|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Born in Oakland, California, James Burpee is a painter and teacher. He earned a BA degree from San Jose State College in 1958 and an MFA degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1960.|
From 1960 to 1967, Burpee taught in the Art Department of Midwestern University in Wichita Falls, Texas where he also chaired the Department. In 1967, he began a long-time teaching career as Professor of Painting at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Special recognition includes a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to be Artist-in-Residence at Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, 1973 to 1974; and a 1976 Fellowship to the MacDowell Art Colony.
James Burpee exhibited in the 1973-74 exhibition, "A Sense of Place", at Sheldon Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"Who's Who in American Art, 2003-2004"
The following, submitted January 2005 by Alan Evans, is a gallery review from the "Pioneer Press" of Minneapolis/St.Paul, Minnesota---the Twin Cities.
A brush with success
After four decades as an art teacher, James Burpee is hoping to find a place for himself in the fine-arts world.
BY MATT PEIKEN
By many measures, including his own, James Burpee leads a fruitful life. There are his three adult children and the countless others he has affected through more than four decades as a college art teacher.
Then there's Burpee's struggle to claim his own place as an artist.
Since the 1960s, Burpee has leapt from the political to the personal to the pristine across hundreds of yards of canvas. Local galleries have given him solo and group shows since the late '60s, and more than a dozen Twin Cities companies have purchased his work, but no museum here or elsewhere has collected him, and no galleries outside Minnesota have exhibited him in nearly 30 years.
"I didn't take the most commercially successful way to go about things, but to thine own self be true," Burpee says. "It isn't that I want adulation, but I think my artwork was significant. I sometimes show my slides to my classes, and I'll look at them and (think) 'I've really done something.' "
For the moment, Burpee's creative career sits shrink-wrapped in the form of a book titled "James Burpee: Paintings and Drawings, 1960-2004."
Waiting in frustration for the art world to recognize him, Burpee spent his own money to produce and self-publish the half-inch-thick, full-color, catalog-quality retrospective of his own artistic output. He's planning to pitch the paperback to major museums around the country and has organized a complementary retrospective exhibition.
With the book more so than the exhibition, Burpee wants to reach the curators, critics and collectors who have, to date, spurned or ignored his art.
"Maybe they'll get the hint that they should notice me. Maybe they'll realize they overlooked me and won't want to admit it," he says. "This is my tool to the public finally. This is to honor my own legacy."
ABOVE ALL, A TEACHER
Burpee turns 67 next month but doesn't appear beyond his 50s. He stands about 6 feet 2 inches and, on this day, is wearing an argyle sweater, black slacks, black socks and white sneakers. A wide, short-cropped horseshoe of brown hair surrounds his bald crown, but his energy is high and his face wrinkle-free.
His career as an art teacher, anchored by 37 years at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, overshadowed and perhaps even stunted his public reach as an artist, though it certainly didn't hamper his production. If anything, Burpee says, particularly during his early years at MCAD, teaching inspired and informed his early evolution.
"The faculty and students were extremely heady, and I needed to put out strong points of view in order to survive. It really helped me develop my convictions," he says. "I was measuring myself against the very best, trying to do it with intelligence and integrity, and that was more important than coddling to the commercial art world."
Burpee is unabashed about hewing tight to his influences. He mentions Cezanne, Picasso and Willem de Kooning in the same breath as James Weeks, a West Coast painter who mentored Burpee at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
Burpee emerged as an artist in the California Bay Area's social hotbed of the 1960s. His art documented the birth of his children and then examined the pain of divorce and of losing his MCAD job, in 1997, to financial downsizing.
After losing the job part of a housecleaning that affected several full-time teachers Burpee grabbed onto a part-time, adjunct teaching position with the University of Minnesota's art department, which he still holds. He supplemented that income with short-lived jobs in financial services and as a receptionist. Even now, in the summers, he brings in money by selling old and rare vinyl albums from among the thousands of jazz platters that fill his home.
FINDING HIS FOOTING
His current art springs from the spiritual and artistic footing he found on the shores of Minnesota's lakes and rivers. Through it all, there are constants in his work pastel colors, sharp lines and shadow, absurdist humor and a touch of surrealism.
Burpee has tried without success to find gallery representation in New York and Chicago. One gallery owner, to Burpee's astonishment, told him his brushstrokes were too large, that he only represented artists with smaller brushstrokes. Another took only a cursory look at Burpee's slides and told him the gallery is looking for artists with "more depth."
Response from museums has been equally flat. Burpee recalls a rejection letter from Walker Art Center that, he concluded, said not now or ever would the museum be interested in his work.
Clarence Morgan, who chairs the University of Minnesota's art department, attributes Burpee's relative anonymity more to the vagaries of fine art world than to the quality or significance of Burpee's art.
"This is a great place to make art, but not a great place to build a career," Morgan says, rattling off Doug Argue, Steve Sorman and the names of other artists who left the Twin Cities to further their national profiles.
Morgan also senses an old stereotype at work, that teachers aren't strong artists in their own right. Teachers, he adds, are usually motivated by rewards more subtle than sales and notoriety.
"It's the feedback and gratification you get when you see a student take off and know you've played a role in helping that person develop," Morgan says.
'AS FAR AS YOU CAN GO'
In the classroom, Burpee enjoys working most with beginning art students, including those who don't intend to major in art. He stresses developing a wide vocabulary, critical and historical awareness and formal knowledge, then "take it as far as you can go."
"In teaching, and it is probably true in my own work, persevering and being patient with oneself is extremely important," Burpee says. "Things often happen over long periods of time, often much longer than over a semester or school year or even four years. When I say 'take it as far as you can,' at least in my case, that's meant being on a pretty consistent path of realizing who I am and homing in my own spiritual center."
Beyond his financial fears, he says, "getting fired (from MCAD) was one of the best things that happened from an art standpoint."
"I stopped trying to assert my beliefs and make significant statements," Burpee says. "I just let my art happen very naturally, and it feels real good."
Burpee cultivated the idea of a book before losing his full-time job and never wavered. He hired a printer and designer and sifted through more than four decades of slides to come up with art he felt reflected his best work and spanned his career. The 250 pieces in the book represent only about 10 percent of his artistic output, Burpee says.
The exhibition was born through a visit Burpee paid to the gallery. . . . opened for Burpee to create his own retrospective.
Burpee's goal is clear waking the fine art world to his presence but he doesn't expect his life to change regardless of the reception.
"My plan?" he says. "Wallow in obscurity."
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