BY LAURA STANGEL SCHMIDT
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
May 22, 2013
One of the most interesting things about artists is what they create in response to the world around them.
Artist Mary Burks created “Santa Fe Sunset,” a rich, multi-layered, abstract composition in fiber and metal in a spiritual response to the warm, evening hues of the desert southwest.
Burks donated the piece as this year’s “Silent Auction Artist” for the Whidbey Island Surface Design’s Art Show & Sale, which opens Friday, May 24 at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. The auction proceeds will go to Mother Mentors, a Langley charity which provides practical and emotional support to mothers and other caregivers of young children.
Burks’ dual fascinations with the spirit of the landscape and the landscape of the spirit are the driving forces behind the work she creates in her Coupeville art studio, an orderly, contemplative space with long windows overlooking a tranquil landscape. Neatly organized shelves and closets house Burks’ vast collections of books, ethnic artifacts, natural objects, as well as her treasure trove of fibers and fabrics, all of which provide material and inspiration for her work.
When I visited Burks’ in her studio last week, she was sitting at one of her many work tables, a textile piece titled “Prayers for Enlightenment” spread before her. Shiny, translucent fabrics layered one on top of the other created a subtle, atmospheric effect and a profound sense of light emanating from darkness. Arrayed like jewels at her left hand were the spools of iridescent rayon threads she was using to hand stitch details on the abstract composition.
The cumulative effect of simple, repetitive motions – placing one small stitch after another – is integral to Burks’ creative process, which for her is a form of meditation. Burks’ father was a minister and instilled in his daughter a deep sense of art-making as a form of prayer, a way toward solitude, compassion, and understanding.
“I want to set my own example of compassion and understanding by not being the bull in the china cabinet,” Burks said. By working slowly and methodically, Burks performs a quiet miracle, transforming her spirit into art.
Yet, Burks’ spirited works are grounded by the earth.
Because she was born and raised in Oklahoma and spent most of her adult life in Indiana, the vastness of the sky and the hues of the prairies and rocky landscapes of the Midwest shaped the color choices in her earlier works. However, after relocating to Whidbey Island with her husband in 2007, Burks said that “more and more greens are showing up in my work.”
And she means that quite literally. One of Burks current passions is experimenting with natural dyes from plants, such as dandelions, stinging nettles and elderberries that she collects on her property and on excursions around the island. She uses her harvests to hand-dye yarns, fibers and fabrics before incorporating them into her mixed-media art work and wearables. Enthusiastic about sharing her experiences and knowledge with other local artists, Burks leads a natural-dye study group composed of members from Whidbey Island Surface Design and Whidbey Weavers Guild.
Although Burks minored in art (her major was Spanish) at the University of Oklahoma, she did not become a professional studio artist until 22 years later, when in 1997, after having worked as a librarian at various public and university libraries, Burks said that “part of me was not participating in life.” She realized that she needed to retreat to the art studio in order to become fully engaged with the world. So Burks quit her library job to focus on making art. While she had studied painting in college in the early 1970s − because fiber art was not yet an option in most degree programs – Burks’ focus turned to “using fibers creatively – stretching the normal use of fiber by using their physical properties.” She threw herself into her explorations of all fiber-related media – dyeing, spinning, weaving, patchwork, art quilting, paper making and felting.
One artist Burks admires is Andy Goldsworthy, a Scottish artist who uses objects of the landscape, such as stones, branches or snow, to create monumental sculptures in the landscape. Burks also loves using what’s simple and available to make it special. Scraps of paper, bits of metal, raffia – these humble materials are treated with honor and respect and gain special significance in Burks’ hands.
“Thematically, I am exploring internal and external landscapes,” said Burks. “The majority of my work is informed by my interaction with nature and the spirit of the place, whether it is physical, spiritual, or mental.”
Not just nature, but all those years spent in libraries and her love of books have left its mark on Burks’ artistic output. “While I am a visual artist, I tend to create a body of work that is to be read sequentially, much like a book is read,” she said. To fully experience her art, Burks said, requires the viewer to spend time reading all the pages of the work. It is very intimate and instinctive work, she said.
You can see and purchase Burks’ art work and art wear by visiting Mary Burks Studio, located at 60 Willard Way in Coupeville on the Whidbey Art Trail, a year-round touring trail of artists’ studios on the island. Hours change according to the season.
Burks’ studio will also be open as part of the Whidbey Working Artists Summer Studio Tour during the last two weekends in August. In addition to being the Silent Auction artist, Burks will have other fiber art for sale at WISD’s Art Show & Sale this weekend at WICA. The weekend-long event opens Friday, May 24 with a Meet-the-Artists Reception from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and continues from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 25 and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 26.
Visit Mary Burks Studio website here.
Visit Whidbey Art Trail’s website here.
Visit the Whidbey Working Artists website here.
(Pictured at top is a detail of Burks’ textile “On the Edge.”)
Laura Stangel Schmidt is a writer, a mixed-media artist and a member of Whidbey Island Surface Design.