, by Roz Morris

“I try to do what other people are not doing”: meeting artist Rory Björkman

Roz Morris and Rory Björkman talk about hidden meanings in art, and resisting overexplaining.

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It’s a suit of armour with Elizabethan sleeves and a neck ruff made of brass wire. Or is it an android? While you figure that out, and its historical period (Elizabethpunk?), the figure’s posture and expression are a further puzzle – why does this warrior look so worried? It seems to ask you to understand it, not send it into battle.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

Welcome to the imagination of Dublin-based 3D artist Rory Björkman.

“I always try to do what other people aren’t doing,” he says. “A lot of art now, especially in 3D, is weapons and war, or beasts with axes and scantily clad women. I’m trying to move 3D into a more contemplative space.”

Hence this piece: Sirens.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

Are they handmaidens? The stone floor suggests a corridor in a religious building, a quiet moment before a ceremony begins. And what are those curious pipes they’re wearing? Breathing apparatus, weapons, bicycle horns?

“They’re trumpets,” says Rory. “I wanted to make something with women and musical instruments. I was thinking about Greek and European mythology – the sirens who lure people with music.” He draws my attention to the picture in the backdrop. “ It’s like an antique painting, but if you look, there’s a flying dragon. It might or might not be this world. I try to keep things 70% relatable and ordinary, and sprinkle in surprising or surreal things so people think, what’s going on?”

Rory came to 3D while he was studying for a degree in contemporary art. He was making sculptures, costumes, sets for fashion shoots and other real-life objects, but his imagination outstripped his bank balance. “All my money was going on materials; it was crazy. Art is the most expensive degree you can do after being a doctor; especially sculpture.” Then one of the teachers suggested he make mockups in 3D. He found his groove.

“I really got into it. I could make whatever I wanted or could imagine, and it was also a viable career path.”

Now his hammers and chisels are Substance, Maya and ZBrush. “ZBrush for organic stuff, Maya for hard surfaces, environments and mechanical stuff. Substance Designer for patterns and fabrics, and Substance Painter for texture, colours, erosion and rust.”

He also does plenty of freelance work, including character design for Disney, Netflix, CBeeBies and Nickelodeon, also collaborations with fashion brands and photographers. But you’re unlikely to see it on his Artstation and Behance pages.

“I didn’t want my portfolio to be a CV,” he says. “That would pigeonhole me as looking for a certain type of work. The only thing I put out is my personal portfolio.” He chuckles. “It’s completely self-indulgent art. So that’s what I’m known for. And actually I get a lot of emails about jobs because of that.”

So here’s a guide to essential Rory. He builds creatures from armour, helmets and a whiff of outer space.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

He loves opulent fabrics. Here’s another view of the worrier android (actual title Royal Guard). Royal Guard has another Rory signature – an intriguing elongation of the limbs.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

You might think this next piece is a run-of-the-mill zombie pirate. But have you ever seen one so elegant? The bodice looks feminine. Buckled, pointed shoes. And look at the brass stripes on the bare skull – perhaps a bit sporty, perhaps the creature’s antique nervous system.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

Antiques definitely rock Rory’s boat. Here’s Jousting Car, with polished wood body, heraldic shields and a lance fixed along the side like an oar.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

“I have a tactile obsession with the past,” he says. “I look for mundane objects from everyday life from the past. The forgotten things in a drawer that have a story.” One of Rory’s Instagram boards is dedicated to the curiosities he finds in “junk shops full of beach balls and old telephones.”

“The other day I picked up a tiny bottle of watchmaker’s oil. It’s handmade and French, from the late 1900s. It’s half used, with a little cork and a beautiful label. I think of the place this bottle was, the man that used it, making watches, oiling up the cogs. it’s one of those things you never see in a museum, but it has meaning. I don’t think of these as material things; they’re little time capsules from the past. I’m trying to gather scraps and make my own museum. You collect the world you want to live in.”

He has a lively thirst for ideas. Our conversation hopscotches everywhere. He’s eager to make it a dialogue rather than an interview, and asks me as many questions as I ask him. How do I gather material for my novels? We discuss inspiration and ideas, then he says, apologetically, “I’m afraid I’m not much of a reader. I spend way too much time visualising every sentence. It takes me a month to read a page. The first book I read was The Iliad by Homer. I was very young. I didn’t necessarily comprehend it. But I remember the lines… the soldiers were issuing forth from the rocks like ants… reflecting shields in the sun… these images painted stories in my head. I loved it. I carried the book everywhere and would read sentences from it until I got to the end.” He adds: “I have a short attention span.”

