Episode 37 Radio Maine: Martha Burkert

 

11/21/2022

 

 

 

Talking Perspective 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. And today, I have with me artist, Martha Burkert. Nice to have you here today. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Thank you. Glad to be here. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So it didn't take too much effort to get across the causeway from where you live, right?
 

Martha Burkert:

 

Yes, I live right on Cousins island and not far from here. In fact, I walk this path almost every day. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

It's a pretty beautiful part of the world, isn't it? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

It really is. I split my time here. So every time I get up here, I'm just overwhelmed by the beauty. Each time it's like it's new. It's wonderful.
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So, if you split your time, where are you the rest of the time?  

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Half the year I'm in Dallas. And it's about as different from Cousins Island as you can find. And I love it, but I'm always glad to leave and get up here. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So, tell me, what is the Dallas connection? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I was actually raised in Texas and have lived there on and off pretty much my whole life.  My family moved up here to Maine full-time in 1994.  We spent over 10 years here and absolutely fell in love with it. And then, when a job took my husband back to Dallas, I was still working up here a little bit and kind of always had my eye on maybe getting a little cottage.  When this little cottage came up on Cousins Island, I kinda jumped on it. And we've been coming up here ever since as part-time residents. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And where did you meet your husband? Is he also from Texas?

 

Martha Burkert:

 

He’s from Louisiana, New Orleans, and we met in college. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I understand  that you actually have an English degree. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I do. I have an English degree from Tulane University.  I was planning to be an English teacher and that got a little bit derailed when I graduated and was offered a job working for a company in New Orleans in human resources and jumped on that and did that for several years. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

That's really interesting because you wouldn't necessarily put an English major in human resources and then an artist. 


Martha Burkert:

 

No, it's a little bit of a weird path, but you know, I don't think I would have ever become an artist had I not moved to Maine because I didn't start painting until I was 40. After I worked in human resources, I sort of transitioned it into more creative work, but I had never actually painted. And I got up here and I thought I've got to paint this. And then I thought, but I don't know how to paint. So a good friend of mine was an artist here in Yarmouth, and she told me that I needed to go to Maine College of Art. And she told me who I needed to take a painting class from. And so I did, and it just grew after that. And I continued to take classes there for many years. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Tell me about the work that we have behind us. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, this is a piece that I did this spring and it incorporates a lot of things that I love. I am a passionate amateur gardener, and I love the trees that bloom here in Maine in the spring. And so I've always painted apple blossoms and whatever else was in bloom. Several years ago I started doing ceramics. And so I've incorporated ceramic pieces into my paintings that I've made. And this is a hand-built pot that I made. I changed the color, I'm not a truly representational artist. I’ve changed the color a bit in it, then the pink Stripe was an add on. I was painting this the first day I got my COVID shot.  I came home from getting my vaccination and  I was so overcome with joy that I said, I need a pink Stripe in that painting. I think the name of the painting is pink Stripe with joy. I should know that, but it certainly felt that way that day. So that's kind of the story of that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

 

That's a really wonderful story. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Thank you. It was absolutely done after the fact. I mean, I was about 90% finished with the painting when I thought, I need a little joy there. So I added it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And these blossoms, these must have been some of the first blossoms of spring. I would think they were.

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I planted in my yard a little Grove of crab apple trees in Texas because they grow here. Also, they grow a lot better here, but I planted them. And so I'm able to clip these probably in February and March. So that's about the timeline on this painting. So it's really nice because I can paint spring blossoms there for a couple months, then I come up here and I can do the same thing all over again. So I kind of get two seasons of spring. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

You can kind of follow the spring in this sort of Northeast fashion.

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Right? The only thing I can't do down there is get any fall color. That's not possible because there's not much. But, there are flowering trees. So I take advantage of them. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Do you wait to leave to go back down there until after the fall is over? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Every year is a little bit different just depending on what's going on.  It’s kind of hit and miss, but I stay as long as I can. And I love the fall in Maine, I think it's absolutely wonderful. I just love it. So I try to stay through October if I can. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Are you inspired by different things when you're in Dallas, as opposed to when you're here in Maine? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I don't think so. I think my interest really over the years has evolved into something pretty not specific. But, there are some things that I'm really interested in. I'm very interested in flowers and gardening and being outside while I'm doing that, obviously. And anything that goes along with that. And so, I've recently in the last couple of years started working on paper, which is something I'd never done before either.  I'll often take a branch or a flower and just kind of lay it down and then paint that with a water based media. So there's a lot of similarity between them. I've flattened the plane a lot. So even in my works on board or on canvas there is a very flattened plane. I also do that on paper where it's completely flat where it feels like you're just looking down at it. I don't know why, but flowers have always inspired me in the landscape. I also paint more traditional landscapes, but that's a theme that comes up over and over.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Where do the ceramics come in? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, you know, when you are an artist you work alone in your studio. I am not a solitary person by nature, but I love my time in the studio. I was really wanting and gravitating towards doing something artistic, something creative, but around people. It's also something I knew nothing about. I also wanted something I could do during the winter. And when I was in Dallas with an artistic community, because really my artistic community is here in Maine. So I found a wonderful pottery studio and started taking classes and loved it, I just loved it. I really loved the craft element of it. The fact that your hands had to lay on clay for a certain amount of time before you understood what it was going to do. I'm not saying I'm any good at all, but I love it. And so I think it was just a desire to be around other artists and make things. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Did you feel impacted by COVID because of the social isolation aspect of things, or were you already kind of isolated because of the work that you do now?

