Robert Burke’s creative paintings tell the multi-hued story of his difficult childhood.
ROBERT BURKE’S STUDIO is north of Duncan, nestled in rolling farmland. The studio is spacious, with large windows and an oversized garage door. Inside are many boldly-coloured canvases stacked up against the walls. Other canvas paintings are rolled up on a large table, waiting to be transported and then re-mounted on location. Burke is happy to talk about his long and varied career, and his March show at Winchester Galleries.
“I use vivid, eye-catching colours to brighten up sombre memories,” he says. Burke is referring to his mixed-race background and turbulent childhood. The artist was born in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories in 1944. His mother was Metis, of Dene descent. His father was one of nearly 4,000 conscripted black soldiers from the southern United States. These segregated soldiers were part of the Coloured Engineer Regiments enlisted to build the Alaska Highway during World War II. The black recruits worked from the north, in frigid temperatures and difficult terrain, building corduroy roads from fallen timber. The white recruits worked from the south on the 2,400-kilometre route. Eight months later, the two regiments met on October 25, 1942. Their joint success was an achievement for engineering and race relations.
Painter Robert Burke
But Burke never knew his father. Until age four, he was cared for by various community members, as his mother was unable to support him. He was then taken to a residential school in Fort Resolution, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, almost 100 miles away. “In residential school I learned you had to fight to survive,” he says. In all, he was in residential schools for 10 years.
With his black heritage, he became one of the “silent breed” ostracized at school. His paintings tell the multi-hued story of his perplexing childhood: “My silent voice is found among the colours,” he says. In an essay published a few years ago, Burke wrote: “I believe that it is my right to express myself as an Aboriginal, while still recognizing my black ancestry.” As he noted, “my grandmother was Aboriginal, but without entitlement, because her father had accepted government ‘scrip’ in exchange for allowing his Aboriginal status to be revoked, back when governments of the day were trying to extinguish Aboriginal land titles.”
“They Never Came Back” 2012
“They Never Came Back” is a triptych measuring 54 by 90 inches. The painting was part of the “Silent Breed” exhibition held in Fort Smith in 2012. “Silent Breed” received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. In this triptych, the composition flows from panel to panel with a harmonious progression of images. Like prominent puzzle pieces, the motifs repeat and fit together. For example, the neck of a dark blue bird becomes a dark hill in the adjacent panel. There is balance and a sense of cohesion that leads the eye through the varied iconography.
The shapes have symbolic meaning for the artist, and can be read in various ways by the viewer. The blue buffalo head, in ceremonial garb with a human torso, points to buffalo territory, the artist’s ancestral home. Three colourful ravens, prominent, add a jaunty energy to the piece. “I am very fond of ravens,” says the artist. “I admire their intelligence, shiny blackness, and mythological status in West Coast storytelling.”
A figure in a hard hat suggests a soldier at work. Another male in dress uniform and peaked hat says “officer.” “I believe my father was a sergeant in the army,” he says. The insignia of a sergeant is a three-bar chevron worn point down. Top right is the moon and several disappearing male figures. The faces of the figures have complicated patterning, making them difficult to read and decipher. The faces appear startling and impenetrable, a reference to the tenuous nature of emotional connection for this isolated, mixed-race child.
How did the artist learn to make these remarkable paintings? “I have always been an artist,” says Burke, “drawing and painting as a child, I created my own worlds.” Later on, he learned about technique and style from books. Then, after a long and successful career in the logging industry, he enrolled at the Victoria College of Art at age 53. He graduated in 2000 and stayed on an extra year. At this time, his art career was given a boost by the National Aboriginal Foundation. The foundation collected two of his triptychs, part of a larger series called “Aboriginal Immersion: Obscuring the Lines.” This series showed at the Nanaimo Art Gallery in 2008.
Another series, “My Residential School Experience,” received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. Jim Logan is an Aboriginal artist who worked for 16 years as a Program Officer for the Canada Council. He recalls how jury members saw something unique in Burke’s hard-edged interlocking shapes and patterns. “Burke shows great control in his brushwork and imagery,” Logan says. “There’s lots of emotion, but it’s carefully laid out and precisely detailed.” His mural-like diptychs require careful reading, Logan notes, unfolding from left to right like a series of hieroglyphs. Logan finds it fascinating that the artist draws from both sides of his cultural background, without fully identifying with either one.
The artist’s vibrant palette reminds Logan of Fauvist artists like Matisse, who used colour for emotional impact. African tribal influences appear in some of Burke’s facial masks.
Logan admires Burke for dealing with his past in such a creative way. “Robert has his own perspective,” he says, “and positive ways of managing personal experiences.”
Burke is a prolific artist who can paint a canvas in about a week. On an easel in his studio, there is a large sheaf of drawing paper. On the paper he sketches out free-flowing designs with charcoal. Some fish shapes, sketched in charcoal, have re-emerged in “Gathering of Seniors.” This 2020 artwork shows mature salmon returning to spawn. The joyful palette of green, red and blue overrides any gloomy thoughts of final days. These are dancing salmon, resplendent with stripes, polka dots and linear patterning.
“Gathering of Seniors” 2020, 31 x 35 inches, acrylic on canvas
“Moon Gathering” 2019, 38 x 32 inches, acrylic on canvas
Burke, too, is in a peaceful place in his life. He’s been married to Debra for 46 years and their family is close, with three sons and a daughter. And yet. “I know my time is running out,” he says, “and it’s time to simplify things.” Still, I imagine a few more paintings will emerge before this talented painter hangs up his brush.
A solo exhibit of Robert Burke’s work runs at the Winchester Galleries March 25-April 16, with an opening reception on March 28, 2-4pm, 2260 Oak Bay Avenue.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.