I don’t call that a short attention span; I call it a supernova imagination.

Rory grew up in Dublin, where his father was a builder. Art burst out of him quite spontaneously, all the time. He would amuse himself on his dad’s building sites, making sculptures from offcuts of wood and metal.

“Some people are born certain ways,” he says. “I’m a visual person who likes to put shapes together. My mum was also artistic but she only realised in later life. After she retired she started doing art courses. She would have been really good. She wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t an option for her growing up.

“We didn’t have many things,” he says. “There were no computers. We had pens and paper; those were the toys. But that was fine. I had the curiosity to put stuff together. I remember at school there was a kid who had every colour of pen and pencil, but couldn’t do anything with them. I had a pencil and a scalpel and I challenged myself to do as much with them as possible. That’s a problem for me now with 3D – you can make any thing you can think of. There are no limitations. When I had less, I didn’t have so many options that they paralysed me. So I love constraints.”

He left school and took a few art courses, to see if he could turn his talent into a living. An opportunity came almost immediately when a tutor offered him a job as a graphic designer.

“That’s great I thought. That’s arty. But it is and it isn’t. I was doing design for magazines, logos for shops. But it was very limited because if you’re doing something for a corporation such as Coca-Cola, they have an exact font, an exact colour, an exact size it’s to be used at. Although I appreciate good typography and graphic design, my heart wasn’t in it.”

In his mid-20s, he decided to listen to his heart. He gave up his job and enrolled on an art degree.

“The course was contemporary art and sculpture with fine art media and print. I loved it. And actually, the course was anything but art. It was about the human condition. We had a visiting tutor who was a psychologist and drama teacher. She told us to go into a shop and stand there, not saying anything. I went into the butcher and stood. Really quickly the atmosphere got weird. The guy who was chopping the meat said, ‘you okay there?’ I was dying inside. I wanted to respond, to reassure people, but I wasn’t allowed to. The butcher started chopping the meat more aggressively. Another guy came in and said ‘what’s going on here?’ It was so awkward. But so interesting. We did another exercise where I stood in the middle of the street, my hands by my sides. People looked at me wondering, what’s going on? Then I put my hands in my pockets and everyone was fine. That one thing put everyone at ease.

“So the course wasn’t about beautiful paintings. It brought the mind into new places. They want you to put a glass on a plinth and call it ‘Father.’ Of course there is bad contemporary art, and it can be a mess. But good contemporary art is clever, and has a reason… maybe a good title that makes you think… and so it can be a relevant piece.”

But contemporary art wasn’t, ultimately, Rory’s destiny.

“It was so expensive to make what I wanted,” he says. “So I started 3D but kept it secret because the college didn’t like it.” With typical resourcefulness, he found a way to sneak his 3D experiments into his coursework. “I’d take screenshots of the UV map and it would look like a weird face, interesting and profound. And that’s what I’d submit for my coursework.”

However, he’s keen to point out that he doesn’t want to discredit the college. “I was loving the course, but I was more attracted to 3D. Then I got offered a job and I left. I regretted leaving, but I couldn’t turn the job down.”

While Rory’s own work might be more accessible than a glass called Father, he nevertheless likes to tease his audience to look deeper. For instance, his series of room paintings.

This one is Curiosity.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

At first glance it’s an eccentrically antique room. Then you notice the elongated robots, way out of scale to the humans. Look closer and the mystery tour begins. There’s a skeleton of an angel in a jar on a shelf. A helmet which, you notice, doesn’t look like it fits a human.

Here’s another room painting – Tales from the Deep Large.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

“I think that’s what people like about these pieces,” says Rory. “They keep finding new things that make them wonder. They write to me about them. They feel like they’re part of the secret. I always resist overexplaining.”

One of my own favourites is this – From Above Hailed The Star King. I can imagine Hans Holbein painting it for Hampton Court Palace.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

Rory explains how the picture evolved. He began with the idea of an AI creature from another world, which people worshipped. Early versions included the crowds kneeling at its feet. Then he tried the star king on its own and liked it better. “I realised it was too literal with the worshippers so I did the figure on his own.”

One of Rory’s trademarks is reimagined proportions. Creatures might be inhumanly tall. They might have the body structures of other species – such as this piece, Rook. The name suggests a bird, but there’s also a dash of primate.

