By Shannon Gallagher
“Often times, it’s a strange thing: the things you do in your youth stick with you,” said painter Mary Burke. “On the other hand, though, artists get better as they age and gain more experience. They really start to hone in on their particular iconography or way of looking at the world. Although the application of paint has not changed much, my work is quite different from what it was in the past. Now, it’s more fluid, more natural in appearance, ” she said. The way in which Burke works these days is very intuitive. “It’s a give and take, I throw down marks on the paper or canvas, and then I work with them. I let the work talk to me and entertain me.” She then works with these “accidental” marks, as she refers to them. She enjoys the idea of seeing something out of nothing, like watching the clouds and forming images in one’s mind. “I go in and make marks that are more controlled, and then there is a dichotomy of accidental versus controlled. That seems to be a major theme in my work, putting two opposite things next to one another to create an interesting diversity.” She enjoys making references to the natural world, including flowers, animals, patterns, and circles. “Nature is a very strange thing,” she said. “Part of it is very chaotic, but if you look at the way things grow, there seems to be quite a bit of organization, and even a certain geometry to it. I like to include both aspects in my work, haphazard meanderings of nature, and the very organized way it all works.” Some of these visual references are used repeatedly throughout her body of work, and they are all derived from nature in some way.
Burke started to realize that she possessed creative talent around the age of 9, when she began receiving praise from teachers for her advanced work. She always enjoyed making art, and seemed to excel in it, so it became a constant throughout her childhood and adolescence. Immediately after high school, she enrolled in Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, where she spent two years studying. However, she found that for her, the unstructured environment was not conducive to the learning process. She felt that in some ways, she was learning, but in other aspects, the lack of academic structure was problematic. Burke transferred to the University of Chicago, where she began studying art history, but soon began to miss making art. She started working at Midway Studios there, got her BA (U of C does not offer a BFA), and a few years later, she was accepted to the University of Minnesota’s MFA in painting program. Burke sees some similarities in the work she created while in college and her current body of work. “The paintings I made in college are somewhat related to what I’m doing now, but the new work is a little more structured and architectural.”
Burke uses acrylic paint because its fumes are less intrusive and its drying time is shorter. “I like oil paint, but I really just can’t use it,” she said. She has recently gotten into watercolor because she enjoys “the fluidity of it, the way it spreads on paper, and the accidental qualities you can get out of it.” She also uses ink, crayon, and pencil in her works on paper and canvas. The artist, who divides her time between Michigan and Chicago, is very affected by her environment. The influence of nature is obvious in Burke’s paintings, as her studio in Michigan is surrounded by nature. “I don’t see any buildings around me, only trees. I find the forest really inspiring. Sometimes I use photographs I’ve taken around my house and studio, and I incorporate it into the works on paper. Chicago is a totally different thing. I don’t work much when I’m in Chicago. I visit, I have a place there, but there is a different feel to it. I just seem to work better in Michigan.”
Burke finds inspiration in a variety of 20th and 21st century artists. “When I was younger, I thought Dadaism was silly,” she said. “Now, I understand that it’s almost like an ultimate freedom, you have no agenda, you’re not trying to bring forth even an idea, it’s just… BINGO! Intuitive, subliminal thinking: that’s what I like about the Dadaists: in my estimation, they really opened up the ability of the artist to free-associate. Not everything has to have some big meaning, sometimes taking disparate things and putting them together without rhyme or reason gives the artist an incredible freedom of expression, and that mindset has spanned the decades. Artists like Joan Snyder, Antoni Tàpies, and Manolo Valdés seemed to inherit that modernistic view.”
As for the future, Burke envisions her work experimenting with the qualities of paint. She has been playing with the idea of pouring paint directly on canvas. “I just want to let it do its own thing, and then embellish that. I don’t like to be in full control, because I enjoy watching things manifest themselves. When you give up initial control over something, you can be amazed by the results.”