My mom didn’t want me to have paints because she knew I’d just make a mess,” laughs artist Eric Gillyard, standing in his studio — actually, the dining room of a Tudor-style Avondale home. “So I guess you could say I was originally more of an illustrator.”
A Jacksonville native, the heavily tattooed 37-year-old Gillyard lives in a house on a quiet cul-de-sac that he shares with his “other half,” Kelly, and the couple’s six-month-old daughter. The domestic setup is more of a house-sitting deal, but the three have made the arrangement work.
“Fortunately, I love working at my house,” he says, rearranging stacks of framed and unframed pieces of his phantasmagoric work. “If I think about going to a studio, I’m thinking about going to work, you know?”
Not that Gillyard lacks a work ethic. In addition to a full time job and family obligations, he’s preparing for his second show with fellow artist Crystal Floyd, “Dark Nature,” set to open at CoRK Arts District on June 9. Gillyard’s creative roots are, in fact, based more in his family’s blue-collar background than any academic training. His father was an old-school billboard painter who worked for companies like Nagle; his grandmother once painted murals for churches in St. Petersburg. A self-professed skate rat, Gillyard attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in the early ’90s, and he says his artistic sensibility is “strongly rooted” in the ideas he first encountered in the world of skate art.
His collages are both surreal and familiar, fusing everything from wild animals, ’50s Americana and oblivious children into panoramas over mountainous vistas and other recognizable tableaux. He also creates assemblages that lean toward the world of arcane curios, with dioramas populated by mossy creatures trapped under glass domes, seemingly intent on escape. Taken together, his work is a compelling commentary on innocence, nature, disintegration and the blunt arc of biology.
Roughly three years after graduating from DASoTA, Gillyard was offered a partial scholarship to Atlanta College of Art. His formal education, however, was short and sweet: “I went to the school for a total of three days,” before balking at the $7,000 per-semester cost. “I was sitting at the school cafeteria and remember thinking ‘Jesus, this is a lot of money!’ If I was going to school to be a doctor, I could justify going into that kind of debt. But I really couldn’t rationalize doing that for something I was going to do whether or not I was sitting in a classroom — which was to make art.”
Having put off until the last possible moment signing up for school loans, Gillyard chose to forgo them altogether. “I had kind of had this realization that it was an incredibly bad decision to stay and take on that much debt,” he says. “So I left.”
Though he walked away from art school, Gillyard ultimately spent a decade in the Atlanta area, honing his artistic vision while working day jobs. He also played drums with the post-punk band African Greys, a moderately successful outfit that performed in clubs like the Echo Lounge and Drunken Unicorn, and he was eventually featured on compilations with bands like Health, Channels 3×4 and Mika Miko.
Gillyard’s identification with the underground music scene is as much a part of his DIY style as his economical use of materials. It’s also tacit inspiration. When asked about the influences of other collage artists, Gillyard is noncommittal. In the early 20th century, Max Ernst created the legendary collage anarchy of 1934’s “Une Semaine de Bonté” (translated as “A Week of Kindness”), 182 meticulously juxtaposed images, like Victorian-era women being courted by weird devils or menacing Bosch-like beasts. Fifty years later, artist Winston Smith pushed the flier art of the hardcore punk rock scene into aggressive cut-and-paste visual assaults, such as his iconic “Dollar Christ” cover for the Dead Kennedys’ album, “In God We Trust, Inc.”
But Gillyard cites as closer inspiration bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh for his own homemade and organically DIY vibe and vision. “You know those early [Dinosaur/Sebadoh member] Lou Barlow ‘Sentridoh’ tapes? There is so much magic there. I try to make art with that kind of integrity and rawness.”
That hissed-out free-for-all of the early ’90s lo-fi music scene, combined his experiences in the slam pits of Atlanta, ultimately gave Gillyard the confidence to push forward with his own ideas of art. Curiously, while in Georgia, he worked primarily in creating three-dimensional assemblages, essentially making stacked collages that eventually were redirected toward a flat surface. Ever the pragmatist, his decision was based on the blunt realities faced by most artists. “I’d be renting these places that didn’t have A/C or heat and were basically one room. So I realized that I just didn’t have space for all of these works that were kind of based on physicality and taking up even more space.”
Today, Gillyard is meticulous about his work, culling images from old ’50s and ’60s periodicals and then carefully transporting them by hand into dreamy, occult-damaged dreamscapes. “I try to stay true to raw materials,” he explains, pointing to stacks of works-in-progress and a worktable covered in X-Acto knives, rulers and the ever-present jar of latex adhesive. Gillyard’s self-discipline is tested with hours spent cutting, examining and endlessly rearranging pieces into a finely honed visual edit — an attempt at capturing his dreams inside antique picture frames.
