How an ancient wood-burning technique and an emerging sport saved Chris Rini, Fine Arts ’97

A few years ago, Chris Rini was in a slump. He was in an unhappy marriage, working at an accounting job he hated, and feeling stuck in his art. He got divorced, moved into a cramped studio, and took a lower-paying, less stressful job. Hoping to find clarity amid such drastic change, he went on a ten-day meditation retreat, where he gave up reading, writing, and speaking, and focused on his breathing for ten hours a day. He emerged with a new motivation: to make art from mixed martial arts.
MMA—a combat sport blending Brazilian jujitsu, kickboxing, wrestling, and other traditional fighting techniques—might seem like an odd focus for an art career. But it’s a source of inspiration for Rini, a scrappy yet contemplative guy who was mugged twice growing up in Ridgewood, a then-dangerous part of Queens. “A friend told me, ‘You like to watch people devolve,’” he says, with characteristic fervor. “I think that’s a cynical way to look at it. I’m interested in depicting fear and the survival instinct, because in these intense situations, something about ourselves is revealed.”
He also decided that to make his name as a fine artist he needed a subject that no one else had tackled. MMA is a young sport—just over 20 years old—and he didn’t know of anyone depicting it artistically.
Using pyrography, an ancient technique of burning lines into wood, Rini rendered subtle, perceptive portraits of the fighters in significant matches, then colored them in with wood stain. He’d previously perfected the technique on cityscapes, portraits, and abstracts, calling them “wood stained glass” because of their bold lines and translucent colors.
He also drew series (such as the one at right) that could be digitized into GIFs, brief repeating animations currently popular on the internet. He believes that converting the ancient woodburning technique into a digital format is well suited to MMA—a postmodern sport, he says—melded from classical fighting techniques. Indeed, the quaint beauty of the hand-wrought lines and the contours of the wood grain underscore the vicious knockouts he portrays.
These days, Rini is in a much happier place, recently remarried, enjoying his job at a natural foods store in Brooklyn, and finding lots of time to draw. He envisions his portraits someday becoming as iconic as the sculpted bronze plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Mean-
while, he is finding an audience. He writes about and illustrates key moments in MMA history in a biweekly column for Vice magazine’s Fightland blog, and the first GIF he created has been viewed more than 200,000 times.
“It resonates with the fans so much, and the athletes see it too,” he says with a smile. “They love that someone is making art from the thing they love.”

Featured Image: Rini burned multiple drawings onto wood panels to  create a brief animation that captures the visceral power of two women MMA fighters. Watch them in action.

This is one of four animations Chris Rini has created by burning and staining a series of panels.


And a recent video Rini made of an animation of fighter Ronda Rousey, plus insight into his process.