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Strikingly Cerebral--the Complex World of Carol Burch-Brown

A tall, lanky woman with spiky gray hair, large, expressive eyes, and what I will discover is an easy laugh, artist and teacher, Carol Burch-Brown greets me at the door of her house. From the outside her Blacksburg home is totally Ward and June Cleaver. Inside, it’s more like a Cabinet of Curiosities with artwork and exotic trinkets covering nearly every jewel-toned surface, musical instruments in cases parked near the front door, and in back, Burch-Brown’s expansive, light-filled studio where works in progress occupy various zones throughout the space. The wide variety of objects and media that one can see arrayed everywhere is tangible evidence of Burch-Brown’s enormous creative energy.

Though Burch-Brown, 57, has been a professor of drawing and book arts at Virginia Tech since 1979, attempting to pigeonhole her is a mistake. For starters, she has taught courses in the school of architecture and the department of women’s studies and has served as Tech’s assistant provost. She’s also a serious musician; Burch-Brown grew up playing the piano and took up the guitar and bass later on. Currently, she plays the ukulele (of which she owns four) in a band she formed with her partner and collaborator, Ann Kilkelly, who is professor of performance studies at Tech. The band, which Burch-Brown describes as contemporary vaudeville, incorporates tap-dancing as well and is called Junk DNA, a reference to non-coding DNA, which was once referred to as "junk DNA," but is now considered a key factor in determining who we are.

Burch-Brown is also a photographer and video artist. Her book of photographs Trailers— with accompanying text by poet David Rigsbee—was published by the University Press of Virginia in 1996. Her videos include It’s Reigning Queens in Appalachia, (2005) part of an oral history project about a working class gay bar in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country that is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History; Waiting Children, 2009, a story about adopting foster children, which was commissioned by DePaul Family Services (a statewide social services organization); and Pralines, 2005, a three and a half minute wallop in which she comes to terms with her family’s historical involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.

Back in her studio, Burch-Brown points to a large-scale abstract drawing hanging high up on the wall, an early example of her work, it’s a tour de force of the medium. Precisely rendered, dense and delicate lines define the different tonal values that cover the expanse, producing a visual weight that’s more akin to painting than drawing. It’s cerebral, austere and striking. Another series, which hangs throughout her house, goes off on a completely different tangent. Grounded in the past and dealing with the sensual world of myth and story, it’s an homage to the Northern Renaissance tradition, evoking such artists as Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer though the narrative themes are decidedly contemporary. These are delightful works that intentionally employ an archaic mode of representation and use stylized figures and settings. I am impressed at the ease with which Burch-Brown seems to shift gears between such disparate directions and her ability to excel in either case.

Burch-Brown maintains that drawing is at the heart of the creative process even as she has redirected her focus in recent years to the realm of new media. Drawing, she says, is immediate, physical, experiential—a repetitive, Zen-like pursuit that taps into the subconscious. "I have made all kinds of drawings, but what I like best is to draw in a process that engages me in a meditative zone and that paradoxically also has a very significant element of physicality—sheer endurance is an essential ingredient." She practices and teaches something she calls “Deep Doodling,” a unique approach to drawing that is both subversive and playful; you can see how it would have enormous appeal to students. "There are two ‘rules’ to Deep Doodling,” says Burch-Brown. “The first is to pick up a drawing tool without thinking about it and start making marks on a surface. The second rule is that the instant you get bored, you throw your tool across the room, pick up something else and keep right on marking. You move constantly back and forth between these two simple rules. The very fact that you have to pay attention to whether you are bored often has the effect of making you more engaged in what you are doing. The marks that accumulate in your drawing eventually work themselves out, or not! I use this strategy with students in a playful way to help them connect with their own physical freedom in mark-making. The visual results are un-forced and genuinely exploratory, often leading to sustained and multi-layered work."

