Last week I had the chance to sit down with our own Justin Burd and talk about what living creatively means to him. It was a great conversation and especially interesting to hear how life outside of the shop affects his work.
We began by talking about where he came form and how concrete became his medium. Turns out that he is from the Chattanooga area originally but was living in West Virginia when the concrete bug bit. He says that he was not looking for concrete, but rather concrete found him. This is not an uncommon sentiment in our industry. Concrete as a creative medium is so unexpected that no one seriously considers it until they are working with it. Justin firmly believes that everyone is creative; it is just a matter of how it is channeled. Though growing up he considered himself and artist and drew quite a bit, he never really built anything until after high school. During this time his passion and creative drive was channeled into sports like whitewater kayaking and rock climbing. Even now, he feels that his most creatively free and open moments are outside, on the water and rocks. Soon he started a family and priorities began to shift. Building and construction became a solid way to take care of his family, but lacked the creative flow he needed. Fortunately, a friend asked him to build her some concrete countertops. Until then, he had never heard of concrete countertops, but he was willing to giving it a shot. It was one grand experiment that turned out to be an opportunity that provided for his family and gave the creative risk he was missing. Needless to say, the countertops turned out great and that job turned into another and another and before he knew it concrete was all he wanted to do. One job in particular was the turning point. It was a restaurant remodel that Justin took on, just to do the concrete work. It was a thirty foot long bar that was going to require a ton of creative problem solving and the purchasing of new equipment. This was the point of no return; the “aha” moment that set him firmly on the path of concrete. His excitement had carried him thus far, but now it was time to put his money where his heart was. From here he got more and more jobs allowing him to invest more and more into his concrete work, and with these jobs he was granted more and more creative freedom. This is where the real magic happens. His work was not just an enjoyable way to create but became a means of expression and exploration. Eventually though, Justin had tapped out the area for every available job and was in need of more work. Going back to regular construction was not an option so he looked back home to Chattanooga. In Chattanooga he found Nathan Smith who had his own concrete shop, Set in Stone. Their paths to concrete were very similar, but there flow and modes of operations were quite different; but this is the secrete sauce. There is a real ying-yang dynamic in the shop. He says that moving to Chattanooga to join forces with Nathan was simply “the thing that was supposed to be done.”
I asked Justin about mentors along the way and he said there have been a few throughout his life, but none as meaningful and long lasting as Buddy Rhodes. For those of you not in the concrete world, Buddy Rhodes is known as the godfather of modern decorative concrete; Google him, he has done some pretty great things. Early on Justin started out working out of one of Buddy’s instructional books. Over time, Justin and Buddy have become good friends. As a matter of fact, Justin (Set in Stone) is one of two official Buddy Rhodes Training facilities in the US. Justin went on to tell me that last year as a part of developing a new training curriculum he and Buddy were able to collaborate on a project. Justin was able to work with Buddy from conception and design all the way through to casting and finishing. Unequivocally, Justin calls this, “One of the coolest things that has ever happened in my career.” This is no small thing. How many of us ever get to work with, let alone collaborate as equals with our creative mentors? This is living rich.
At this point I asked him if he was creatively satisfied and he immediately responded with a definitive ,”No.” He says that he is never satisfied, but he is not sure if that is a good thing or bad. I get the idea that he is uncomfortable with the idea of being a man that can’t be satisfied, but the truth is he knows that he can always do better. It’s the process that drives him, not the end product. Can we really be satisfied with our process? Don’t we all feel the need to keep improving? He talks about obsessively pouring himself into something and when it is done it is done; he’s ready to move on. Satisfaction is temporary and short-lived. This whole process is hard; somedays you are on top of the world and somedays you are underneath it; so goes the creative process. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Justin went on to say that though he is never satisfied that is not to say that he is not happy. He is very happy in fact. He loves what he does and he loves his life in Chattanooga with his wife and little girl. He said moving here with them was one of the biggest risks he has ever taken, but in the end it turned out to be the best; for him and his family.
After talking about the up and downs of the creative process I asked him what has the most effect on his creative flow or process. Directly in the shop it is the music he listens to. Old jazz for the quiet prep time; getting the day started. But heavy dubstep is what is needed to get stuff done. He referenced a talk by John Clease on creativity where there are two stages of creativity; an open and a closed stage. The open stage is the exploration, no editing, figuring out what is possible phase. The closed stage is the bring your ideas into reality phase. Jazz is Justin’s open stage music and dubstep is his closed. I love the clear distinction and recognition of process. Outside of the shop, it is time alone especially outside that gets the creative juices flowing.
I then asked him what advice he would give someone just starting out in a creative endeavor and he said, “Just start walking down the road. No matter what it is, don’t be afraid to try things… take risks and try new things.” He spoke of a freeclimber, Dean Potter, whose philosophy is to always move towards fear. This is an interesting ideal, especially for the creative, because it perpetually puts us in a position of being uncomfortable and growing. Justin went on to say that fear does not necessitate a bad outcome. Risk is inherent in any creative endeavor; this is a fact that we as creatives have to come to grips with. We have to develop a comfort with the unknown, the unsure, those things that scare us. Too many talented souls have been put to rest because they could not come to terms with fear.
The last question of the day was what three words would he use to describe himself. His response was, “Family man, athlete, and artist, in that order.” I found it interesting that athlete came before artist, but after thinking about it, it made perfect sense that concrete would be his chosen medium. Concrete is a great material to work with, but it is also a very manual and substantial process. There is a lot of movement and laboring that goes into making with concrete; so through concrete Justin is fulfilled both athletically and creatively. In the end, despite all the difficulties, can any of us ask for more than this; to find that thing that feeds multiple facets of our being? The sweet spot of working and living, the rich living of creativity and productivity.
Many thanks to Justin for taking time to share a bit of his process and story.