Artist Jonathan Brilliant Uses Over 50,000 Coffee Stirrers to Make Art Jonathan Brilliant discusses the process behind his one-of-a-kind installations.

North Carolina-based artist Jonathan Brilliant incorporates everyday objects into his art, such as discarded fortune cookie messages and coffee shop ephemera. He’s best known for his ambitious, awe-inspiring installations, which he constructs from thousands of coffee stick stirrers using only tension and compression. We interviewed Jonathan to find out how he makes this magic happen...

1 // You started making sculptures and installations with coffee stirrers in 2006. Tell us about how the project started.

The seed for this work did and still has nothing specifically to do with coffee stirrers. It started as an extension of the sculpture I made between 2001-2005. I was making objects out of bent wood and woven wire. I had a laundry list of artists, mostly British, who compelled me to make the work—Richard Long, Hamish Fulton, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Bill Woodrow, Richard Wentworth. So, I went to the library and pulled as many of their exhibition catalogs as I could. I found a through line, which I call “The British Approach to Sculpture.” There’s a predilection towards found and foraged materials from one’s natural environment, a focus on hand-assembly and simpler processes and a reference to the natural environment. I decided that if I was to be a “British” artist I would need to liberate materials from my environment, only use my hands for building and not alter the inherent properties of the materials in the making. This is when I wrote a modest residency proposal that I could be the “Goldsworthy of the Coffee Shop.” Since I didn’t live in the woods, or the streets of London, and since I did most of my sketchbook work in coffee shops, it seemed like that was my “natural” environment.

Artist Jonathan Brilliant

2 // Amazingly, you don’t use any adhesives in your coffee stirrer installations. What is your process?

The stick installations are woven together using tension and compression. They are solid and sturdy when finished. They remain on view for anywhere from 1 month to 4 years or more. When I shifted from wood and metal works to coffee shop materials, I just took my skill set over. Weaving under tension is the most direct way I can make a structure. The pattern I weave is the result of having each stick tensioned against 4-5 other sticks and then continuing that with all the sticks until you have 50,000 or more tensioned against each other, creating hundreds of thousands of connective points.

3 // Considering that you only work with tension, have you ever had an unfortunate mishap with one of your installations?

I have fallen into a portion of the piece, knocked a ladder into a piece or driven a lift into it.  As there is no linchpin, the torn area can easily be rewoven. In this system, there no one leading edge, so the sculptures can be connected in any area and often times repairing an area creates more tension.

Amazing Coffee Stirrer Artwork by Jonathan Brilliant

4 // You’re a drummer, as well as an artist. How does your musical practice inform your art practice and vice versa?

Unfortunately, my drum set has been stacked up on a shelf in the laundry room lately. In terms of a mentality, I still think of each exhibition as simply a gig to execute. Working with a rigid construction system that creates rhythm with variation tickles the same sensibility that playing drums did. I was primarily a self-taught drummer and learned by playing along to albums, made up my own beats and played between what I was hearing in my headphones. The same seems true for my installations, in that I always fit my work into the space I am given.

5 // What is one of your biggest learnings from completing these projects in different locations around the world?

Everybody recognizes coffee shop stuff. Everybody wonders if this is my real name. (Yes, it is by birth.) Almost everyone enjoys seeing the work in person because when you read about it, it seems so whimsical but when you move around the work in person, it is very different. It's also incredibly freeing since I don’t maintain a permanent studio of any kind. I turn everywhere I go into my studio. This keeps me incredibly focused and relieves much of the inherent anxiety involved in making art.

Fortune Cookie Artwork by Jonathan Brilliant
Coffee Stirrer Art by Jonathan Brilliant

6 // What happens to your materials once an exhibition is complete?

In many of the commissioned installations, the materials are donated, given away, reused in future installations or simply mulched and recycled. I hope that my work is not misconstrued as a comment on the environment or sustainability. However, I do think it is more responsible for me to utilize materials already in the supply chain from the everyday world rather than any specialized materials.  It is still important to me that the materials are not permanently altered. Anything I do can be undone.

7 // You also make work inspired by fortune cookie messages. How did these works come about?

In the same way that the lens of British artists allowed me to see something in the coffee shop materials, viewing the fortunes through the lense of 1960s and 70s American artists opened ideas for me. When I began collecting fortunes right after September 11, 2001, it wasn't because I assigned any meaning to the fortunes themselves, it was the meals I was having with friends at the time.  Initially, I was framing the individual fortunes and displaying them as relics of these meals. In time, I began to see the shapes of the bent fortunes as little miniature Richard Serra’s. When I was proposing ideas for outdoor sculptures, at some point it clicked that I could make these bent fortune Richard Serra kind of walls.

Jonathan Brilliant and Twyla

8 // You have an upcoming solo exhibition at the Hickory Museum of Art. What will you be creating there?

I will be creating not only a new monumental piece, but also smaller works and a new series of coffee ground drawings directly on the gallery wall. I can’t say enough about their gallery. It is in an old gymnasium with double high windows, amazing architectural details, and a spiral staircase that is a beautiful sculpture in its own right. As for the specifics, I have been making my doodles and have a sense of the gestalt of the whole show, but the rest of it will happen on site. Just like a musician who rehearses their songs, but can only know what it really feels when they get on stage, that’s how it is for me.