Floating Leaves and Memory

HAPPILY, the world – even central New Jersey – is filled with artists who create alluring paintings, prints, sculpture, mixed media. Rarer is the artist who, as a teacher, can create an entire generation of artists who produce eye-catching work. Jean Burdick falls into both categories.

Full disclosure: When my sons, now 22 and 25, attended grade school at Maurice Hawk in West Windsor, Ms. Burdick was their art teacher. One son, it could be said, had an aptitude for line, color and character, and the other, it must be said, did not. Yet, week after week, each came home with their own versions of Van Goghs and Matisses that we proudly displayed on the kitchen walls – and continue to all these years later.

As evidenced by so many of her students, Jean Burdick has the ability to bring out the artist in every child.

And so it is a special treat to see the prints and paintings she has created, on view at the Nassau Club in Princeton through May 9. It’s also a chance to learn about botany on a microscopic level. Here’s what she writes about these botanical forms called quillworts: “A strange submerged aquatic plant, similar in appearance to a small spring onion, but actually a relative of the club mosses and ferns. The stem is very short and completely hidden by the long, narrow, tubular leaves. Quillworts produce spores instead of flowers or fruits.”

Using biology textbooks as her source material, the Yardley, Pa., resident draws abstracted symbols and uses paint or silkscreen on either panels or paper. In some cases, she uses charcoal and collage to recreate these underwater worlds. The final product is all about layers, and the layering process is so seamless and subtle, it’s hard to see all the work that went into the final composition. She uses acrylic as if it were translucent layers of egg tempera.

The paintings and prints seem to capture microscopic cell forms dancing, partying and having a wild time. The colors are playful and soothing, the textures run the gamut from smooth to gelatinous. “They can be read in several ways,” the artist remarks.

Ever since her childhood in Lancaster, Pa., Ms. Burdick has been inspired by the natural world, picking up objects that fall from trees and, fascinated, sketching them. “In our technology-driven world, (this series) allows me to reflect back on sustaining life forms,” she says. “I enjoy the element of the unknown with printmaking. Each process affords a variety of results and each result is interesting to explore and develop.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute, a master’s in painting from The University of the Arts and completed a residency in Visual Arts at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. She received the prestigious Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Visual Artist/Educator Fellowship Grant to travel to Tuscany, Italy, two summers ago to study printmaking, and has taught printmaking at Mercer County Community College. Early in her career, she worked as a textile designer, and her fascination with pattern and texture continues. “Patterned images can suggest intimate or distant connecting systems, aerial and topographical maps or evidence of cellular division, mutation or reproduction,” she says in her artist statement. She is interested in how forms relate, connect and disconnect, and their interdependency.

During her 10 days in Tuscany, Ms. Burdick produced a plate a day, from which about three variable prints can be made – each is individually inked. The ink was still wet when she had to pack up and head for home – it’s hard enough traveling with a one-quart Zip-lock bag of 3-ounce fluids these days, let alone an oeuvre of prints hot off the press. These have velvety tones and depictions of flora she encountered in Italian gardens and the grove around the medieval castle in which she stayed. In the umbers and siennas of Tuscany, there are pine nuts from a cypress tree that reminds Ms. Burdick of the quillworts, as well as olives and olive branches. These representational images have a pastel softness.

“I was influenced by the terra cottas and the incredible sunlight,” she recounts. “I wanted a change in palette and to push myself in a different direction, as long as it was part of the learning process.”

Ms. Burdick  found herself mesmerized by the turquoise color of her cousin’s South Beach swimming pool, where the leaves were floating, clustering and drifting. She saw that they never reconnected, and some became submerged and drowned. “The floating leaf is my metaphor for the transformation or deterioration of our memory over time,” she writes. “Fading, disintegrating and dissolving, as our consciousness can fade in or out of clarity. Our memory becomes a shifting terrain between what is certain and what is uncertain.”

Beginning with digital photographs, she created silk-screens and screened on the form of the leaf with its veins and crackles. There is painting on top of this, and the surrounding water is rippled, reflecting the light.

In her 19th-year in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, Ms. Burdick has been teaching for more than 30 years. “I like to stay current with gallery shows and bring it back into the classroom,” she says. As an advocate for museum education, she takes her students to the Princeton University Art Museum, Grounds For Sculpture and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “One of my biggest influences,” she recalls, “was when my father took me to the galleries on 57th Street (in New York) during the Pop Art movement, and I was hooked. I knew then I had to attend art school.”

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One Response to Floating Leaves and Memory

  1. Oh, I wish I had had a teacher like Ms. Burdick. Mine was so discouraging of everything I produced.
    I love the whole concept of layers and will see the exhibit on Monday when the Princeton Officers Society has their dining out with the ladies.
    Thanks, to you, Ilene, I now have more knowledge to really appreciate these works of art.

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