. Back then my paintings were abstract color compositions, fast and flowing. I reacted to one brush stroke with another, just working the painting until it was finished. His music was the same, sound upon sound. Over time, simple figures and images began to appear in my paintings and almost simultaneously bits of melody began to emerge in his music. By the time my painting evolved to what you see now, he was playing melodic music. We never collaborated. We were just in sync at some level. He always told me he played the music he heard in his head. He said he only played an instrument for others to hear because for himself, he could simply close his eyes and hear it all. It is the same way for me and pictures.

I can't identify what process is at work. Something makes the pictures happen, but I don't know what that is. Why was it that for my friend guitar music was the vehicle and for me oil paint and pictures?  That's the real process, the only one actually worth pondering.
eab: Your cloth paintings are quite a departure.
EAB: In a way, yes. Ultimately, no. They are relatively simple in their big sweeping shapes yet at the same time incredibly complex in their wrinkles, folds and textures. Painting a piece of cloth in detail is like painting an extreme close-up of a face, a close-up that includes every hair and every pore. Unlike a face, the cloth only appears once the way you see it in the painting. Touch it and it is different and you can never get it back again the same way.
eab: Changing the topic for a moment, I understand you are also an aerobatic pilot.  Can you tell me why flying holds such appeal for you?
EAB: There are many reasons why I love to fly, the things you see, the feel and the challenge of it.  It is such a complete break from painting. Nothing I am working on in this studio will be finished until later. Flying is immediate, real time. It puts you right in the moment. My airplane demands total concentration to fly it well and be safe. I can't think about painting when I'm flying.
eab: Some people say aerobatic flying is an art form.
EAB: Yes, I've heard that, too, but for me the big difference is there are real consequences in an airplane. In my studio, painting is whatever I say it is, but in my airplane I can try what I want but I am always accountable to the laws of physics. My airplane is always the same. I may try different things in my plane from day to day, wind and weather will vary, but the airplane doesn't change. It will perform within its design limits, period. As the pilot, it is up to me to recognize and operate within those limits. In the studio there are no limits.