Cynthia Burke is a local artist who paints in a style similar to that of Alex Gross and Mark Ryden. Her studio at the McGuffey Art Center is filled with inspirational objects, and dozens of quirky paintings hang on the walls. We paid her a visit to find out more about her work and her artistic vision.
Tell me a little about yourself as an artist.
Well, obviously I paint birds and animals. I never expected that I would be painting them forever, but there just seems to be no end to the subject matter. When I first started out here at McGuffey, I was painting these floor coverings, huge floor cloths, a type of early American craft that I updated to be more modern. Those were done with acrylic on canvas. From there, I moved them to the wall where I worked on them like tapestries. They were all representational and had a medieval feel, much like the Unicorn Tapestries of the late 1400’s. I always put animals in them, and then I started leaving the people out. I realized that I enjoy painting animals much more than I do painting human beings.
From there my work developed into a portrait style, very much in the line of medieval portraits similar to that of Hans Holbein and Jan van Eyck. I swear that I am reincarnated from the 1500’s or the 1600’s because whenever I need to be inspired, that’s where I go. That being said, I have never done a pet portrait, and I have also never painted an animal in its natural habitat. Somehow I feel that to get away with painting animals you have to do something really different with them. But I have been doing these portrait-style paintings for a very long time, and I love doing them.
Animals are very dignified, so the portrait medium feels right. There is something about staring into the eyes of an animal; if you stare into the eyes of a person in a portrait, you have such a clear feeling for who they are and what they are, but the longer you stare into the eyes of an animal, it feels as though you know less and less about it. You never know what’s going on in there. It’s fun to watch the viewers of my paintings staring into the eyes of the animals that I paint. They are immediately making up what is going on inside the head of that animal.
I had a show once where I painted nothing but chickens. The pieces were large ovals, and it was framed like a hall of ancestors. It was so much fun watching people look at the pieces because they were all going along the hall exclaiming, “Oh! This looks like my uncle, and this looks just like my aunt!”
Recently, I have started a new series that is going to have a lot more narrative in it. I’m trying to keep it open to the viewer so that they can create their own narrative.
Do you have any formal training?
Well, I was an art major and received my BA, but I can’t say that I really learned anything during that time. I’ve learned more through the process of painting every day.
What would you call your style?
I would call it fantastic realism. There is also an element of surrealism because it is very dream-like.
What is your medium?
I use oil paint and Liquin. If it is a smaller piece, it is always on board, and the larger pieces are on canvas. For me, that just works. Obviously, I also make all my own frames. I think framing is so important. And with these pieces, it just goes with the period to be a little overboard on the frames which is a lot of fun. For the bigger frames, I use a molding and there is gold leaf on the front and a subdued pattern on the sides.
What is your method of working?
That depends on what series it is. The ground is always a color, often pink or Prussian blue, which is a really wonderful base. But some pieces I put together piecemeal, whereas others I have done by completing the background first and then adding the figure later. A lot of that has to do with the subject matter as well. I paint very thinly in oil and I use Liquin which is a fast drying medium so I don’t have to wait. I can continue working the next day.
Why painting and not photography or another medium?
It doesn’t get more precious than paint. Hopefully, painting won’t die out entirely. It’s a little worrisome because photography seems to be very dominant right now. I just love painting. It’s a wonderful craft and it’s unfortunate because as people paint less and less, their knowledge of the craft also diminishes. It’s a craft, and I don’t want it to be lost.
Do you use photographic sources?
Yes. Usually, I use a whole bunch of photographs, many of which I have taken myself since I have traveled all over the world. I’ve been to Africa and the Galapagos Islands, South America, India, and a lot of places that offer a lot of beautiful nature scenes. China and Morocco have really influenced my work since I am very drawn to textiles and patterns.
How do you choose your subject matter?
Where does creativity come from? I’ve really been trying these days to not know ahead of time where a painting is going to end. I think you spend a lot of years trying to gain control of your medium, and one day you are controlling it too much. It can take a lot of the creativity out of the end product. It doesn’t leave the door open for surprise.
Recently, I never know where my work is going to go. I don’t do a drawing ahead of time and it’s more of a stream-of-consciousness process. It can take longer to complete a piece because one day you’ll finish up in the studio and you’ll say “Wow! That’s great. It’s been a really good day.’ And the next morning you come in and wonder “Argh! What was I thinking! That looks awful!”
How long does it normally take you to finish a piece?
I work in various sizes from very small to very large. I’m a fast painter and I can finish a small painting in two days, whereas the larger pieces can take me up to a month to complete.
How regular is your studio practice?
I’ve always wanted to do art, and I spent quite a while trying to figure out how to make a living off of that, which is no small feat. I reshaped my lifestyle to get closer to the purest form of what I wanted to do. I started with a faux finish wall painting business. That was as close to being a painter as I could get. And it was very successful, so successful in fact that I realized I wasn’t doing my art. I didn’t have any time to. Then for a while I was doing the floor cloths and tapestries while maintaining my business. But finally, I went cold turkey and started just painting. By that time, my work was starting to sell. I am a really hard worker, and I am here working every day. If you are going to be self-employed, you have to acknowledge that the buck stops here. Your only recourse, if you aren’t making it financially is to make more art! And get it out there! Plus, it’s what I love to do.
It would be very hard for me to do this from home. Because coming here is like going to the office. When you are at home, there is always something else you could be doing. But if you go somewhere else then you have to maintain regular hours because you are at work.
I also usually work in series towards a show. I have a show a year from now, so I try to work simultaneously on work to sell currently as well as work for my upcoming show.
Who do you consider to be your audience?
Being right here at the McGuffey is wonderful. I have been here for many years, and although people don’t come through here in droves all the time, First Fridays is a good time to meet new people. I also have work in a few galleries away from Charlottesville. Some of those venues I pursued and others found me. I also have a web presence.
There is a balancing act that I have had to get used to between painting what I want to paint and painting what the market demands. It’s a very fortunate artist who doesn’t have to pay attention to that line. Even extremely successful artists have to give some thought to their audience and what they want. I try to provide a variety of sizes, shapes, media, and content. There is a lot going on and a lot of options.
What is your favorite Bodo’s bagel?
You know, I’m embarrassed to say my favorite bagel would probably be the plain one.
With anything on it?
You can see more of Cynthia’s work on her website, Studio Burke, or in person at the McGuffey Art Center near the downtown mall.
~ Rose Guterbock and Aaron Miller