By THERESA WINSLOW
The Capital of Annapolis
STEVENSVILLE, Md. (AP) — When you paint with fire, you don’t sign your work with a pen or a brush. Hell, no. You heat a branding iron until it glows, press it hard into wood and admire the sizzle and smoke.
Walker Babington just got the branding iron, which bears his initials. Before that, he didn’t feel comfortable signing his art work at all.
That may sound strange, but Babington basks in the unconventional. Consider the tools he uses to make his art: blow torches, a flame thrower, a metal grinder, an ice pick, old forks and knives, and melted crayons.
His “canvases” are just as unique. Babington uses scrap pieces of wood, discarded doors, and cast-off metal parts from an array of items, including his old Chevy Suburban.
He burns, rusts and scratches these surfaces to make portraits and pictures. “Anything that will rust, I’ll rust; anything that will burn, I’ll burn,” said the handlebar-mustachioed Babington.
He even spits wine onto paper for yet another series of portraits.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone like him in Annapolis,” said local gallery owner Katherine Burke. “I’m not sure there’s anyone on the planet like him.”
The 26-year-old, who grew up in Severna Park and currently splits time between Stevensville and Annapolis, wants it that way.
Over the years, he’s worked as hard at cultivating a counter-culture persona as he has at his art. “I’m a showman,” he said.
Take a recent event called the Edwardian Ball on Gallery Row in Annapolis. Babington used a flame thrower to create a giant portrait of a Western gunslinger on wood panels as people watched on West Street.
Or take this fall’s Annapolis Fringe Festival, where Babington did some spitting to portray various women.
He’s also wound his way into portraits of local luminaries such as William Paca and Charles Carroll. They were on display at Burke’s Annapolis Collection Gallery during the festival and will be shown again in March as part of an exhibit at the Lowe House Office Building.
“The first time I saw his art work, I was curious,” said Brian Cahalan, owner of 49 West, where Babington has had a couple exhibits and waits tables part-time. “He explained it and I was blown away. I can’t wait to book him for another show.”
The problem is that Babington might not be around. He tends to move around a lot. Over the past few years, he’s lived in art collective in San Francisco and sold his work by the roadside in Costa Rica. He put himself through stunt school in California and hopes to land more work in that field soon.
Ultimately, he’s like to have a show at a large New York gallery and combine stunt work and art. When he showed how he burns into wood with a blow torch last week, it looked like he was well on his way, contorting himself into a variety of positions.
“I love the smell,” he said. “It helps me to get me in the zone.”
When the muse hits him, Babington might work for several days at a time without eating or sleeping.
“He thinks outside the box and it’s so refreshing for Annapolis to have that,” said local photographer Alison Harbaugh.
Full contact art
Babington studied photography in college, but left just short of his degree.
He’d always made sculptures out of junk, so when he set out to be a full-time artist, he sought a way to combine the aesthetic he studied in school with his fondness for trash.
“I see a shiny object, and I lose track of what I’m doing and go get it,” he said.
At first, he tried to connect the subject of his work with the medium he used. A picture of a skateboarder was fashioned on a skateboard, for example.
He’s expanded his vision since, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is planning. Although it looks spontaneous when Babington’s burning something, he’s already carefully outlined the piece. He works backward, first finding a piece of wood to work on and then envisioning what might fit on it.
“It’s cool and unique but it’s pretty simple,” he said.
Fans beg to differ, referencing the clever ways he manipulates materials.
For example, after he grinds away some of the paint from metal, he wets it with water, bleach, or even his own urine and leaves it in the sun to rust. The patches of rust form the picture.
Cahalan said he was most impressed by a piece Babington made from mold-resistant drywall. The artist scraped away different layers to create a picture of a woman in blues, browns and whites.
“He’s going to be big,” Cahalan said.
At night, Babington said he dreams about movie stunts. During the day, he thinks about different twists on his art. Although it’s hard for him to categorize himself, he recognizes there’s a “pop-arty” quality to his work. He said it draws on the style of Andy Warhol, with a bit of artist Chris Burden thrown in.
Some of Babington’s small pieces go for under $100. The most expensive work he’s ever done went for $2,700.
“My mind is constantly looking for a new and different way of doing anything and everything,” said Babington, who currently splits time between art, the coffee shop and work designing interior walls for a clothing chain. “I never, ever take the direct route.”
Not that he doesn’t have fun.
As he spoke, he played with a plastic clown nose he pulled from his pocket. Sometimes, he’ll grab a broken umbrella and walk through town in a rainstorm just to get people’s reaction as he gets drenched.
“It’s all about the spectacle,” he said. “When I told my friends I was going to stunt school, they pretty much were like, ‘I can’t believe you haven’t done this yet. You’re going to get paid to be you, huh?'”
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)