Whether they go into artistic fields or not, I think it’s about fostering their imaginations and their ability to problem solve and work in different dimensions; those are all incredibly important skills and I think that offering an active imagination to any future career is really essential, and you can a lot of that in the arts.
If you’ve never seen one of Bobbie Burgers’s immense floral paintings in person, it’s worth a trip. Most are well over 70 by 70 inches and they burst with emotion. Over the years, her paintings have evolved from more literal interpretations to something wrought with passion. Burgers is open about her journey to becoming the artist we see now, talking about her development and anxieties over the years.
“Creating art and wanting to create art is something that has to come as a need-to-do feeling every day that builds and builds; the more you do it, the more you feel like you need to express yourself,” she says.
What started as escapism in her childhood and teen years evolved into that need-to-do feeling she describes. “Doing [art] courses and working on my own when I was very young, and finding solace and peace in creating built on itself over and over again over the years. I would find myself turning to painting or drawing in all my quiet moments in between school and in university.”
In her early 20s, Burgers decided to pursue art full-time. She tells me she got lucky, that she held a little exhibit at a community gallery and by the time she was 22, she’d had several positive experiences seeing people’s reactions to her work and selling out quickly at shows. Hardly the struggling artist trope portrayed in film, but Burgers says that despite her early success, she’s still trying to figure out her artistic voice.
Creating art and wanting to create art is something that has to come as a need-to-do feeling every day that builds and builds; the more you do it, the more you feel like you need to express yourself.
“I’ve spent the first half of my career building up my technical skills and the second half trying break free from what I had created in my earlier years,” she says. She’s still seeking her voice: “One that is free from any other influences or one that is not in the vein of somebody else.”
Barring context, painting florals may not seem like anything new. And that’s where Burgers sees a challenge to be answered. In the early days, her paintings were more literal: a vase of flowers sitting on a table, for example. She’s broken it down over the years. “As I move along I feel like I can drop elements. It becomes something that has just the slightest reference and you can sense where it’s coming from but it’s not literal.”
To do that, Burgers has had to change her approach. Ten years ago, she struggled with it. “How do I make it more about transformation and decay and growth and beauty in decline and all these other [themes],” she asked herself. “How do I drop simple things, like a stem or a vase?”
Pulling plants and flowers from her garden or orchard, Burgers often works from reality. Eventually, she started to see her subject matter as past, present, and future all layered together because she experienced the flowers from seedlings to decay. “When I did that and I let go of it being a moment in time, and more about layered in emotions and layered in time periods, I was able to kind of really break open a whole new door for myself, which I’m still exploring. And now I feel like there’s more of a tumbling, there’s sadness, there’s joy, there are all these different emotions that can be brought in. There’s a fierceness, there’s a little bit of rebellion.”
I’ve spent the first half of my career building up my technical skills and the second half trying break free from what I had created in my earlier years.
Some artists can start from somewhere more abstract, Burgers tells me, but for her the process was necessary. Now, she feels that having gone through that, she understands the layers of emotion that go into each piece.
“I don’t meditate or anything, but I would maybe compare it to a meditative state, where you know what you’re doing and you’re aware of it, but your mind is also thinking about a whole bunch of other things. When I became more in tune with that, that my mind was wandering, I think my paintings started to layer in those things and those thoughts. There’s light shifting around, there are noises from outside, there are kids running through, there are personal feelings, and so they go from more aggressive or angry moments when I’m frustrated, and then layered in with sweet melancholic moments. I think I started to bring in more of my personal mind wanderings into the paintings.”
A mother of four, Burgers has filled their home with art and freedom to be creative. She shares life lessons with her kids, both in terms of creation, but also in conversations about solving problems.
In her 20s, Burgers found the works and hours daunting and lonely. Now, she says the days fly by. “There’s never enough time,” she says. “The days don’t feel long enough.” She attributes it to hard work and dedication to her craft, building what she calls artistic stamina.
“I often talk to my kids about that, that you build up your stamina for how much you create,” she says. But there’s more to it, because you can’t force that work ethic unless you’re passionate about what you’re doing. “It’s that wanting to create and wanting to explore and finding that quiet time to yourself, a very reflective time, and personal exploration. No teacher or anybody is going to teach you that yearning and that curiosity.”
