A Third Hand

In 2016, my friend Aaron Leighton asked me one day at work if I would be interested in collaborating on some artwork. We were both at a point where we were wanting to explore new things creatively and Aaron had been intrigued by some new drawings I had started making. [Dots: Series 1]

I enthusiastically said yes.

Aaron didn’t have any specific goals in mind, just to start something and see where it went. He suggested we pick a simple but somewhat directive format. My work at the time were mixed-media drawings on birch wood panels and we agreed to choose 6×6″ panels as a common starting point.

We both wanted something without a complicated set of rules or goals but also to be challenged and prompted by whatever we would do together.

We ended up making over 50 pieces together that culminated in a successful gallery show. We jokingly called it a collaboration without any collaboration.

Myself and Aaron at our gallery show with some of the final panels we made together.

I’ll explain…

The simple structure we started with was for each of us to take one of the 6×6″ panels and do something (anything) on it. We didn’t specify materials and style just to each react to the smooth light wood surface of the panel. We each collaged, painted, drew, etc. on the panels until we felt “done”.

One of my starting layers.

The next step (which is also the last step) was that we gave each other the panel we had “finished”. And that was the next surface we would react to.

Crucially we agreed to the simplest set of guidelines:

  • We could cover any and even all aspects of each other’s artwork.
  • There was no permission required for any change.

We each wanted to release any preciousness we felt about our work. As part of this, there was no passing back and forth just one layer each, trading our places as the first to make a mark in the panel.

One of Aaron’s starting layers.

We didn’t have a deadline since there was no goal in mind so our schedule for taking our turns was loose. We had periods where one of us might start a few panels and then drop them off for the other to be completed and there were also gaps of weeks where nothing happened.

There were times, of course, when Aaron or I received a panel and it was daunting because it already felt visually resolved. But we agreed to look beyond that perception to take it further. We were excited by the ways in which this practice released authorship.

Borne out of Aaron’s initial impulse to collaborate was a way of working that was solitary and mutual simultaneously. And the final artworks were both of ours and somehow also neither of ours. The feeling was like there was a third hand involved. We were collaborating in the ways we responded to each other’s layers but the final results sat somewhere between the two of us.

In 2018, through a friend of Aaron’s, we were lucky to get a show at a new gallery in Toronto. We picked up the pace of panels going between us and even introduced smaller and larger panels which introduced some interesting new constraints and challenges.

We let the gallery show work as a natural end to the collaboration and were deeply gratified that a lot of people connected with what we had made.

Here’s our “artists’ statement” from the show:

Fine Art can be so serious. This work began as a joyful game of visual tag, throwing the usual creative anxieties to the wind. Plus, staring at computers all day hurts our eyes.

We ditch the idea of "authorship" and simply enjoy the creative process. We actively try to let go of preciousness, and adapt with each new piece giving each other the freedom to obscure any element in a previous layer.

We embrace change, even if it appears destructive, eagerly awaiting each other's final pieces to see what weird evolution might have happened along the way. Will it be ruined? Or better? Or both?

After finishing each other's pieces, there is a secondary game: guessing which of us has actually finished it. In the most successful pieces, this can be tricky with each piece technically finished only through our combined efforts.

Is this the first time the buddy system has been used to create art? We’re going to assume it is.

- Aaron Leighton & Davin Risk
The nine 12×12″ pieces we made for the show.
We displayed all of the pieces in the order they were created starting with thirty 6×6″ panels.
Our first collab panel.
Our last collab panel.

Making this work with Aaron was an experience and an outcome neither of us predicted. There is a power in allowing a new process to push and pull at our creative patterns and habits. Finding another person you can trust to engage in something a bit creatively scary with you can be a revelation.

Art making is often a solitary thing but I would urge anybody that has an existing creative practice of any sort to look for opportunities like the one Aaron presented to me. The results of that third hand have stayed with me since 2018, shaping my work and helping me even in solo practice to release authorship in a variety of ways, to experiment with process, technique, and materials, and to feel less precious about what I make.

I still have struggles, roadblocks, and frictions come up all the time but I have this body of work and it’s shared experience to remind me of what release can foster.

Leighton : Risk

Six inch panels

Four inch panels

Twelve inch panels