In one of the pieces in Nancy Burnham’s new Alaska State Museum exhibit, “Quill 3,” a row of horizontally placed porcupine quills extends down the middle of a smooth expanse of off-white wax, framed on both sides by textured pieces of wax-covered fabric. The art piece, part of a series called “Morning Ritual,” provides a good entry point for Burnham’s new solo show, as it draws on images from her personal history while reflecting one of her major themes: beauty and pain.
“This is based on the idea of an experience I had with my grandmother growing up,” Burnham said in an interview this week. “She would get tied into her girdle every day in the morning and then taken out at night. I was a witness to that, and it seemed so bizarre to me to go through that much trouble to look attractive. So that’s where a lot of these, what I call ‘Morning Ritual’ paintings come from.”
The quills in this “Morning Ritual” piece resemble a spine running down the center, with the fabric pieces suggesting the sides of a corset.
Body imagery is evident in other pieces as well, notably in an installation made up of groupings of hanging pod-like forms made out of cotton batting, stuffed with bundles of quills. Like the “Morning Ritual” series, this piece, “Quill Factory,” is also connected to the overarching theme.
“I think of them almost like an ovary or womb shape,” she said of the cotton pods. “And putting quills in there is very significant. I deal with the idea of beauty and pain in a lot of my work and that’s how I look at these. It’s a beautiful object and yet it has all this pain associated with it, or danger associated with it,” Burnham said.
Burnham’s wax pieces are encaustic paintings, a technique that involves applying hot wax to a work surface, usually with a brush, in layers. In the past, Burnham created her encaustics this way, but now her approach is different. While experimenting, she poured wax directly onto her work surface and was pleased with the effect. She went with it.
“Then I just started pouring more and more, and probably about three years ago I started working primarily with poured wax,” she said. “It’s been a lot of trial and error and working out different ideas.”
At some point in her recent experimentation, she also left color behind.
“I’ve always had the desire or goal to work in black in white because I had worked in color for 15 years,” she said. “I wanted to do something a lot simpler.”
Many of the pieces at the Alaska State Museum feature base squares of translucent off-white wax, on which the quills stand out as strong graphic elements. Burnham uses the quills — most gathered from road kill — in different formations, sometimes grouped together with more hair-like quills, sometimes placed on the wax in shapes or lines.
“I use (quills) mostly as marks. I consider myself a mark maker,” she said.
The quills’ dark and light coloration support the black and white aesthetic. Some of her pieces also include lines and shapes she’s created on (or in) the wax in graphite, black string or India Ink. On several of the ink pieces, Burnham has drawn a series of cell-like shapes that, like “Quill Factory,” draw on images from the physical body.
“I was a nurse for a long time so I’ve got an experience with body parts and tissue underneath the skin, so I think about a lot of cellular type stuff when I do some of these,” she said.
At the show she will also have a group of smaller, sculptural pieces resembling flower forms. Some incorporate cotton or wool.
“I did a few of (the flower pieces) about a year ago and I found the shapes really intriguing,” she said. “I used a floral book for reference and got a lot of ideas out of that. But I don’t like them to look too pretty.”
Burnham, who lives in Ester, said she wanted to go to art school out of high school but didn’t think she had the talent so she pursued nursing instead. She might have left her art behind if not for a class she took at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she said.
“After my kids were 7 and 12, something like that, I decided to take a painting class, and then I was just hooked,” she said.
She ended up getting her master’s degree in fine arts from Johnson State College in Vermont.
As an art form, encaustic painting is very old, Burnham said, dating back to the Egyptians.
“It actually comes from the early Egyptian days where people were painting images onto sarcophagi — they used encaustics to do that. And those things have survived.”
Burnham has previously shown her work at the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer and at the Fairbanks Arts Association. This is her third show, hence the name, “Quill 3.” Two of her works were also featured at the Anchorage Museum as part of their All Alaska Juried Art Exhibit.
Burnham said moving forward, she plans to keep on with her exploration of the beauty/pain theme, which continues to fascinate her.
“There’s a dichotomy that exists there. And I just can’t let it go,” she said laughing. “So I’m going to keep working with that theme.”
Burnham’s opening will be at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17 at the state museum, and she plans to attend.
She will also lead a youth workshop in encaustics on Saturday, Jan. 18, from 1-4 p.m. at the museum for high school and middle school students. The workshop is sponsored by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum. For more information, call 465-4809.
“Quill 3” runs through Feb. 28 and is the last exhibit planned for the museum’s downstairs space prior to the museum’s move into the new building, currently under construction on Willoughby Avenue.
It also marks the end of the museum’s Solo Exhibit series for the 2013-2014 season. The season has included exhibits by Nicholas Galanin, Ben Huff, Drew Michael, Dave Rubin, Dick Benedict, Kay Field Parker and Tommy Joseph.