Artist Jason K. Milburn Explores Multiple Meanings with "Rafts," Now at BAYarts

The Kent resident's new show addresses themes of isolation, interpersonal relationships and the absurdity of existence

click to enlarge Jason K. Milburn's "Staying Warm" is part of his new solo exhibition, "Rafts." - COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Jason K. Milburn's "Staying Warm" is part of his new solo exhibition, "Rafts."

Northeast Ohio native Jason K. Milburn floats the concept of a raft as an inspirational springboard in his new solo exhibition, which opens Friday, January 13, in the Sullivan Family Gallery at BAYarts. Titled “Rafts,” it explores the way the word can refer to different things. A raft is something that carries us across to the other side, it can isolate us, and it is a thing that can be sunk. 

As Milburn explains, “As an object, a raft is simple: a flat object that floats on water. To some, it is a platform for recreation. You lie on it in a pool or lake to relax and get some sun or you do cannonballs off it. To others, a raft is a vehicle of necessity built out of desperation in order to escape. Whether trying to get off a deserted island or cross a border river, a raft keeps the traveler out of the water, still exposing them to the elements. It can be relatively simple to build from found objects, but dangerous to actually use.”

While Milburn’s work can seem sublimely sardonic, it also addresses themes of isolation, interpersonal relationships and the absurdity of existence — and flirts with the existential.

Milburn, 45, says he comes from a church-going home. While he no longer aligns with organized religion, he remains enamored with how people imbue these ancient teachings. 

“Even though I decided that I don’t believe, I was always impressed at the way this archaic moral code still affected people today,” says Milburn. “I started to think about all the ways people might try to explain their surroundings or better themselves, like psychiatry, self-help literature and meditation, and these became the rafts. Something that allowed the figures to pull themselves out of one threat or problem, only to possibly expose themselves to others. I thought religion and mythology were the original self-help materials, so I began using a Bible story book I grew up reading as the reference for the figures. I always liked to draw, and I remember the illustrations from this book making a big impact on me.”

In the piece, titled “Staying Warm,” we see a man in ancient garb stumbling on his raft — only it’s breaking apart because it has been set ablaze, seemingly to keep him warm. The image satirizes how we self-sabotage, and how by trying to fulfill one need we may forget about the hierarchy of others. 

Milburn uses ballpoint pen and an ink wash along with collage and found objects. “Rafts” showcases the artist’s willingness to experiment. His work sometimes includes collage and found objects such as discarded wiper blades or plastic sushi grass. He is not afraid to tear a hole in the page or cut things out and replace them with something else. In many pieces Milburn will draw the heads of his subjects, then surgically cut them out from the paper, implant them on a pigmented body on the same piece of paper and leave the hole where he cut them out. 

"I’ve always had a vivid imagination and been a bit of a daydreamer,” Milburn says. “Most of my drawings start in my head as an image that was sparked by something I saw or overheard. I’ll spend weeks or months making mental edits to the original idea, usually thinking a few drawings or a series ahead. I rarely work from sketches. I start directly on the final surface with ink. I like that it isn’t easy to make changes or correct mistakes. I use a razor blade to scratch out marks I want to change which leaves a record, or ghost image, of everything I put down.”

In “Rafts,” Milburn references literature, illustrations from a childhood story Bible and the movie Jaws.

“I’ve worked with figures in water before and I always think about how Steven Spielberg would never show land in the shots with the boat to create a sense of isolation,” Milburn says. 

Music and film are frequent touchstones for the artist.

“Even something as simple as a song lyric can create an idea for an image,” Milburn says. “‘Frustrated Man’ and ‘Frustrated Woman’ from the current show came from a line in the Interpol song ‘Desire,’ where he says he’s a frustrated man. Frustration is a common reaction for most of us daily, so I started wondering what that might look like with these figures. It’s not about illustrating the song, but just making use of relatable imagery. I also look at other artists, like Wardell Milan, Amy Cutler, David Hockney and Neo Rauch. I’ve always had the desire to put an enigmatic Balthus figure into an ethereal Helen Frankenthaler environment.”

Milburn graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2003 with his BFA in drawing and printmaking. He also attained his MFA in painting and drawing from Kent State University in 2017. In 2015 he was awarded an Individual Excellence Award and spent the summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, both with the support of the Ohio Arts Council. 

Milburn’s work is stylistic, leaves an impression and offers humor, contemplation and a genuine expression of depth. He takes risks, makes decisions and sticks to his guns.

The Kent resident suggests that familiar themes will continue to animate his work. The two new sets of drawings he’s now working on also draws on imagery from his youth.

“One carries on from this current body of work, where these ancient Biblical figures meet a more modern secular group of people referenced from non-superhero comic books I grew up reading,” he explains. “The other will combine the ink drawings with a found object collage to tie the same existential narratives with everyday objects. I’ve also recently got a hold of a tabletop etching press and hope to start doing some print work again, along with some small-batch, handprinted bookmaking.” 

“Rafts” will be on display at BAYarts through February 4. Learn more about Jason K. Milburn at

Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained outdated information about Jason Milburn. He is no longer represented by Bonfoey Gallery. We regret the error.

Coming soon: Cleveland Scene Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting Cleveland stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.