Passages North interviews cover artist Jennifer Burton
Associate Poetry Editor Cameron Witbeck talks to Passages North's new cover artist Jennifer Burton about ghosts, syrup, and wallpaper design as a career. Cameron: The more I look at the cover art you created for the latest issue of Passages North, the more enjoyment I get out of it. You’ve created this wonderful blend of minimalism and realism in this kind of “American Black Bear Gothic.” Can you describe your artistic process for creating pieces like “Bear Hug”?
Jennifer: The process is really the same for all of my paintings. I have a large collection of old photographs that I work from. I rummage through the photos until something strikes my fancy. I use the photos as reference; the paintings do not look like the photographs, they are a place of departure. Once the figures have been painted I find a new environment for them and decide if they need to have any friends join them.
Cameron: You said that your work draws some of its imagery from old photographs in family albums. What is it about these kinds of photos that stimulates your creativity? Are there any other interesting source-materials that you feel particularly inspired by?
Jennifer: The answer to that has changed over time. Recently, I’ve been thinking of the people in the photographs as ghosts (because the photos are mostly of such an age that the people have since died). Sometimes I have a large group of photos from one family and I try to piece together their lives, or watch them age through their annual Christmas photos. I like to think I’m giving them another life through the paintings. It’s not literal, of course, but I do feel like I’m bringing them back to life in a way. Daily observations and the way we relate to one another make their way into the paintings as well.
Cameron: Who are the people in the original picture that inspired “Bear Hug”? Is there a story behind that photo that you know or that you imagined?
Jennifer: I don't know who the people are in the original photograph. They looked so serious that I thought they needed a little levity, and that's where the bear came in. I seem to be drawn to that juxtaposition.
Cameron: You mentioned in your bio that you have a painting on “one Starbucks mug.” What other non-traditional medium would you most like to see one of your paintings on, and why?
Jennifer: When I was graduating from high school we were given a questionnaire to answer for the yearbook. One of the questions was about the job we saw ourselves doing in the future. I said I wanted to be a wallpaper designer, which at the time seemed cool, but also ridiculous. It didn’t seem like a job that really existed. Now that such things are so accessible, I think it would be fun to create some work suited for wallpaper. (And as a side note, like so many other things in high school, I’m pretty sure I never turned that questionnaire in).
Cameron: In all of the paintings I saw on your website there seems to be at least one animal or nature-centric element that is paired with a person or people. Could you describe the relationship between the people and natural components in your work?
Jennifer: I’ve noticed that as well. It’s one of those unintentional things that just happened and continues to happen. Maybe my dog and cats are sending me subliminal messages?
Cameron: What’s your favorite animal to paint? Is it the black bear? Because the black bear in “Bear Hug” looks like he was created with love.
Jennifer: I don’t discriminate; they are all created with love!
Cameron: One of the graduate students here at NMU is from Vermont, where you also reside. He possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge about the intricacies and subtitles surrounding the state’s production of fine maple syrup. Could you explain the love affair that exists between Vermonters and that sweet, sweet syrup?
Jennifer: Are you suggesting that the love affair is not universal? Although I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years, I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that question. It is best put to a true Vermonter, someone who’s been here for at least six generations. But if you really want my opinion, it sweetens the air during sugaring season and our plates the rest of the year. And it tastes wicked good!
Cameron: What kind of projects are you working on right now? What might we expect to see from you in the future?
Jennifer: I continue to work from old photographs. I have amassed a large collection so have a lot of people to bring back to life. At the moment I'm working on half a dozen paintings in various stages of completion. I've also done a rough draft of a children's book that I'd like to finish sometime.