In the summers Burch-Brown decamps to Sunset Beach, North Carolina where she stays in a house on a salt marsh. It’s here that she gets most of her best ideas, including in 2007 when she took it into her head to sing a passage from Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species to the tune of a Charles Mingus jazz canon. A natural history buff, she was drawn to Darwin’s writing, because “it’s just so phenomenally beautiful; it called out to be sung.” For Burch-Brown, sitting on her dock singing the text had an immediate emotional effect. She found it so compelling that as soon as she returned to Blacksburg, she began to formulate ideas that would eventually become the multi-media project, Singing Darwin. “My purpose was to honor what Darwin wrote—in its complexity, historical contingency, imperfectness, and its immense scientific and humanistic creativity.” From the beginning it was conceived of as a collaborative effort, bringing together artists, scientists, scholars, musicians and students. 

An exhibition, which ran through the month of November in 2009 at Tech’s Armory Gallery, featured photographs, video clips, a haunting soundscape, specimens (including the skull of a 14 million-year old whale collected from the Richmond area) and a kelp-like installation inspired by Darwin’s metaphor of the “entangled bank,” which was formed using multiple copies of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species. In addition, an original play, Living Darwin, co-conceived and directed by Kilkelly and another Tech theater professor, Robert H. Leonard, was presented that October at Squires Studio Theatre, and again in November at an international conference on Darwin convening at Tech. On November 23 and 24, 2009, the 150th anniversary of its publication, a 24-hour reading of On the Origin of Species from cover to cover took place. The exhibition and events were well attended and well received by the Tech community. “I was surprised we didn’t receive any flak, but we’re kind of off people’s radar screens,” says Burch-Brown who won two university awards for the project: the Creative Achievement Award in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the Sturm Award for Faculty Excellence in the Creative Arts.  

Most recently, Burch-Brown’s attention has been focused on the marsh itself, where she has been experimenting with mud, water and Japanese scroll paper, and making paintings and interesting larvae-like rolled objects. She shows me visually arresting photographs of herself a white figure against brown mud and green marsh grass rolling the strips—hot, physically challenging, repetitive work. Burch-Brown has also been filming underwater, and with the help of a hydrophone, has been making sound recordings of the depths. She plays me a sampling; I hear pronounced clicking noises. This, she says, is the sound of the mollusks and other creatures; she knows this because she has recorded at night and it’s silent.

Back in the studio she transforms the natural sounds into music. She relies on the Max/MSP/Jitter, a high-tech graphical programming software used by computer composers and performance artists that enables them to create all manner of interactive multimedia projects. She shows me a “score” she’s working on, which looks like an impenetrable physics equation meets Rube Goldberg schematic that fills the computer screen. Learning how to use the program has been hugely challenging for Burch-Brown. "I love making things from scratch with disparate elements. Max/MSP is a way to stitch together whatever I can conjure up. Working with Max is hard in a good way—it's incredibly exploratory. It's a little like making a flying carpet.” In addition to transforming the natural sounds into music, Burch-Brown also uses the program to assign visual characteristics to sound, a lengthy and complex process. Hooked up to the computer is a pencil. She urges me to try it and when I do, moving it back and forth quickly on a tablet, a staccato sound issues forth. I slash at the paper and a slashing sound occurs. Like visual onomatopoeias, the sounds match the movement perfectly. But for Burch-Brown it’s much more than a neat parlor trick—her intention is to get at the physicality of sound and motion and pinpoint how the motivation to make a mark is related to its sound. Burch-Brown’s interactive piece on the salt marsh will be presented at Harvestworks Intermedia Center in New York in 2012.

In looking at her work it is clear that over and over again, Burch-Brown has taken Darwin’s example to heart. A keen observer of the world she inhabits, she brings to our attention wonders we would otherwise miss. As Celeste Miller, a multi-faceted dance artist and lecturer in Theater and Dance at Grinnell College, in Iowa, puts it: “Carol Burch Brown observes the world and we are better for it. She translates her deep observational and technical skills with insight and passion into works of art that thrill us with the mystery of nature and the inherent metaphor that resonates within it. Add a well-tuned sense of irony, a grand concern for all sentient beings and an eye/hand capable of drawing the invisible inside out through the visible and you are in the presence of Carol’s art work—whether it’s her drawings, her installation art or her music scores—we are reminded that we are part of an intricate and fabulous web of interconnectedness between all of the natural world—from human to slime mold. In Carol's capable hands we are in love with it all.” (Image: Anemone 28) CarolBurchBrown.com

Virginia Living: 2012


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