Indeed, that yearning comes from within, but Burgers encourages it to bloom in her home. The family often spends time together working on art projects. In the summer when they visit their orchard property where there are fewer distractions, they stock up on supplies. “I keep bins of interesting papers or materials we might be able to use, so we can work on everything from print-making to papier-mâché to jewellery to painting ceramics to creating ceramics. We’ll try everything.”
My paintings started to layer in those things and those thoughts. There’s light shifting around, there are noises from outside, there are kids running through, there are personal feelings, and so they go from more aggressive or angry moments when I’m frustrated, and then layered in with sweet melancholic moments.
She creates an environment in which the kids, and often their friends, feel comfortable to create. She doesn’t bombard them with rules, but she does extoll the value of finishing their work. “I always try to say you’ve got to keep on working at it: you don’t just throw out the paper after 10 minutes because it’s not going the right direction. You have to solve the problems that you’ve laid out for yourself.”
In her own work, Burgers tries to maintain the same push. “There’s a fine line between giving up and letting things go because they’re not feeling natural.” As a younger artist, Burgers would have never considered not finishing a work. She felt it was a waste of resources and time. At times throughout her career, however, she’s recognized when she needs to just step away. In fact, this past summer, she did just that.
“I started losing that sense of play that’s needed,” she tells me. Instead, she needed to come in with fewer expectations and let things go a bit more. She told herself, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m just going to let my mind try this out. I have to just experiment sometimes because even with the mistakes, you learn maybe one or two interesting new marks, or ways of interpreting things comes through.”
She’s also (mostly) figured out when to take breaks. With the work seemingly endless, taking time to refresh with hikes, biking, or swimming in the ocean is crucial. In the summer, she’ll spend time in the garden pruning or raking, picking fruit in the orchard.
There’s a fine line between giving up and letting things go because they’re not feeling natural.
With the four children, Burgers has noticed how differently their creativity manifests. “My oldest daughter, her abilities were always more in drawing and fantasy and really whimsical, more along my style and my leanings; that’s the way her brain works. And then my second child is more analytical, and she’s going into possibly design.”
There’s no pressure, however, to pursue an artistic career. What Burgers hopes she’s passed on to her children is not a pre-conceived career path, but an ability to think creatively, solve problems, and explore passions in a unique way.
“Whether they go into artistic fields or not, I think it’s about fostering their imaginations and their ability to problem-solve and work in different dimensions; those are all incredibly important skills and I think that offering an active imagination to any future career is really essential, and you can see a lot of that in the arts. And there’s focus, there’s learning how to complete things and work through the problems and just think outside the box a lot.”
Sometimes when I teach kids classes, it’s so sad, kids have never held a paintbrush. For me it’s one of those essential skills and many kids go through life without having any of that huge aspect of creativity being promoted in their lives.
About donating to Splash, Burgers says she and her husband made a decision about donating in general: “We decided that we were going to focus on one subject and it was going to be fostering creativity and donating to programs that were about the arts for the arts.” In Metro Vancouver there isn’t an abundance of arts programming for children, so providing a means for more young people to discover their inner creativity is crucial to Burgers. “If you don’t have the visual arts and all the arts, then what are we as a community? This is what people come to cities for, it’s what people crave. If it’s just food and other activities then it’s lacking this massive aspect of culture and we need to create that. I think it’s just vital.”
Again, Burgers recalls being a child, one who took real refuge in the arts, as something private and solitary that she could do that’s outside of everything else going on in their world. “Sometimes when I teach kids classes, it’s so sad, kids have never held a paintbrush. For me it’s one of those essential skills and many kids go through life without having any of that huge aspect of creativity being promoted in their lives. We’d like all kids to have the chance to at least explore. I can see when I teach kids that some are so, they light up when they start to create. Whatever we can do to assist in that, it’s really important.”
MORE SPLASH ARTIST PROFILES
Lisa & Terrence Turner on Changing Careers, Making Mistakes, and Christmas Gifts
Andy Dixon on Punk Influence, New York City, and Becoming an Insider
Tiko Kerr on Halo, Creativity as Resource, and Resilience
Ed Spence on Tiny Squares, Transhumanism, and Diving into the Deep End
Hank Bull on Artist-Run Centres, Collaboration, and Boxes
Ian Wallace on Photography, Expo 86, and the Image in an Image