Building Motion : Julia Burr's sculpture captures the energy of human life / by Heather Gordon

By Bradley Smout

It was a beautiful and lazy fall day in western North Carolina, but at the end of a country dirt road, surrounded by trees, lives a force of energy by the name of Julia Burr.She welcomed a visitor with a warm smile and a loud, strong voice.  “Come on in! I’ll show you around.”  Two dogs ran by her side, barking excitedly. She made her way around the yard, the garden, and finally to her studio.  The studio is a garage-sized shed in the corner of her yard.  Inside the cool, dark building were two separate rooms.  Scattered about the shed were all sorts of scraps and shavings of metal.  A small table stood in the center of the cement floor with a vise on one side and a number of other tools scattered here and there.  A few of Burr’s finished sculptures resided off to one side of the workshop.  In the second room were metal pipes and a wheel press Burr uses to bend the larger pieces of pipe. Burr makes metal sculpture.  She does anything from the railing at Pack Square Park in downtown Asheville to personal elaborations for your garden.  Many of her pieces involve a resemblance of a human figure that lacks specific features such as a face or defined bodily features.  These models are simple for a reason: they depict the complexities and unique energy of the human race.  The beholder’s attention is not focused on the details of these pieces, but on this energy that Burr captures in the positioning and actions of these metal persons.  This is an insightful skill she has learned from a thoughtful life and education immersed in the art world.One piece she had in the shed was six feet tall, a steel depiction of a person with arms outstretched upward and slightly forwards.  The figure’s palms faced each other and turned slightly forwards in welcoming praise.  “As simple as these figures are it’s about nuance,” she said.  “I can make the gesture of the hands to be welcoming, and I can make a slight turn of the hands and it is repelling.  When the arms drop and the palms come in front and face up it can show helplessness.”  The base of this welcoming giant was a heavy square piece that is to be buried, since the top-heavy body of the figure stuck out away from the base and curved in an easy arc towards the sky.

This particular piece will stand on a hillside overlooking a garden and labyrinth below.  The talent of Burr’s artistic mind became apparent as she explained her visit with the owners of the property where the piece will live.  She said, “They went on for about an hour and a half talking about where we could put this, and what the figure would look like.”  She recreated blabbing mouths with her hands. “It was great input to have, but after an hour and a half I basically had too much info.  I realized I just needed to step into the yard.  When we walked up on the spot this image came to me.”  She motioned to the large figure.  “There it is.”

I asked how she bends the metal for her work, assuming she must have some sort of electrical machine.  “I do it all by hand!” she exclaimed.  “I’ll show you.  Or here, why don’t you try.”  Burr is petite.  She is skinny and wiry strong.  She must get a good workout bending all this metal and working in the garden she had shown me earlier.  Her hair is short and scruffy.  But her toughness and her loud and boisterous story telling were not alarming at all; she came across as very sincere and kind.  “I use that wheel to bend a lot of the thicker pipes.  It can be a long process.”  She pointed to her hand-powered machine.

Burr’s original work was much different than the metal work on which she spends much of her time now.  “My early work was organic shapes and involved a lot of kinetic movement and balance.  They take up a lot of space and don’t really have a lot to say.  And as you can tell, I need to be able to say a lot.”  She laughed a hearty laugh with a wide grin.  “It gave me a limited arena to say something.  It’s like I wanted to go deeper, but I could only go so far.”

She motioned to her labyrinth-welcoming sculpture.  “I started using this figure to explore movement.  I’ve always really loved the human figure.  When I came back and got into my fine arts stuff I was afraid of it.  Then I realized that all the little yard work I’ve done was all figurative.  I learned I could explore movement through our lives and how we grow.  And to me, movement is growth.  I found I could start exploring spiritual growth.  And then there’s the other end of it, where we get stuck, ya know?”

Burr slid another of her human portrayals across the cement floor and out in front of the other pieces.  She introduced the piece of art: “People make the same mistakes over and over again.”  This one had two heads raised on a vertical pole from the ground; separating them was an upside down triangle cut from a block of wood.  One of the human figure’s hands rested on the flat top of this triangle, holding it in place.  This metal was a rich, dark color.  “This is something that happens to me all the time.  I have some question or problem.  The answer is right in front of me, but I just can’t see it.”  The bright wooden triangle sat just below the eye level of these metal heads.

