The Maturation of an Artist: An Interview With Lydia Burris
Most of this quarter's articles have to do with change and maturation of some kind. These developments are nowhere more evident than in the early part of a person’s life. The École de Beaux-Arts, France’s famed school of art and architecture that reigned supreme in western art education from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century did not admit students over the age of thirty. Today, we see this as an ageist, unacceptable practice, but the teachers at the école argued the minds of students over that age were already too solidified to be thoroughly taught. Having been in many studio art classes, I have to say I think they had a reasonable argument. One might interpret this as a sign the professors were hopeful to inherent blank slates to brainwash, and to an extent, that’s probably accurate. But invariably, the oldest students in any of my art classes have been the least able to pick up a new skill set and work with it fluidly in a reasonable amount of time. They tend to labor and fuss; there is something about being unencumbered by the trials of life that leave the young willing and able to pick something up and run. If you’re among my more aged readers, I’m sure there’s hope for you! George Bush has become quite the artist in his post-presidency days. But this is a story of a young artist coming into her own.
All of us have stories to tell. No art production could take place if that weren’t the case. Cave paintings are nothing other than a series of symbols used to depict the story of a particular people. Lydia Burris is my dear friend, a very capable artist, and my main subject. During an interview about the evolution of her work, she told me she has documented every piece she has made since the age of 14. Few artists have the sense to keep such a trove, but it’s such a useful thing to do as it allows for great self-reflection. Before I go on about a few of Lydia’s works, I’d like to throw this thought out into the void: artists are usually thought to have big egos. Largely, I’d say this is are reasonable stereotype and even those who have learned not to let it show tend to struggle in this area. I think it would be difficult to be a great artist without a bit of ego though. The best artists have to look back at their work constantly they are creating and think about how they can improve upon it. In a sense, they have to stare at themselves over and over again to achieve big results. We all have to do this to some extent, but art production is visible to everyone with eyes that see. So an artist’s process of maturation is particularly evident to anyone who cares to notice it. People with no ego at all would find it very difficult to believe the stories trapped inside their heads were worth putting down on paper, much less continue telling the stories at the first sign of inevitable criticism.
Lydia has just the right amount of ego to confidently tell an interviewer about her works while remaining genuinely humble. She is one of those forever student types whose appetite to learn new ways of visual production is insatiable. I asked her first about a piece she made in her early twenties for her mother. It’s a painting of some sunflowers, a bundle of lavender and some wheat on a murky teal background that fades into obscurity at the edges. It’s a sweet piece created for a loving, proud parent. It shows lots of apparent technical skills and a natural ability on the part of its maker to realize the need to employ unrealistic elements to obtain a realistic result. By this, I mean that while some young artists can become bogged down in laboring over every single detail resulting in a piece that provides no particular viewpoint, Lydia happily forced her audience to see not just a bunch of sunflowers, but sunflowers that took on a particular mood. She doesn’t have to tell us these are not Tuscan sunflowers for us to understand that. These are Midwestern sunflowers meant to celebrate her mother’s childhood in Kansas. If they were Tuscan, Lydia would have painted the background a sparkling blue and the light would feel more like that deeply penetrating light that bakes over Italy in the summer heat.
But these are plains flowers, so space behind seems cool, and the accompanying wheat seems to be swayed by a prevailing wind. She didn’t have to use words to provide this perspective, but subtle queues. Still, this isn’t the painting of an extremely mature artist. It tells a story of one place over another and a story maybe of heritage, but it doesn’t really pull us into the depths of her mind.
Next, we talked a little about a pair of digital illustrations Lydia made. One represents Seoul, Korea, a city she has visited several times; the other portrays Portland, Oregon, her hometown. In the sunflower painting, Lydia used a series of markings to make her viewers understand they were looking at the petals of a flower. The marks weren’t actually petals, simply strokes of a brush in various shades of yellow and red. In these pieces, she hasn’t attempted to portray the entirety of Seoul or Portland to make her audience see those places. Instead, she has plucked a few of each of the cities’ most prominent icons and used them to symbolize the given place. After some talk of exactly how much definition is required to make a symbol reference something specific, Lydia wondered if she were to take the titles off these pieces, how many people would figure out what places she was telling them about. While I’m fairly certain most people with even remote knowledge of either place would guess accurately, the question did get us both thinking.
Another important thing that came up in discussing this pair was the difference in the making process of digital work. We talked about how the media, still very, very new in the history of art making, radically changes the game in that it allows an artist to render a watercolor painting, but does not allow for any happy accidents. In real watercolor, even the most skilled painter only gets one shot to make the paint and paper meet the way he or she wants. If it doesn’t work out, a new story must unfold. We saw a terrific happy accident in one of the final pieces of Lydia’s work we looked at. It’s one she very well might have changed had she been working digitally, but the constraints of wood cut media forced her to go forward with what she felt was a bit of a mistake.
Lydia’s woodcut is undoubtedly my favorite of her works I’ve seen. It radiates the same joy she does whenever she enters a room. It’s a bit otherworldly; its subjects, a child, and his elephant seem to be departing reality and heading off on an adventure in a dream state where perhaps the ground is really an eld of giant watermelons. Indeed, the ground in this composition is what Lydia was unsure about. Instead of appearing as an error though, it is just abstract enough to invite curiosity, but not so bizarre as to be distracting. Lydia’s failed ground is a critical piece of the story. Its rolling motion carries the boy and his elephant on to their dream world.
Lydia is now working on an illustrated children’s story based on this piece. She’s currently doing the drawings in sepia ink with a quill and brush, but I hope she decides to make the whole thing out of woodcuts. That’s the media I think she’ll realize her fullest, most mature artistic potential. That point will be reached when she takes us through the rolling watermelon hills to whatever world she knows beyond and tells us the story that only she can see. I cannot wait to know that world; to know it will be to begin to know her completely.