Artwork by Rory Björkman

And isn’t that costume divine? I can see that on the catwalk. Goblin fantasy haute couture.

He tells me he gets quite a lot of offers in fashion. He’s currently discussing a collaboration with the fashion photographer Nick Knight.

He also sees a lot of potential in games. “I think they’re an underused platform. They could be used to a much greater extent for telling stories instead of shoot-up adventures. Games could tell great stories but you don’t see much of that.’

Might games be a next step for him? They might. I’m not the first person to ask this.

“People have written and told me they’d like to see my work in a game or a movie. So I’m building a world, and studying how to write stories for it.” Once again, the interview format is derailed as he asks me how I structure a story. He has such a deep love of creative process.

I ask how he gets his work known. His portfolios on Behance, ArtStation and Instagram are obviously bringing him exciting pitches. Does he have any advice for artists?

“What should you put in your portfolio? It depends what you want to do. If you’re seeking particular kinds of work – tricky textures, or stylised stuff, or cartoons – your portfolio can demonstrate your technical range. But having work that looks original can get you further than a technical portfolio because it catches people’s attention. So I’d say use your imagination. I remember when I was learning 3D and didn’t have a clue, I’d see a tutorial about how to texture a fire hydrant… and in everyone’s portfolio I’d see fire hydrants. But I thought, why not make an interesting shape with the same tutorial and texture that? Then I’d have something unique in my portfolio. A lot of the time I see people with better technical ability than me but they’re not using their imagination. That’s great for some jobs but in others you need more initiative. Try to do something different… Like the Sirens who have trumpets rather than swords. If they had swords that piece would not be as interesting.”

Here I glimpse a deeper message in Rory’s work. There’s more to the Sirens than a desire to be original. He agrees. “That’s part of my art – no war or weapons. Even though it’s only 3D stuff. I’m trying to build a positive culture with my art.”

“But the internet is your best critic. Remember the attention span for visual art is about 3 seconds or less. I spend a month making a piece. Someone sees it, clicks Like and moves on. So I try to make something with visual impact that can be reacted to within a few seconds. Then there’s more if they want to look closer – at bottle labels and things on shelves.”

But all artists know that inspiration and originality don’t come to order. What does he do to kick-start a blank mind?

“I put a big mark on the page. And then the perfect paper’s marked, destroyed. I can work with it. Another thing I do is give myself a limitation. Sometimes you get great things if you’re told ‘make that toothbrush into a spaceship.’ It’s a terrible shape but when you use your imagination you find that bristles can be like an engine. And you wouldn’t have thought of that otherwise.”

I ask where he’s taking his skills next. The short answer: he’s grabbing the new, looking for more ways to be original.

“I’d like to diversify my tool set to create more versatile shapes and forms. Like I said with the tutorials, if everyone’s using the same software or sources, the work ends up looking like the same. You can immediately tell how it was made. Before computers, I used to scribble randomly, then pull a drawing out of it. Now I do that in 3D – make noise, with lots of shapes, then try to extract the form. You get interesting accidents and then you repair them.”

Here our conversation takes another unexpected swerve. He suddenly says: “This might be creepy. I hope you won’t think it’s weird.” He reaches to a shelf and brings back a human skull.

“It’s ethically sourced,” he says. “When I was in art college, the mother of one of the students was an art teacher. They had this skull in the school. It was covered in drawings and people’s names. I bought it, because it wasn’t being respected.”

He holds the skull up so that its eyes are level with his own.

“Somebody’s dreams happened in there. This person grew, fell in love, had hopes. I don’t know who it was, I have no idea, but I respect all that. I took it to my doctor to see if she could tell me anything about it. She told me it was a young woman in her 20s, who probably died in the 1950s. She probably died of some kind of disease because the skull is perfect, no trauma to the head.”

He pauses. “Do you know much about AI art? AI art is so strange. It’s like a computer is trying to figure out life. I’ve used it for concepting. I put my own art in and it gives me back distorted interpretations. I’ve put in pictures of flowers and then a toaster, and the AI tries to mix them, then I use that for making dresses and fabrics. And it’s getting better. I think I might be one of the last generations of artists because of the speed at which AI is moving into the art space.”

The skull remains in his hands, now part of our conversation, as we speculate how machines might invent our next dreams, both in prose and visual art. The Zoom bot interrupts, warning us we’ll soon be out of time. The machines are already running us.

In the meantime, you can follow Rory’s evolving portfolio on Behance and Artstation, and visit his museum of lost curiosities on Instagram.

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