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Oh, I definitely did because I spent more time in my studio that's for sure. But, it has been wonderful to have this opening, to get out and be with friends again, and do all the things that you get to do in Maine in the summer. But I would say, definitely, I was impacted by it. I don't know that it actually translated to my work, but it definitely impacted me. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I notice in some of the work that you do, you use a lot of blues. In particular, you were interested in sharing a few different pieces and there was quite a bit of blue in the pieces that you were interested in sharing with us. So tell me about some of these pieces that you think are most representational of your art. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, I've selected two pieces. First of all, they're Maine landscapes, and of course that's a love of mine.  And as I've said, I'm not a particularly representational painter. I don't paint from photographs.  I will paint from a very small limited sketch.  I'm out sketching in the summer, and then I kind of take all that stuff back to Dallas in my studio, and I look at it and I think about it and I will translate that onto the canvas.  But, I think I selected these because one of the things I really love about Maine is the different seasons. And we have seasons in Dallas, but they're not as pronounced, and life doesn't change all that much from season to season. When in Maine, totally different things go on in every season, which I just love. And so the first painting, Autumn/ To the Island is of course, Cousins Island. Autumn is when everything turns, the trees turn red, but the ground turns gold and it's just wonderful. I love it. So that's what that painting came from. Then another thing that I love about being here, especially in the winter, which I don't get up here very often in the winter, but I try to get up at least once. When you live in a big city, you never see the stars because there's a pink glow above you all the time. So I get up here and I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the stars. So I wanted to paint something that sort of brought that out. It's hard to paint paintings at night on location. I've only tried it a couple of times and it didn't go well. But anyway, that was just a feeling, I wanted to get the beautiful winter sky on canvas or board. Then the other two paintings I brought, that I think are good representations, are Dahlias From Above. I'm a very amateur Dahlia grower and they're tough. So I sort of went on to memorialize that I had a little bit of success with it last summer. Then I'm always fascinated. I have one called, Dahlias From Above, and the other, In The Tall Ones at Dusk. I'm always interested in how things look from down below or how things look when it's darker. Trying to find the very darkest I can make something and yet still make it vibrant. So that was kind of what that painting was trying to do. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I'm smiling to myself because you used the word representational, then I used the word representational, but what I meant to say was representative. And it just reminds me that there's this whole other language around art. That as someone who was an English major, there's a whole language around English and around writing. Then you went into learning art and painting. How did you find that kind of transition and actual learning that language, and learning to kind of understand some of the underpinnings? 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I do not have a formal art background. I never took an art history class in college, mainly because the book was so expensive and heavy. So, clearly, that was not a good plan.  But I have always visited museums, have been interested in art, and knew who painters were. And, as I said, I did some creative work before. When I actually picked up a paint brush, as far as the language goes, it's a little intimidating when you first start.  I probably would have never thrown the word “representational” around because I  wasn't really quite sure what it meant. But as I’ve lived, I feel a little more comfortable using language that I never thought would be in my vocabulary.  You know, I hope I'm using it correctly. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, as I'm talking with you, I always hope that I'm using language correctly when it comes to art. Because I think that, for people who have been in art a long time and done a lot of education in art, they can use words that just fly off the tongue and everybody understands exactly what they mean. I have a beginner's mind when it comes to this, and I'm very excited to soak up the knowledge, but I never pretend that I know all of the vocabulary at this point. So I wondered how you felt going into that, taking classes at the Maine College of Art, when they started throwing words around.

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I have to say my instructors were so supportive. They just want you to enjoy what you're doing and learn to paint. And it was never intimidating. Also, the students were very supportive. Most of them were about my age. I was not enrolled in the regular college. So they weren't college age students that we were painting with. We were painting with people that had always wanted to do it their whole life, and we were  finally getting to do it. And it was wahoo! They loved it. So it was very supportive and it was a great place to learn to paint. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

That seems to be a theme that comes up a lot. I mean that there are certainly people that continue their art from the beginning. They know this is what they want to do. They keep doing it. It kind of evolves over time. And then there are people more like you, that knew this was something they were interested in, but came back around to it. As you were waiting to come back around to it, how did your creativity manifest during those intervening years?

