Artist StatementJohn Burk: An Artist’s Statement I have always known the power of places; places that inspire a quiet awe or instill peace; places that speak of time and timelessness, places that convey a sense of solitude and a sense of being one of generations of travelers past this spot. These places aren’t around every corner. Sometimes I’ve passed by them unknowing, until a certain light of day, an arrangement of color, stops me in my tracks. Many of these places are far from home. Some are outside my back door. Many are close to the sea, which has always held a particularly strong connection to me. But some are on a hillside, or down in a hollow; a treeline or shoreline. Beauty, often in sight of passing crowds. Many of these places include rock...monumental stones sculpted by time, a collage of color (hardly just gray), magnificent light-modeled shapes, jagged or smooth, tide-washed or desert-varnished, clean or covered with the dust of ages. I adore these stones. In one way these places are the same. There is a tranquility to them. It’s a tranquility that reaches deep inside, inspiring a stillness and a study of detail...an appreciation of light and shape and color, and of a moment in time. It’s a tranquility that makes life on the planet seem at once larger and intimate. These places are special. My aim is to capture them as they are, to create as elegantly as I can allusions of sound, touch and smell, which can only be hinted at with color on canvas. I want my painting to invite you to stand here awhile. Smell the spice in the air, feel the warmth of the sun, hear the rustle of grass or the riffling waters. If I have done what I set out to do, my work has caught your gaze and put you in this other place.
What makes a painter? In the case of nine year-old John Burk, it was very likely his best friend’s father, a partner and illustrator in a successful commercial art studio. “He invited me to sit next to his easel for as long as I wished while he painted US Lines’ fleet of ocean liners on the high seas. These paintings were commissioned to be reproduced on the backs of playing cards.”
John would spend hours watching intently as this artist rendered hulls and superstructures, laid in billowing clouds and cresting waves. “To keep me interested, he would paint lifeboats being lowered or drifting alongside, adding circling sharks, periscopes, seaplanes or other fanciful details, then paint them out again. Thinking back, he did this so deftly and well, I am still filled with admiration.”
John was born in Baltimore in 1945. By the age of ten, he was constantly drawing. As a teenager, he painted watercolors, mostly sailboats and seascapes.
He studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art as an advertising design, creative communications major, married and began a career as an ad agency art director. He would eventually hire his best friend’s father to illustrate for him.
A half dozen years into his career, Burk spent five years filling sketchbooks in Kimon Nicholaides’ (Art Students’ League, New York) regimen of gesture sketches and contour drawings. To this day, draftsmanship, capturing form, texture and light, is an important aspect of his paintings.
Years of easel painting followed, slowly working out in acrylics on canvas techniques and a vision of what he wanted his paintings to accomplish. His primary influencers were N.C. Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Wyeth’s work excited John as a boy, portraying a drama and stagecraft, his favorites being Wyeth’s illustrations for Treasure Island. “These illustrations told the story as wonderfully as the text.” Much has been said about Hopper, but particularly important to Burk is the way Hopper would bring light into a room, or the way he would model the form of a structure or a row of brick storefronts.
Burk had his first gallery relationship a decade later. A Manhattan gallery owner appreciated his potential and made him one of his new gallery artists, featured in a number of group shows.
Burk was winning grants and fellowships, and was exhibiting in juried shows in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Baltimore and Washington throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
A private show of work in 2003, benefiting the Virtu Foundation*, established John as a landscape painter specializing in the New England seacoast with its pine-fringed rock ledges and tide-washed stones.
“I have always known the power of place; places that inspire a quiet awe or instill a peace; places that speak of time and timelessness, places that convey at once a sense of solitude and of being one of generations of travelers past this spot.”
These “places” are often at the edge of land and sea, but a friend’s move to the Southwest introduced a whole new landscape for Burk to explore. Clear air and bright light, big sky and open land on what was once Apache range, folded and broken mountains of desert-varnished boulders became the subjects of a number of paintings. He plans to return to this subject for a future portfolio of work.
Burk’s current project is a portfolio of Newport, Rhode Island paintings for an anticipated exposition of his work in Newport in late 2010. This will be followed by a body of work on Cape Cod. Apparently, the seacoast continues to be a big attraction for John. “While I am painting, I am there, on vacation, any morning or afternoon I chose.”
Reviews of John’s work have consistently made the same observations: his compositions are powerful and compelling, combining strong design and composition with a painterly light and atmospheric quality. They command your attention across a room. A collector has said of a painting on his wall, “I go for a walk in those woods” (into the painting) “every day after work.”
“These places are special.” John says. “My aim is to capture them as they are, to create allusions of sound, touch and smell, which can only be hinted at with color on canvas. Stand here awhile. Smell the spice in the air, feel the heat of the sun, hear the rustle of grass or riffling waters. If I have done what I set out to do, my work has caught your gaze and put you in this other place.”
*Virtu Foundation has two missions: to place musical instruments in the hands of lower income city children, and to create and sustain a system of tutors and training orchestras for their benefit