Interview Gregory George Moore Images Gregory George Moore & Christopher Myott
Christopher Myott is a professional artist & furniture maker from the pastoral town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire with a penchant for petrol, motorcycles, and rust. We like to think his style is what would happen if you took Warhol-esque pop art, had it produced by Maytag in the 1960s, doused it in gasoline & tinted wax, and then left it to decay in woods of New England during peak foliage. At once bucolic, severe, vibrant, & stark, Chris truly captures the art of the motorcycle. Lucky for us, he’s only about a half of a tank of gas away. We had the pleasure of hanging out with him in his workshop/studio and he allowed us to peer into the window of his life, work & passion.
As a professional artisan, how do you work? What is your method?
I try to just let inspiration come to me, and when it does, I act on it. If you try to force it, you end up making work that feels contrived. I feel like it's important to have a routine, though, so if I’m not feeling inspired to paint, I build stuff. It's not very often that I have a complete lack of ideas, so I’m almost always doing something, especially since my shop is attached to my house. My livelihood depends on my ability to stay the course and consistently produce.
What is your background?
In college, I studied studio art and have a minor in education. Not long after graduating with a bachelor's degree, I decided there was no way I could be a teacher, so I decided to just focus on creating. My father worked as a carpenter and that’s how I really got started in woodworking. I always worked with him, unless he was in jail, in which case I worked alone. It helped me to become familiar with tools, and I grew accustomed to working with my hands. It instilled a desire to create that has never left.
Motorcycles are a recurring theme in your work. What drew you to motorcycles as a subject?
I like to paint things that strike a chord in me. Things like creepy folklore, gunfighters, or motorcycles. I love bikes. I love the way they look, and I love working on them. I try to capture the feeling of the time spent in the shop, the relentless little details, the time spent in your head, the essence of the bikes. The trick is to try to express that in a painting in a way that works aesthetically.
Can you recall a singular experience that made you think about motorcycles in a more intimate way?
I’m not sure exactly. I always loved building custom bicycles, even as a kid! I guess I just got sick of pedaling one day and moved on to motorcycles. I have always loved things with history, and a carbureted motorcycle is a beautiful example of old school engineering. It's like a Rube Goldberg machine that you can drive. Each bike has its own unique characteristics. Layers of cracked paint and quirky fixes. I started to fall in love with motorcycles at the same time I started to fall in love with old broke-down pinball machines. I want to tell their stories.
What is it that inspires you to customize/change a motorcycle?
It's very rare that I’m content with something as it stands. I always want to personalize it and make it mine. I can't just enjoy something without wanting to make one myself. Whether it's motorcycles, art, furniture, or bicycles, I have to build one! It’s a gauge of how much I like something. If it depresses me and makes me jealous, I love it.
How does your wife feel about that? Does this sentiment extend into other areas of your life?
I think she’s okay with it. She likes that I’m passionate about things. She’s usually right there with me picking through the metal pile at the dump. When I call her at work to tell her there is another motorcycle or bicycle or van that I “just have to get,” she gets excited right along with me, as long is it doesn't break the bank.
One time I wanted to make portraits of bare-knuckle boxers, and for about a week I convinced myself I would be a great fighter. I wanted to see If I could take a punch in the face. I couldn’t stop listening to The Pogues (then I wanted to start an Irish folk/punk band). I almost got Becky to punch me in the face and play drums in the band!
That’s amazing. Have you ever been punched in the face?
One time I did, at a high school dance by a kid that was twice my size. I took it, too — at least that's how I remember it! Anyway, my friend, who is also named Chris, bailed me out like he usually did. It was actually a two-town dance, with kids from Peterborough. They never held those dances again.
So there was some sort of Jaffrey/Peterborough rivalry?
Us Jaffrey kids always thought the Peterborough kids were spoiled rich kids. We were probably jealous they were so much better at skateboarding. I’m sure they thought that we were punks. I think we were both right.
Would you be a greaser or a soc (like from The Outsiders)?
I would like to think I would be a greaser, but that might just be because everybody would rather be a greaser like Ponyboy! I always saw myself as Johnny though, probably because he had a sweet jean jacket. I also wanted to be The Karate Kid. It's hard because the greasers were kind of loners — “outsiders,” actually — but I always got along great with all sorts of people. I ran track and was Student Council President, but I also listened to Sonic Youth and the Pixies and spent the evenings after school skateboarding. I even got sprayed with Mace one time by the Jaffrey Police at the skatepark when I was a sophomore because I wouldn’t leave after a huge group fight! Holy shit — maybe I am a greaser!
Okay, back to art & motorcycles. Haha! What was your first motorcycle?
My first motorcycle was a 1994 Kawasaki Vulcan 500. I had actually never driven a bike before and this thing was on the side of the road for a thousand bucks. When I went over to look at it, the guy asked me if I wanted to take it for a test drive, so I hopped on it and took off. This is actually pretty crazy, but the night before I went to look at it, I dreamt I was driving it and I swear that dream is how I learned to ride a motorcycle.