“I have to wear glasses when I work,” he laughs, “because at some point into hours of doing this, everything just blurs.”
One time, Gillyard tried to use the digital copying technology that helps many artists translate visions into a two-dimensional surface, but the effect wasn’t the same. “I’ve tried to reproduce them and it doesn’t work.”
Besides, Gillyard says, finding an easier way to accomplish the effect isn’t exactly the point. The act of creation is often as much about the “quest” for source images as the final product.
Eric Gillyard returned to Northeast Florida six years ago and began working a series of day jobs like waiting tables, eventually becoming a manager at Avondale’s popular eatery The Fox Restaurant, where he still works. Upon returning to Jacksonville, he committed to his decision to focus more on collages rather than bulky assemblages, becoming increasingly prolific with each razor cut and paste-up. A cursory glance at his dining-room-turned-visual-laboratory showcases works that are imbued with fantastic fables of the impossible now revealed, carefully rendered scenarios that, until only recently, were secret worlds only Gillyard could access. “I want to create a narrative that’s questionable. It’s not a fixed thing.”
That deliberate ambiguity is enhanced by Gillyard’s decision to use mostly old painting reproductions of natural landscapes for his backgrounds. The viewer is initially disarmed by the familiar scenery — idyllic forests, austere mountain ranges — then forced to interact with the at-times aggressively surreal tone of what’s happening in the foreground. In one piece, a young girl in a gingham dress stands on a bed that has begun combusting into flame. In another, a blackbird dive-bombs a girl wreathed in black tentacles and wearing an owl mask over her face. In one particularly resonant piece, a nuclear age-era man and woman are merged into a single chimerical figure, their conjoined form bending at the hips as they both smile happily at small winged creatures.
Some of Gillyard’s art is infused with personal motifs, such as the tribute to a then-pregnant Kelly, “Fruitful Love,” a piece replete with fertility signifiers like children and the Tree of Life. But his mastery comes in finding a way to make his work seem sensible, as if the otherwise random figures seem to have always existed in this bizarre agreement.
“I’m constantly thinking of images. I will be driving to work and by the time I get there, I’ve somehow rearranged half of what I saw on the way there into some weird composition,” he laughs. Folio Weekly readers may be most familiar with Gillyard’s work in two covers he designed, both Bite By Bite issues from (Aug. 10, 2010 and March 22, 2011).
The show “Dark Nature” at CoRK Arts District features recent work by Gillyard and Crystal Floyd, his co-conspirator of the esoteric and organically strange. The show aims to shed light on Gillyard’s and Floyd’s shared beliefs about the role that the natural word has in our lives, and the darkness that sometimes lingers around the edges of being.
Gillyard is quick to acknowledge that “Dark Nature” is undeniably the brainchild of Floyd, who pushed Gillyard to join forces with her for the upcoming show.
“Our imagery just really compliments each other,” he says of Floyd, whose work navigates the same beautifully morbid realms that Gillyard seems to inhabit.
“I had originally seen Eric’s work at a show in St. Augustine,” Floyd tells Folio Weekly, “and I asked him, ‘How in the hell do you live here and I have never seen your work?’ ”
Gillyard and Floyd were featured together in a show at Vault Gallery in July 2011, and more than one person at the opening reception asked the pair why they’d never worked together, especially since they both seemed to be enchanted with similar visual narratives. After Floyd secured a studio space last August at CoRK, she decided to reserve a month-long slot to feature a show in the vast Riverside artists’ co-op space.
“Dark Nature” will feature roughly 20 pieces by each artist ranging from collages to assemblages, each work riffing on transformation, degeneration and loss. “I see all of my work as these personal shrines to nature,” says Floyd, describing her pieces as seeming to address recurring themes about the cycles of decay. Gillyard feels an affinity with Floyd, calling her a “kindred spirit,” yet feels like his work brings a “dream factor” to the exhibit. Indeed, Eric Gillyard’s pieces defy reality, like snapshots taken in some parallel universe.
“When I was going to Douglas Anderson, one of my teachers was Gretchen Ebersol, and something she just ingrained in me was the concept of balance, unity, rhythm and proportion,” says Gillyard, reciting a mantra he admits to using in his former life as rock drummer and his current gig as artist/dad. “It’s funny how I still fall back on these really old ideas that still seem to work.”
The opening reception for the exhibit “Dark Nature: Eric Gillyard and Crystal Floyd” is held on Saturday, June 9 from 6-10 p.m. at CoRK Arts District, 2689 Rosselle St., Jacksonville. Orsay and Bold City Brewery provide food and drink. darknatureartshow.tumblr.c