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, I've had a couple of careers. I was a location scout and a stylist primarily for catalogs for many years. I was around photographers and I was creating sets and figuring out how to make a product look really good. Looking at houses in terms of whether we can shoot in here, what's this going to do? How are we going to do this?  So I had been around creative people and I created myself. I had done the creative work but it was different. I never showed my work, or sold my work or had someone come in and decide whether they liked it or not. Well, that's not entirely true because that did happen when I was a location scout and stylist but it was a completely different thing. That part kind of evolved naturally. There was a small gallery in Yarmouth, the Thomas Spencer Gallery that was very loyal to local artists. That's where I had my very first show when I was about 41, or 42. It happened pretty quickly and pretty naturally because I knew a lot of the people that came in. It was a very local gallery. So my introduction was eased a little bit by being in Yarmouth. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

As part of our Off the Wall magazine interview with you... Off the Wall for people who are interested is the publication that we've created that essentially tells little stories about the artists that are represented by  the Portland Art Gallery. In that interview, you mentioned the artist Alfred Chadbourne. I particularly enjoyed that reference because when I was quite young, I would deliver the newspaper to Chip and his wife who ran a little daycare. In fact, we lived across the street from them, on Church Street. I just knew them as this very friendly couple that gave me a purse one Christmas for a tip for delivering their papers.  It wasn't until afterwards that I realized he really was a very well known artist and quite talented. So to have an artist of that caliber coming from Yarmouth is something. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Absolutely. I have to say one of the kind of big moments for me in terms of deciding to paint happened after we moved here and I walked up stairs in the Yarmouth library, to the second floor. I'm not sure it's still there because I haven't been up there in a few years, but they had a gorgeous painting of his that was a winter scene and I just about fell on my knees. It was so beautiful. I thought  this is something really special in the library. I had to know everything about him. And of course, they had his book that he had written. The library staff told me about the book when I asked her about the painting. I checked it out and then of course I ended up buying the book and then I ended up actually finding an older book that he had written. It was a guide on how to paint. I just devoured those two books. What I loved about his artwork is, first of all, he was a colorist, which I was very attracted to, but also he gave himself permission to leave things out. For me, that was as big a lesson as anything because to me, the Maine landscape is very complicated. It's very layered and you really might be able to do it justice but you have to take some of it out. At least I do. I shouldn't say everyone does, but I need to take parts of it out. So looking at his artwork and how he looked at a scene and did a sketch, I pretty much do sketches. I don't want to compare myself to him, but he did very loose sketches and that was my guide. It really helped me not to get hung up on every detail that's in front of me and it's okay to leave things out. It's okay to emphasize something.  It's okay to flatten the plane. It's okay to look at something from a different angle from above or lower.  I think we're getting kind of into the weeds of painting here, but it was fascinating to me. It was a big lesson. Those two books have been very instrumental to me. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, now I want to go out and get those books. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I'm not sure if they're still in print but I've got them if you want to borrow them. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Well, maybe we'll have to do that. This is the way this always works for me. As I hear something, I go, “oh, there's a squirrel!” I'm going to go follow it.  I usually learn so much from that sort of approach. So you also mentioned Mary Cassat as a painter that you admire.

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I love her work. You wouldn't look at my work and think there was an influence. But what I love about her work, and I do think you could follow this in my work, I love that she painted humble family scenes and women. Working women, doing things at home. I have always felt like quilting and pottery, things that women traditionally did, were as high an art form as anything out there. I have recently created a couple of paintings where I've taken quilts that my grandmother made and I'll use those under a piece of pottery and some flowers. I really feel like I know those art forms have gotten acknowledgement that they've never had in the last few years. And I am just thrilled about that because I think there are things that women have been doing at home that are as high an art form as you can find. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

Why do you think that this type of recognition is finally being made?

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, in terms of quilting, I do think that recognition started early. That's been in the last 20 years or so with the quilting that was done in the south by primarily black women.  Also, I think that the young, the millennial, I guess they're called millennials, my kids generation, they have really brought making things into the forefront that I don't feel like my generation did as much. They really value handcrafted things. So I think that's had a lot to do with it too, because I think a lot of those traditional crafts have sort of had a resurgence with that generation. And I think it's wonderful. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

You raise a good point. When I was growing up, my mother had a sewing machine. She made Halloween costumes for us and dresses for us. She had 10 kids. So she didn't do this forever. I don't think the 10th child had any homemade outfits. But, she also taught us how to bake pies and cook.  

