For me, the creation of art is about finding inspiration and meaning in the observed world. I convey those thoughts and feelings to others by means of aesthetic and historical references. Viewing the arc of my career, it is an indisputable fact that Nature represents the locus of my attention and practice. I am interested in images that mimic nature and those that transcend it, blurring the lines of what is real and imagined. My goal has always been to create work that, through the use of symbol and technique, has visionary significance to the viewer.
My voice and thoughts become inextricably linked to the process of seeing and the results of close observation. I am constantly reviewing, thinking, practicing how “the things of this world” are represented. That careful observation opens windows of possibility in how I can convey illusion and life. My images are often as much a result of the arrangement of “abstract” principles of line, form, and pattern as they are based on realistic morphology. Yet any tendency towards abstraction must ring true and find correspondences with visual and lived experience. In place of mirroring the world as it is, I would rather create a kind of reality rich with analogies. One thing may be many things. A tree is more than a tree; it is a whole universe that resonates with possibility.
Each project, each series starts with an idea, an amorphous image in the mind—a vision without clarity, with indeterminate outlines. Nevertheless, there is a frisson of sorts, an excitement of discovery that always accompanies a vision that I follow through. Without that extra impetus of inspiration such thoughts die on the vine. The real work comes in nurturing, tending the fragile vision, creating a foundation, erecting scaffolding, choosing a process, medium, materials; each choice requiring its own self-referential supports.
The sketch, at first broad and gestural, is essential to this process; an image in the mind requires the sketch to set it free. At this stage, I do not expect clarity and make many sketches of the whole or parts of the whole until they gain focus, until they also begin to elicit the satisfaction and excitement of that initial vision. I do not move forward until the sketches feel solid and holistically sound. At this point, I enlarge the sketch to a final size, usually determined by “feel.” My final sketches are usually small, for example, four by three inches for a 30 by 22 inches finish. Improvisation remains essential even at this stage. While the outlines of major features in the sketch are usually adhered to, all the myriad details that give substance to form, texture, light and shadow happen in the moment. This is challenging but also immensely engaging and requires vigilance, a constant balancing of elements.
In my work, color is often the ground from which action emerges. Using chiaroscuro drawing techniques, the ground/substrate and the image are intrinsically linked to each other to create a powerful abstraction that is also spatially tactile. I am intrigued by the snapping back and forth between illusion and the graphic means that achieve it. You cannot really see both at the same time. In this context, line can manifest feeling, both kinetic and expressive, and create illusion. My work highlights these representational techniques with calligraphic and, recently, letterform-based abstractions. I like to think of my visual images as complex compositions in a musical sense. The interplay of elements, the point and counterpoint, the call and response transform into narratives achieved through visual rhythms, counter rhythms, and hierarchies of form and line. In so doing, one can tell a story in time and space through a gradual unfolding of visual elements. I intend my works to require focused attention to read properly. I have spent extensive time studying the ornamental, landscape, and figurative motifs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a particular emphasis on Old Master prints, to discern how this can be achieved.
Much of my recent work is a meditation on the sharp edges of ignorance, highlighting the very real results of environmental abuse we are harvesting—drought, famine, war, pestilence, and all the other attendant miseries of humanity. In part, this is intended to evoke reflections in the viewer on the state of the natural world. Yet, despite the seriousness of this subject matter, the transmutation of the everyday into the otherworldly is also sheer play—a joy in the results of the imagination. I find the capacity of the mind to move beyond the ordinary world infinitely engaging.
Image at top: Stephen Burt, Sea and Sky, watercolor, India ink, and gouache on paper, 7.75 x 10 in., 2018/