Wow, that’s great. I think I wrote a song in a dream once. What motorcycles do you have in your stable?
Right now, I have a Yamaha XS650 rat bike, a '75 CB550 that I’m converting into a modest cafe, and a BMW R27. The BMW will stay pure. I got the BMW from a guy who needed help cleaning out his old bicycle/art store. He said, “If you take all the trash to the dump for me, you can have the motorcycle that's down there.” I had no idea what he had and when I went over to remove the trash, I found that old R27 there. He is an incredibly great guy. He and his wife actually gave me a scholarship to pay for my supplies when I was going to college for art. He was riding motorcycles before it was cool. Actually, never mind — it’s always been cool!
Do you use your own bikes as the basis for all of your moto art? If not, do the others get jealous?
I hope so. With some of the newer pieces I do, simply because they are more cropped paintings — close-ups. I want to make some paintings that are almost unrecognizable. More abstract. Like details of carburetors and linkages, Interesting little elements of the bike. Having the bike right in front of you makes it easier to make decisions of what to put in and leave out. A lot of the time, though, I peruse magazines and the Internet looking for bikes I like — usually one with a good photo from the front. Maybe someday, somebody will notice their bike in one of my paintings and want a cut.
Your work has a very distinct — dare I say it? — patina. How do you achieve this?
The work is layers and layers of paint. While the first layer is still wet, I draw through it with a graphite stick. After it dries, I add more color, sometimes drawing through that to reveal the color underneath. Once the whole painting is dry, I add different tinted waxes to give it an aged look and a nice clean finish. It's actually the same wax that I use on the furniture, and even on the rat bike to keep the rust from progressing. It’s really great stuff!
Did you build the XS650 rat bike?
My friend Matt Colby built that bike! He shaved 140 lbs. off of it. It’s kickstart only with a capacitor! It was his baby and now its mine. I actually traded a project I was working on — a GS650 bobber — and a painting of the XS for it. It’s weird because I’m not usually the type that would be satisfied with a bike that was the vision of somebody else, but when I saw this bike, I fell in love, and I convinced myself that it was okay because it’s a piece of art.
It seems as though there’s a rather intimate, consistent, and occasionally painful ritual to owning such a bike. Is that something you enjoy?
I love it. I have to say, Its a little bit of a chore to own that thing. I have to weld those pipes back together almost weekly. I’m actually afraid that I might like working on bikes more than I like riding them. That thing is like a crazy girlfriend; it takes time and patience, but if you can manage the high maintenance, then it’s very exciting and worth the ride.
Can you tell me a little bit about your one-of-a-kind furniture?
I treat the furniture just like anything else I build. I want to make unique works of art that show the artists hand. I try to find interesting objects and build them into the work, repurposing things. Maybe I’ll find some '50’s refrigerator hinges and some old steel bed frames and then try to make a cabinet using those. Or the other weekend, my wife found an old chimney brush at an antique engine show that I’m going to make a hanging lamp out of (her idea). I’m leaning more and more towards mid-century modern furniture with an industrial spin. Maybe because that's what's “in" right now, but I feel like its the job of the artist to be able to reflect what’s current and what's hip. If you’re lucky, maybe even touch on something that is innovative and new.
Do you feel as though motorcycles, art, and furniture occupy a similar creative space in your mind?
I don’t think that I could ever do any one of them alone. When I’m working on furniture, I want to be working on a painting, and when I’m working on a painting, I want to be working on furniture, and I always want to be working on the bikes. In order to stay fresh, you have to have the opportunity to step back. I need them all to stay stimulated, I never want to become bored.
How would you describe your color palette?
I try to paint with colors that would have been used on appliances in the early ’60s. Seriously, though, the colors have to be light enough that the linework will show up properly but still be able to pack a punch.
I can see the early '60’s appliances, though. It’s a really great vibe. What draws you to such classic, vintage, weatherworn, and essentially decaying aesthetics?
There was something unique happening in the '60’s that’s lost in modern designs. Simplicity and a sense of very deliberate intention. It’s almost like functionality took a back seat to aesthetics. Today it’s the opposite, everything is ergonomic or made with efficiency as the primary goal. Back then, oil was abundant and cigarettes were cool! They did shit because it looked great!
Another recurring subject in your work is whales — more specifically, dead whales. Tell me about whales.
I read this article a while back about the “Whale Fall” phenomenon. This is where organisms that live in the ocean can feed off of a whale carcass for over 100 years! When the whale dies, it often falls into the “abyssal zone” (which basically means the bottom of the ocean) and creates entire ecosystems that rely on this whale's carcass for nutrients and even shelter. The idea that it’s the death of this whale that spurs such an abundance of life is fascinating. It’s such a dark yet beautiful concept, and so similar to an old motorcycle rotting in a field, only to be scooped up by some backyard wrencher and made into a brutal rat bike, or an old chimney brush from an antique engine show turned into the salvaged light centerpiece over your kitchen island. It’s the figurative death of these objects that allows new life & endless possibilities.
This article was originally featured in Issue 011 of Iron & Air Magazine.