I think we got so into the digital world that the issue of having something to touch and to hold and to kind of ground us, we maybe got a little away from that for a while. I do see my own children, especially my daughter, who works as a sous chef. She really likes to have her fingers chopping and touching. When you talked about going into ceramics, it kind of reminded me of that. You use your brain but you also use other parts of yourself to interface with the world. 
 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, that's absolutely true.  In talking, and correlating cooking with ceramics. There's a lot of correlation to baking in terms of rolling out dough, as you roll out clay. There's also a lot of correlation to sewing because if you're building something by hand, you're going to have a dart in it, which you would call it in sewing. It's interesting because my very first instructor would ask you, have you ever sewn? She said, if you have, you will understand this a lot better. And so there is a lot of crossover there to the type of crafts and skills that you use your hands and your mind with, which is interesting. I do know how to sew, I’m not a great baker, but my grandmother did teach me to sew. So I do understand about following a pattern and things like that. So I think that's one of the reasons that, especially the hand building, came a little more naturally to me. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And also the gardening that you're describing. When I've gone through times that I can't get my mind  to calm down, I go out and I just start pulling some weeds or I plant some flowers. It just brings me back to, oh, okay, the world kind of keeps on going. Even if your mind is not going to let you calm down, the world's just going to grow flowers. The trees that are going to get bigger or the seasons are going to move along.  I think being able to come back to nature can be very helpful. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I think it's really reassuring to know,  with whatever's going on,  spring is going to come. The bulbs are going to come up and it's very comforting. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

And I am struck by, again, looking back at the piece that you and I talked about earlier. There are so many different elements that reflect a lot of these ideas that we've just been talking about. I mean, you've got the ceramics, you've got the flowers, you've got the idea of rebirth, you've got the idea of joy. You also incorporate the work that you've done with styling things where you very specifically put together something then you paint it and bring it out into the world. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

I think that's true. I often will start a painting and then realize I need to be higher on the scene. I need to get up higher and sometimes I'll end up on a painting like this. I might actually put it on the floor and paint it from above. And that's very much straight out of my past styling career. I’d ask “are we high enough on this shot? Are we low enough on this table?”  I think it gave me freedom.  I had the experience to know I can get above this or I can put it higher and get a different angle on it.  It doesn't have to all be shot at eye level and or painted at eye level. So I think that's very true. I do take a little bit of time when I'm arranging things, because I also paint a lot of glass vessels for flowers. And you really never can paint glass because every time you look at it, it's different. You may turn your back to the easel and the light is completely different in it. I will often move it around because maybe the bottom of it captures this beautiful light reflection and it doesn't if I'm two feet lower or two feet higher. So I'm constantly moving things around to find something that peaks my interest in what I'm painting. So I do think that comes from being a stylist, for sure. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

So you are always considering perspective in a really interesting way that maybe not all artists are considering. That is an important part of art generally, but you come at it from this very practical way from having used it as part of your styling and photography work. 
 

Martha Burkert:

 

Right,  I think so. I've thought about that, “why do I not go into anybody else's studio and see stuff on the floor that they're painting?” And then I'm thinking well, because I was used to having to do that every now and then. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

For people who might be thinking that they would like to go back and recapture an early interest in art, the way that you did, do you have any suggestions? You said you had someone who suggested taking this class at the Maine College of Art with this particular professor.  What would you say to somebody who asked you that same question? 
 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, I have people ask me that because a lot of people know that I didn't start painting until later. My advice to them is do it. And they say, well, I don't know how to draw. That's usually the biggest  thing that people throw up for the reason they can't do it. They say I'd love to, but I cannot draw. You know, drawing is helpful, but you don't really know if you can draw with a paint brush until you try.  So my advice is to just take a class and see what you think, and if you enjoy it, keep going. A lot of people think they need to start in Drawing 101 for five years so they can do that shaded apple over and over and over. For a lot of people, that is the way to go and they love it. Then, that's where they end up and that's fine, but don't let that be a roadblock. Just take a painting class. Even if you think you don't know how to draw, because painting is really drawing, but, it is also figuring out that you just look for your darkest dark and your lightest light. And don't think about what you're painting. In other words, don't think of it as an apple, think of it as a series of dark and light colors. Think of it that way. Then you don't get hung up on the drawing aspect of it, because that can be a big burden for a lot of people. 
 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 

I've been speaking with artist Martha Burkert. You can find her art at the Portland Art Gallery, also online, at the Portland Art Gallery website. I've very much enjoyed my conversation with you today here on Radio Maine. Thank you for coming in and talking with me about painting. 

 

Martha Burkert:

 

Well, thank you for having me. It's been wonderful.