Alex, Nick and Charles Bierk (left to right) are painters. Jeff Bierk (far right) is a photographer. They share a studio space and an affinity for portraiture. We interviewed them at the same time and Pupcake, the dog, chimed in too.
CHARLES: Al and I are morning people. We get in here pretty early. I like getting here early because there’s no one else here. By the time Nick gets here, for the most part, it’s when I’m going home or wrapping up. I find my productivity level is way higher when no one else is here.
ALEX: I do this full-time so I treat it like a 9-5 job. I tried for a long time to work sporadically, sleeping in and working late but it just didn’t work for me. I have to have a regimen. Char and I paint with a grid so it’s very tedious the way that we work. We’re not these romantic ideas of an artist, splattering paint and stuff like that. It’s very tedious so I guess it would fit that our schedules are tedious as well. Nick’s not so tight.
NICK: I use the grid but I’m not committed to it.
CHARLES: The grid method is something that our Dad [David Bierk] taught us all. It’s a technique, a tool, a code to follow.
ALEX: We break the source image down square by square and focus on one piece at a time.
NICK: You can take anything and break it down into small, abstract, workable shapes. Instead of trying to comprehend this whole image at once, you’re looking at a part which is doable.
CHARLES: Which turns a realistic image into tiny little abstract paintings.
ALEX: It’s a way for me, I’m a maniac, to focus and not get lost. If I was trying to wing it, without the grid, it would just be a mess.
NICK: It’s something that we all use but it doesn’t define our work.
CHARLES: It was a huge part of my dad’s practise. Other kids grow up with parents doing sales or insurance. Our dad was an artist. He made sure he taught us how to do it. That’s what he had and that’s what he gave us.
JEFF: My dad wanted us to learn the simplest way of doing things before complicating them. He wanted Al to paint black and white portraits before he attempted colour. I used to get frustrated because I was into skateboarding and taking these skateboarding photos with long exposures and flashes to get trails. He used to get so mad and say, “Learn the basics before you do anything else,” but I fought that.
ALEX: My dad was kind of an animal in the way that he worked and he wanted us to be a part of that so we were always hanging around his studio. In retrospect, it was a way for him to keep working and still have us around. He literally left at 6 in the morning, came back at 6pm and went to bed at 9.
CHARLES: Seven days a week. It’s something I would like to do one day but I can’t right now. I don’t have it in me right now but potentially I’d like to get to that point. After 6 hours of painting, I’m done. I can’t force myself to get back in front of the painting. That’s it–and it’s hell if I get back and try and force it out. I have to go home and recharge the batteries for the next day.
ALEX: I think what I learned most from my dad was the amount of hard work that goes into art. When people think about an artist in their head, they have this idea of someone smoking pot and throwing around paint. I’m not working on five paintings at once. I’m working on one painting for a month. The same image, for a month. Eight hours a day.
ALEX: Not to get too serious, but our parents passed away and we lost the family home we grew up in. Sharing a studio is actually a nice way for us to stay together. We’re all so busy and bad at keeping in touch so this forces us to see each other and have a relationship.
NICK: There’s also a certain level of constructive competition. When you see someone in here working all day, it makes you want to stay later, which is a good thing. I think we feed off each other, work-wise.
ALEX: There’s lot of studio visits, which is great because we all benefit. If Charlie has a collector or someone from the gallery coming by, they can see all of our work.
CHARLES: Studio visits keep your place clean. Without people coming in here…This place would be disgusting if no one came here besides us.
NICK: There’s times when I come and not work and hang out and look at things. Sometimes the work isn’t going that well and you just have to stop and chill and think about it and listen to the radio.
CHARLES: That’s one of my favourite things about working in the studio. I have time to listen to music, the radio, podcasts.
ALEX: When I listen to music, I’m not looking for inspiration on how to paint this one square. It’s really to get me through the day of painting this small image.
CHARLES: It’s like being a runner. When a certain song comes on, it can give you that boost of energy.
NICK: I find, as an artist, especially the way that we work, you’re in your own head a lot–even if you are listening to music. Sometimes there’s a Zen moment when you’re outside of your head and your body’s just doing things. It’s the best part about painting–being outside of your head and things are happening and you step back and you’re like, ‘Oh shit–I just lost that sweet moment.’
–Alex, Jeff, Nick & Charlie Bierk, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by D.A. Cooper