Burr lived in Los Angeles, California for a large chunk of time.  She attended and received a degree from the California Institute of the Arts. “I was surprised I was accepted there.  Here is this conceptual school and I’m there building all these solid objects.  When I left I knew I would never come back.  Then I got a job in Hollywood.  What I was doing was making TV commercials.”

At work, Burr was given short deadline times to sculpt perfect commercial props.  This gave her the perfect opportunity to learn all about which fabrics and materials to use while making any kind of sculpture.  “TV commercials were my favorite,” Burr said, in reference to all the jobs she’d had.

The young artist also spent time in Orlando, or “Oblando,” as she called it.  Disney hired her to make billboards and advertisements.  As she worked for Disney she achieved promotions until she was one of their most innovative sculptors.  But she eventually got sick of the competitive challenges of this job.  “What I realized was the further up the food chain I moved, I was having to fight to the nail to come up with anything innovative.  And I got sick of it.”  She quit and got back into her fine arts.

Another recent project of Burr’s involves sculpting of urns for cremated ashes of loved ones.  Burr uses the same human image as a part of her urns too.  She asked, gesturing into the open yard, “Imagine there were a crowd of hundreds of people out there.  Would you be able to pick your best friend out of the crowd?  You would look for the way he holds himself, or something about the way he walks or moves.  That’s what I try to do for these urns: pick out that thing that makes someone who they are, the way they hold themselves.”  To find this unique characteristic Burr does a lot of talking to the loved one left behind to mourn their lost friend or family member.  It can be hard to recall things about someone so important who has recently passed.  Burr tells me that people have been grateful for this opportunity to talk.  For them, it has been one of the most important parts of the healing process.

“I’ve watched a lot of death.  I’ve seen it handled horrifically, and I’ve seen it handled gracefully.  We might as well have fun with it, after all, it’s inevitable.”  And it does help her clients get a lot off their chest.  “To have such and impact on someone,” Burr recalls. “That’s an awesome feeling.”

Wendy Outland, employee of Blackbird Frame and Art in Asheville, has great things to say about Burr. “She’s a very good listener; whether with a public art show or with a client.” Outland helps artists with the business side of art.  “It’s important to have that dialogue with a client.  It is so amazing how many artists don’t do that.”  Outland said that Burr always comes to a new assignment very willing and that she has the ability to work within a certain time structure or within a given cost.  Outland continues, “In the work I’ve seen of hers firsthand there’s always a message.  I appreciate how her work really engages the viewer.”

Burr moved to Asheville to get back in touch with nature and seek out her own interest in her fine arts.  It was obvious that she loves being outside as she asked to take our conversation out into the sun.  Burr was so relaxing to talk to, a real southern woman.  She grew up in the south, “All over the south.”  The more she talked, the more it became apparent that she has a strong compassion towards life and the work that she does.

The conversation eventually circled back to her art.  “One thing I like to do is call and ask how people feel about it after a few months; because it can change, our concept of a certain piece.  To me that’s when anyone’s art is good, when it can shift and change with you.  It has depth and it moves.”  This reiterates her reason for making the human figures without faces.  These figures depict movement of people in a certain moment, or movements and changes we go through during life.

Before she and her interviewer parted, she led her visitor inside the humble house to show him a few of her other creations.  First, she showed one of her older organic models.  It was comprised of two pieces:  One is a simple wire stand on a block of wood that holds up the second piece, the second is a long wire balanced at a three quarter point on top of the first.  On one side of the top piece is a wooden pyramid shape, and on the other is a ball.  The top half can also spin around its metal ball on which it is balanced.

The last of her trinkets she showed was the “Prayer Man,” or, “Halleluiah Man.”  “You can call him whatever you want.”  She laughed.  “If I could’ve mounted him to my truck I would have.”  A twelve-inch metal man stands straight with his hands pressed together in prayer.  His head sits on top of a spring neck which gives him a bobble head.  Burr bobbled her own head around and laughed while she explains this small man.  “He can shake his head no, or nod his head yes, whatever you like.  And it can change!”

She said farewell.  Burr needed to help her friend with the garden and dig in the earth; back to work again.  As she had said, “The best part about art is that you’re never done.  It’s the worst and the best part.”


This profile, the result of a collaboration between the Asheville Area Arts Council and Warren Wilson College, was written by a Warren Wilson College arts writing student.