Alumna’s ‘Creation’ series of six vibrant, colorful paintings hangs in renovated Suter Science Center

Alumna Katherine Burling's six-piece “Creation” painting series hangs in the Suter Science Center after several months in storage. Burling, now a graduate student in the master of fine arts program at James Madison University, recently returned to Eastern Mennonite University to participate in an alumni art show with Ashley Sauder Miller and professor Cyndi Gusler. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Alumna Katherine Burling’s six-piece “Creation” painting series was stashed carefully in storage while Suter Science Center renovations were completed. In the ensuing months, much has changed in Burling’s life. She’s now in her first year in the master of fine arts program at James Madison University.

But this month, the paintings which began as an undergraduate class assignment, were hung with ceremony.

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Katherine Burling at work earlier this year. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Burling thinks it’s fitting to have her painted offspring reside at her alma mater. “I grew up there, in a way … I could not have found a better home for the paintings.”

Ironically, the process by which “Creation” came into being was almost tortured: the canvases were ripped off their stretcher bars, thrown away, re-stretched, repainted, displayed in the Margaret Gehman Gallery, and shown at Clementine’s downtown before being purchased by EMU for $3,000 and lovingly cared for since.

Creation is also a metaphor for the artist Burling has become. The former peacebuilding and development major switched to art halfway through her junior year, energized by her visual intuition and the hands-on productivity of the art studio. She suddenly switched to 18 credits of art classes, including Professor Barb Fast’s papermaking class, which first excited her about the possibilities of making art professionally.

Her first two painting classes, though, were a struggle. In retrospect, Burling says that she had to learn the medium, making dissatisfying works before developing a “cohesive visual language.”

The “Creation” series, inspired by Genesis, “was sort of about mortality, existentialism,” but its first manifestation so displeased Burling that she cut the canvases off their frames just before the class concluded.

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“Creation” was exhibited at Clementine’s in downtown Harrisonburg before being purchased for the Suter Science Center. (Courtesy photo)

After coming back to the canvases later with renewed inspiration, a student loan for art supplies, hours of disciplined work and some Jay-Z tunes, the final form of “Creation” emerged. What began as seven paintings, representing the seven days of creation in Genesis, became six asking “what place creation has in our lives,” says Burling.

At the Margaret Gehman Gallery opening of Burling’s senior show, art professor Cyndi Gusler remarked that to chemistry professor Tara Kishbaugh that “Creation” would “look knock out” in the new Suter Science Center. “The artwork is bold, colorful, layered with paint and meaning. It evokes rather than dictates viewer response,” said Gusler.

Burling’s style, non-objective and playful, is “about a fusion of opposites.” Its imperfections are intentional – meaning to convey incompletion, rawness and transparent mark-making (the name of her senior show was “The Mark-Maker’s Playground”). Burling enjoys getting paint on her fingers, building frames, and scratching texture into the pigments – sometimes so much so that she rips the canvas.

“My aesthetic welcomes mess and madness whether it is on my physical body while working, or on canvas,” said Burling in the artists’ statement for her senior show at EMU. “So too do I invite the aesthetic of the imperfect, the mark of the human hand; for my hands are the most immediate and intuitive conduit for my ideas, my inner musings—an imperfect vehicle for divine inspiration. I want my aesthetic to honor that.”

With not even a brush as an intermediary, Burling experiences “Creation” as vibrant and life-giving, a process filled with both joy and anguish—and now visible to those passing by its new home.

Published October 2015.