The experience of interviewing Anthony Burrill
Nothing comes from nowhere. I have heard my grandfather say these words all my life. He had a strong influence on me and this message, though simple is intense. This statement is also used by British graphic artist, print maker and designer Anthony Burrill, which motivated me to try and get an interview with him.
I started asking where does the statement came from?
Anthony: I was listening to an interview with Richard Rogers (the British architect), and it was within one of his sentences: “nothing comes from nowhere. I liked the phrase; the words nothing and nowhere and the nothingness, emptiness they both have, just as an idea. Then, thinking is like everything we experience in our lives, the way we experience children growing up and all that has a relevant impact on our lives, our value system, the way we live. It is about ideas bringing from other ideas. Nothing comes from a vacuum; it doesn’t just appear.
“All my work is about simplifying (…) just have enough visual information to communicate. It’s all about that” A.B.
Researching more about his work I felt the responsibility of talking with an artist whose work is at the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and has already been exhibited in places such as the Barbican art gallery, one of the cultural centres of London that I admire the most.
With the generous help of a close friend who had worked with Anthony before, I was able to ask for an interview, and this sent a chill down my spine. While I was waiting for an answer, I explored his book “ Make It Now : a life-affirming guide to new thinking, creative problem-solving and getting things done”. Published in 2017 by Virgin Books (part of the Penguin Random House group) this is the second time he uses the book to explore his work.
How was the process of making the book?
Anthony:“The book project became very useful to look back to my work and think about what I was doing. It is a really good markup for my career. I started 25 years ago, and I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. I am not saying with the book ‘this is who you should be or do this thing’, I am just saying this is how I did things, this is what worked for me. It’s just saying, get on with things and just make them happen.”
In Make it Now you wrote some lists with your personal inspirations. Would you talk more about Self Publishing and Letterpress?
Anthony: When I left college in the 1990’s, it was pre-internet, so there was no way of publishing your work and putting it out there (apart from meeting people). So I started making postcards as a self-promotion thing, and I started sending them to people, and then I sell them in bookshops like the RCA and some art bookshops. It was almost like my own publishing business. I understand nowadays seeing people’s work on Instagram is a whole thing, but being able to see the real thing, is another experience.”
Anthony: It’s just the beauty of Letterpress and the physical nature of type. It feels real. When you start setting up the type in a blank table, and you can see the letters and you place them down, the words will become concrete, they will become a real physical thing. Then you set all the type, and you print it, your ideas become physical. It is a transformation, and you can give it to somebody that has never met you, knows anything about you, will see your idea. It is the same about the creative process: the idea that is in somebody’s head, suddenly is content in someone’s hand.”
As you may have noticed, we met. In fact it turned out better then I was expecting. I was prepared to send Anthony Burrill some questions via email and then he invited me for a coffee at Tate Britain. We also shared a piece of chocolate brownie while talking through his work.
Words as Images
Anthony: Having that simple, strong message with the typography I use, it’s like being an artist. The kind of typography I use was initially developed in the 20th century for advertising in posters, and it has a visual impact. I’m drawn to that because it has a human feel, the texture of the type, it’s handmade. I definitely want to make it feel and communicate like art. I use lots of references from pop-art and art from the 60’s and 70’s. The kinds of stuff I was interested in as a student (…) artists that use words and typography like Jasper Johns and people that use words as art.
Work Hard and Be Nice to People: is your most famous printing sometimes misinterpreted?
Anthony: I can see why some people would think it was just an anti-meaning statement. The works are always filtered by someone’s prejudices. I am as guilty as anybody else. There is not much you can do. I started printing that in 2004 and it came at a time when a work like that hadn’t been done before in that kind of context, whereas now if you go to any gift and card shop you will see things like ‘love your life’ – ‘believe in you’.
I believe it can be the idea of authenticity and the ways authenticity can be used as a marketing tool. I supposed ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People’ has been adopted in the advertisement world. I think as soon as you start looking deeper and try to see where that comes from you will see it is meant a much bigger thing.
You cannot do something that everyone will ignore. It has to reach people (…) any work that aims to connect links to those healing truths and all the desires we all share. We are just people. You need to ask questions: why do you do things in a certain way? Why do you expect things to change if you are not willing to make things happen?
All the self-help idea that we automatically resist because is just “cheesy” (…) within all that stuff there are lessons to learn, and I think it comes with experience and wisdom. The ideas of clichés, they are clichés for a reason, actually – looking for the sunset, is one of the most cliché things in the world but still beautiful. It’s something we all respond to when you can see the kind of beauty in something like that is just gorgeous, and it’s a massive cliché, but still, worth it.
I can tell the meeting and ending point with Anthony was super cliche as well: the bookshop. Anthony showed me a giant book by british artist David Hockney, one of his favourite references not hesitating to ask: ‘if you want to give me a gift, I would love it to be this book’ priced at £1.750,00.
We laughed. Coincidently we have the same initials A. B. as he graciously pointed out when signing his book for me. It became hilarious when I confessed I have a middle name and he replied: “me too!”
But let’s not destroy the story and stop here.
Anthony is currently working on a mural. The commissioned work is for the city of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA) and will be his largest work so far. As you read this blog post Anthony’s new book is being announced, and other book projects should pop up soon.
I reckon the best place to meet Anthony xxx Burrill from now on is in the bookshop 😉
PS: To my surprise, a few years ago Anthony hosted a Letterpress workshop at LCC, and the interview became a conversation between two people interested in the same practices. When I commented on my own interest in craft activities and all the possibilities of making things that exist in the University, he added:
Anthony: It reminds of what an art school is about rather than going to a place with just laptops, it’s just boring!