Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sneak Peak: Karen Burmeister Part III and the Urge to Commit Art

One of her last works.
During the month of August I have shared a couple blog posts featuring the work of Karen Lynne Burmeister whose collages will be unveiled to the public in a September exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute, the opening reception is September 10. This is part III the first two posts being an introduction to her work followed by an overview of her life and career.

Karen was the middle school Art Teacher at Marshall School for nearly twenty years. She was a beloved teacher. The outpouring of sympathy and support from her students (and former students) after her diagnosis brought tears to her eyes. The reason she was loved by her students is easy to understand: she truly respected them and their work. She believed children had an innate ability to express themselves profoundly through art.

Karen believed with her whole heart that everyone is born with a basic human desire for beauty and self-expression, a desire that reaches all the way back to the beginning of our existence--the Caves of Lascaux and beyond. The drawing exhibited was done by one of her students. She was so taken by this drawing she framed it and hung it on the wall of her studio.

What follows has been written by her husband Loren Martel.

Last Work
Another of her last works.
As time passed, Karen’s health did not improve. Despite all our hopes, she grew weaker. She began having more difficulty both with cutting out images and working in fine detail. In the past, she’d sometimes used a type of finished plywood for her working base, her canvass. She asked me to cut her some larger pieces. She spread out images she’d previously taken from magazines and books over the years. She laid on the floor, with pillows and blankets around her.

By then, she was also battling the negative effects prescription pain narcotics have on mental acuity. Her work subsequently lost some of its verve. This tragic erosion of a rare creative vision is evident in progression from image #1 to image #3. But Karen kept working, and still managed to create works of art that were very beautiful.

The boy in the center of image #3, her final completed work, captures much of Karen’s artistic inspiration. The boy’s posture suggests all the pathos of human life, briefly thrown into a world that is, on many levels, very seductive and beautiful. Karen’s artistic eye is illustrated well by another detail of this image: the ledge the boy is sitting on is a broccoli leaf. Look closely at the shape of the leaf and the way it captures the light. The ability to see the evocative beauty of such a banal object was one of Karen’s gifts. I see that boy sitting on that broccoli leaf as the last spark, before the creative light went out.   

Works in Progress
This is an image from her peak period.

Like Karen’s final completed work, the first piece I included as a work-in-progress is weak in composition, though still rich in imagery. This is the very last piece she worked on at all. She was, to some degree, just using up images. She was especially fond of the image in the top center--the two women talking on an old cobbled street, backlit by shop lights and the numinous shapes of stars. She found a few new images in magazines, but only rough-cut them, because she no longer trusted the dexterity of her fingers to cut them cleanly. To create anything, much less a work of art teaming with so much life, while her own was ending, is testament to her spirit.

Though I consider it finished, and a good piece, I included image #2 as a work-in-progress, because Karen remained undecided. She was still contemplating some of the colors and the symmetry of the composition, but she was happy with it overall. She liked the energy. The piece had also gotten jostled pretty badly in her studio and I couldn’t be certain I’d rearranged all the images perfectly, before gluing them down. One more reason I included it as a work-in-progress is because there were still some lines of text scattered amid the images. Karen drew on the inspirational power of words and sometimes placed text in an art piece while she was working. I remembered where two phrases were in this particular piece, and glued them where she had placed them, just to show the process.

Karen was fond of the third piece I labeled as a work-in-progress. (EdNote: Not on this page but at the show.) She was pleased with the image and felt it was complete, but was still contemplating using it as the nucleus of a larger work.   


One is struck by their evocative dramatic quality.
Karen used to say she wanted to experience something artistic in her life everyday--an exhibit, a book or a good movie. She was a perennial member of arts and book groups. Occasional trips to the Twin Cities for gallery hopping or some other cultural experience was vital for her soul. Even after finding her passion with collage art, Karen continued to attend life drawing workshops, drawing primarily in charcoal and colored chalk. As in her collages, she often portrayed the human figure in an occulted world, where shadows sometimes have shadows, and mysterious darkness is tinged with wild beauty.

Karen was also always drawn to the haunted feel of ruins. There was an old abandoned homestead along the Chippewa River in Wisconsin where we used to often walk. The second drawing is a sketch of the house. Karen naturally gravitated towards an angle in her artistic subjects that exposed entrances and exits. She was deeply fascinated by the metaphorical power of portals and passages, of secret paths and worlds hidden within worlds.  
A strikingly surreal feeling pervades many of the pieces.

Final Statement

We spoke one final time about Karen’s art, the day before she died. She told me not to worry about it. She said, “Just throw it all in the garbage, honey.”

One of the reasons she said this I can only speculate about. I think when we approach the brink, everything on this side of the veil looks exactly as it is--mortal vanity. The other two reasons she said this, I’m certain of. The first is because she was always humble about her talent. A sweet humility was one of her most endearing traits, especially in a world where egotism is overwhelmingly prevalent. The other reason is because she was worried about the strain it would put on me, after everything we’d already been through. But there was never any question this had to be done. It was necessary for everyone to see just how gifted Karen was, and to appreciate her refined aesthetic sense. It was essential for her beautiful, unique works of art to be preserved.

Bottom Line: Don't Miss the Show
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To see more of Karen's work and read more about the pictures visit Sneak Peek and Sneak Peek Part II.

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Burmeister's work was scanned by CPL Imaging, a premier service agency for art reproductions and preservation. They will likely be available for purchase at some point in time.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Hope I see you at the opening.

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