An interview with abstract painter Kelly Burke
Your work seems very personal and connected to your mood or your view of the world on a particular day. You strike an interesting balance between feelings and ideas…the vague and the specific, the soft and the harsh. Do you paint in response to specific events in your life or the world around you? Do you find that your mood changes while you paint…that the very act of exploring your state of mind changes your state of mind?
I want to thank you for your thoughtful questions! It’s great to dig deep and talk about your work. It is rare for me to go into a painting with a specific direction in mind. I do not sketch. Sometimes I will have a specific color palette I want to capture and then I let the forms appear naturally. On other rare occasions I will create a painting inspired by a specific mood / feeling / event. For example, I painted “The Bride” and “Toujours Fidèle” after I had become engaged. Otherwise, my work stems from the sub-conscious and is very intuitive. That being said, I think it’s impossible for outside happenings in our lives NOT to affect our work, no?
My mood changes constantly! There are some paintings that bring me great joy and are easy to paint. There are others that challenge me to the core. It’s routine for me to experience an emotional roller coaster while working on a painting. My feelings range from over-confident to dismay, frustration, and then to proud. Knowing this, sometimes I am too incredibly intimidated to even start one, and have to force myself to start working. I feel like my “aha” moment was while working on “My Loving Touch (Je T’aime).” That’s when I realized what my work was about, which is exactly what you stated in your question: exploring my state of mind – which is sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh.
I love the titles of your paintings: they provide a little bit of meaning to lead us into each abstract painting, and focus our attention in a certain way. Do you know beforehand what you’ll paint and have a title selected, or do you make the painting and then see what sort of name it needs?
99 % of the time I just start laying color down and see what happens. If I try and have too much control over the work, it will feel forced and inauthentic to my process and what I’m trying to convey. Letting go and losing control takes practice! I always figure out a title afterwards. In college, I used to leave a lot of my work untitled. I don’t do that anymore. Titles provide a hint of what the piece is about; I try to keep them short and simple so as to leave room for the viewer to form their own interpretation. When figuring out a title, I try to remember what I was feeling while working on the piece, then find a word that best describes that feeling. When I’m lucky, I will already know the title of a piece when I’m adding the final touches.
Can you describe your process? Do you work quickly, or does it take you hours or days to build up or break down the layers and forms in your paintings? Do you have a schedule or paint when the mood strikes you? Do you work in a studio? Do you listen to music while you work, and if so what?
Most of the time, I will have paint left over from a previous work that needs to be used. This results in similar color palettes in groupings of paintings. I always start with large fields of base color, knowing full well that they will be painted over later, then pulled back up. My work has many, many layers of color, but because I work in acrylics, I am still able to work quickly. Each piece consists of repetitive layering and taking away; wiping with rags or scratching with palette knives, my fingernails, etc. Sometimes I can make one complete painting in a single night, most others take several days or weeks depending on my schedule and how the piece is challenging me. Each work session varies in length; sometimes I’ll work for two hours, sometimes I’ll work for seven hours.
We converted our master bedroom into a shared studio space (my husband is also an artist), and the second bedroom is an office/storage space. So our bed is literally in our living room, despite having a two bedroom apartment. Like my art process, my studio schedule is erratic and spontaneous. I paint when I want to – sometimes I feel like I have no other choice but to paint. I will paint wherever and whenever, even at my part-time job as a painting instructor, which provides me with a separate downtown studio space and materials. I also spend a good amount of time on the logistical part of being an artist: marketing, searching for galleries, etc. I have to be in the right headspace to begin painting, so in reality, when all of the stars are aligned, I paint!
I do listen to music or podcasts. I listen to R&B, art rock, mood electronica, almost everything! Some favorites include: the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Amy Winehouse, Marian Hill, Disclosure; it’s all about singles now instead of albums, so I’m finding new artists everyday online. I also really enjoy the Creative Pep Talk podcast by Andy J. Miller. I almost always need auditory stimulation – but sometimes I’ll be so in the “zone” that I can paint in silence.
What other visual artists inspire you? What writers or filmmakers inform you work?
The Abstract Expressionist New York Group are my superstars – especially Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. I also love Rothko for his ability to take you to another place with color; Howard Hodgkin, for his ability to work so small, lush and loose; Antoni Tàpies, for his use of unconventionial materials and rawness; Richard Diebenkorn for his form and color; and Gustav Klimt for his lush, beautiful portraits of women as goddesses and his paintings’ likeness to mosaics. Some contemporary artists I enjoy include: Leonardo Drew, Claire Desjardins, Wendy McWilliams and Heather Day. While in university, I was very interested in Buddhist symbolism and Southeast Asian art and wrote my thesis on the Buddhist Goddess Guanyin’s transformation within different sects. I feel these aesthetics and ideas are still in my work. For example, the circles or orbs in my paintings were inspired by the Japanese enzo; a symbol of cycles; in life and in practice. I expand that a little and use circles and lines to represent the feminine and masculine; opposing forces in nature.
In regards to writing and film, I enjoy cerebral stories. If I’m ever too bogged down with things, I will force myself to go to a bookstore or watch a movie to get inspired. There’s not one particular director or writer that I consistently follow, but I am very inspired by the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things brought me to my knees! To me, it’s a novel about how love, life and happiness is fleeting, and nothing is permanent.
Everybody gets a question from the Proust Questionnaire, and here is yours: Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
Joan Mitchell. I’m such a fan girl. She was badass and sassy, and really stood her own ground in the male-dominated art world of her time. Yes, she was quite mean to people, but could also be very giving and kind-hearted. I can very much relate to her art process.