Scott Burdick | The Ties That Bind

Scott Burdick travels the world painting our shared humanity

By Norman Kolpas

Scott Burdick, Wings of Blue, oil, 21 x 30.

Scott Burdick, Wings of Blue, oil, 21 x 30.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

A few summers ago, Scott Burdick and his wife, painter Susan Lyon, were driving across northern Idaho. Their destination: the home and studio of a deeply respected friend, the sculptor and painter George Carlson, who lives in the town of Harrison, on the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene. But their journey took on a surprising new dimension when, in a vast field not far from the lake, they happened upon the Julyamsh Powwow, the largest annual outdoor gathering and dance celebration of American Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

The vast sea of people in an array of colorful traditional costumes excited and inspired Burdick, who diligently photographed and sketched the scene. A few weeks later, back at his studio near the 160-year-old Victorian farmhouse where he and Lyon live in rural Quaker Gap, NC, he began work on a 70-by-68-inch oil painting that aimed to capture the panoply of images he’d witnessed. In a process that took about three months, he first drew the complex composition directly onto his canvas in charcoal before bringing it to life in richly colorful oils, rendering the central, life-size faces and costumes in meticulous detail, while a more abstracted background evoked the event’s dazzling swirl of figures and activity.

Burdick submitted THE GATHERING, as he titled the painting, to the 2015 Prix de West Invitational, held each summer at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. At the opening gala, the thousand or so people in attendance voted to bestow upon his piece the Jackie L. Coles Buyers’ Choice Award as the work they most admired.

“I felt very honored,” he recalls—adding, with down-to-earth modesty, that he also felt “awkward and sort of embarrassed” that such a discerning group of collectors should choose his painting, “because there were so many great painters there.” Upon reflection, he adds, the work brought him an additional level of satisfaction over the course of the exhibition. “So many Native American people who visited Prix de West that year wrote to me to say that they were so excited to see my painting, because powwows are such an emotional thing for them.”

Those sorts of cultural discoveries, and the deep personal connections that come from learning about and painting them, provide the impetus for Burdick’s career. “In some ways,” he says, “painting is just an excuse for me to explore and learn. My inspiration comes from the people I meet on my travels.”

Art quite literally opened up a world of possibilities, and hope, to the young Burdick. Born 51 years ago in Chicago, he spent long periods of his childhood on crutches and in wheelchairs recovering from seven or more surgeries on each foot for severe clubfeet, which spanned from infancy until his senior year of high school. Starting when he was barely old enough to hold a pencil and make marks on paper, his mom began distracting him during his convalescence with the popular how-to-draw books written, illustrated, and published by California painter Walter T. Foster. The step-by-step manuals, Burdick explains, showed him “how you could break down anything you wanted to draw into simple geometric shapes, down into smaller and smaller details.” It was, he says, “one of those magic moments, a revelation. I remember the wonder at seeing how you could look at the world in a different way.”

Art quickly evolved from a distraction into a passion. He drew constantly, took some lessons from a talented woman in his working-class Italian neighborhood, and had his mom lobby the administrators at Holy Cross High School to let him enroll in art classes even though his high test scores showed he had college-scholarship potential in science or math.

By junior year, with money he’d earned from a variety of part-time jobs along with occasional portraits he’d draw, Burdick started taking life-drawing classes led by legendary teacher Bill Parks at the American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago. And Parks became his mentor when, after high-school graduation, he enrolled full-time at the Academy on a scholarship. “He taught me not only all the basics, but also the philosophy of art and the importance of treating it as something serious you’re really concentrating on,” Burdick remembers.

He was also driven to teach himself as much as he could. Needing to earn money for expenses beyond his tuition, he visited the school’s job board every day, seeking extracurricular work. “Any job that came up there,” he recalls with a chuckle, “I would call them up and basically lie. ‘Can you do a four-color illustration?’ I would say, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely no problem.’ And then I’d go to a bookstore and read through a book on four-color illustration, or ask Mr. Parks, and quickly learn how to do it. I probably became an expert in advertising work.” He also sold many of his student paintings and drawings, and he took on any portrait commissions that came along.

That’s not to suggest, however, that Burdick spent every moment outside of classes earning his living expenses through art. Every afternoon and on weekends, he also attended portrait-drawing sessions at Chicago’s illustrious Palette & Chisel Club, located in a mansion in the heart of the city’s Gold Coast Historic District. That’s where he struck up a friendship with famed painter Richard Schmid, who had moved to Chicago while his daughter Gretchen studied at the Academy. “I learned by painting alongside him, watching and trying to paint the same thing,” says Burdick. Schmid also opened the young artist’s eyes to the possibility of making a living exclusively by selling his work through galleries, rather than the route he’d been considering in illustration. “I began to see that there was a market for the types of paintings I liked to do,” he recalls.

So Burdick set out to become a full-time fine artist. “For the first five years,” he admits, “it was a huge struggle, and I was living check to check”—including portrait commissions he’d eagerly take on. Eventually, more and more notable galleries took him on, his prices began to rise, and he was able to stop doing commission work. “It was a gradual process, and a lot of practice at Palette & Chisel,” he sums up.

Another encounter at the club proved especially momentous. The year after he graduated, he met Lyon, who had just started at the Academy. They began dating and have now been married for 26 years.

For the past 21 years, Burdick and Lyon have made their home in North Carolina, which brings them both aesthetic and practical benefits. Their property is surrounded by woods and adjacent to Hanging Rock State Park; the setting bestows a natural serenity on their lives and gives Burdick ample opportunity to go on the hikes he loves. At the same time, it’s a short drive from the metropolitan resources of Winston-Salem. Equally important for two self-employed artists is the low cost of living there. “The house is paid off, so if [sales] go slow, we have no debt,” says Burdick. “And when things sell, we can travel.”

Things have been selling well for the couple in recent years, as their travel itinerary might suggest. From Africa to Tibet, Peru to Nepal, Turkey to Greece, and Thailand to China, Burdick and Lyon have crisscrossed the globe in search of people to meet, learn about, and paint. “Before we go [on trips], I’m so interested to read the history of the country and its religious texts,” Burdick says. That often leads to fascinating conversations he enjoys having with his subjects as he sketches and photographs them.

Burdick is just as passionate about making such connections closer to home. Take, for example, his recent work SERENITY. The life-size portrait shows Serena, an American Indian girl who posed along with other family members near her grandmother’s house wearing traditional tribal clothing. Burdick photographed and sketched the family last year while he and Lyon were in Oklahoma City for the Prix de West Invitational. Fittingly, he’ll be debuting the painting, along with another of Serena’s cousin, at this year’s show—and, no doubt, reconnecting with Serena and her family. “That’s a good example of why I love being an artist,” he says. “Painting is just getting to know people.”

That, along with an openhearted desire to share what he has learned, is also the driving force behind what Burdick describes as his and Lyon’s “open policy” in their studios. “I’ll have a lot of younger artists come over, I’ll hire a model, and we’ll paint together for two or three days,” he explains. “I really do want to help the next generation.” Just a few of the now-successful artists who have benefitted from his guidance are Scott Tallman Powers, Eric Merrell, Brent Cotton, and Logan Maxwell Hagege.

Indeed, Burdick looks forward to a show late next year at Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles that will tie together a variety of artists, styles, and subjects, all with the common goal of portraying people from varied societies and walks of life around the world. “I wish there were more shows,” he says, “that had that kind of cross-pollination, showing the ties between all these
different cultures.”

Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; Germanton Gallery, Germanton, NC; Wilcox Gallery, Jackson, WY; Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Maxwell Alexander Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

This story was featured in the April 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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