"What I'm doing now is watching paint dry," said Ryan Birkland. The artist, dressed in several layers of paint-splattered clothes, makes his studio home in an unheated 126 year old NW Portland grocery store. His technique of reverse painting on glass necessitates a lot of waiting for paint to dry. Instead of the usual way of constructing a painting - going from background vagueness to detail - since he paints on the back of the glass, he must start with detail and work his way out. It is not a forgiving process. But Ryan has the focus, discipline and drive to paint in reverse, and to do it beautifully. When viewers look through the glass at the completed paintings, they see exceptionally bright color and dynamic movement. Even his still lifes seem to explode through the glass.
Ryan grew up in Portland and attended Wilson High School in Hillsdale, where he enjoyed drawing and ceramics. After graduation, he joined the Marine Corps. The Marines "straightened me out," he said. Ryan served as a radio operator in Kosovo during peacekeeping missions. He really lucked out, he said, and never had to participate in combat.
"Being creative is kind of stifled in the military," he said. But he did a lot of reading and drawing, mostly faces and figures from his imagination.
After four years of active duty, Ryan was ready to pursue his art. "I really dove into painting when I got out," he said. He also wanted more education. He considered studying art, but settled instead on business. The GI Bill covered general ed courses at PCC and PSU, then a last year and a half at George Fox University to finish his degree.
He learned little in business courses, because he had already developed the fundamentals of his financial approach. "I never really had any money so I've always saved my money," he said. "I don't borrow. I don't spend what I don't have. That's important for artists." This business major's advice to aspiring artists is similarly to the point: "Get a job. Save your money. Don't go out and party."
Ryan disputes an elitist mindset that says artists must use proper materials. He uses spray paint, recycled house paint from Metro, and old single pane windows. "With my art," he said, "one of the main things I'm thinking is I don't want to produce more garbage." If he needs to buy the special vibrant colors he uses, he shops at locally-owned Art Media.
For extra large commissioned pieces - where glass would be too heavy -- he'll paint on canvas. That is, drop cloths and salvaged 2x4s for stretchers. When I expressed amazement and asked if he'd use a regular old drop cloth from Harbor Freight for a big commission, he nodded. "In the art world, it's known as canvas," he said. "In the real world, it's known as a drop cloth. Or a sail."
Ryan has been out of the Marines for a decade now, and has spent ten years in intense painting practice. He calls his subject matter "pretty random," but he seems to paint a lot of figures and koi fish. And, as it's been pointed out to him before, he paints a lot of flowers for an ex-Marine. But he seems quite comfortable with himself, his life and his paintings. "I try not to question what I paint too much," he said.
The Marine discipline still lingers. Ryan is usually in his studio six days a week, painting from seven AM through most of the day. He encourages visitors to drop by and see his work.
Visit Ryan and check out his art at Gallery Nineteen, 1339 NW 19th (corner of Pettygrove), and at the UAN Street Gallery on First Thursdays. At press time, he had shows hanging at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bridgeport Brewery, and the OHSU Student Center. For more information, call Ryan at 503-318-6920.
Visit Ryan's Profile Page where you can read his Artist's Statement,
view more images and find a link to his website.