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Big Art from Andy Burns

Article by Ed Quillen

Art – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

AROUND SALIDA, artist Andy Burns is probably best _known for his portraits. Though often exquisitely detailed, these oil portraits are not delicate miniatures. They’re generally big, bright, and brash — an in-your-face face that can dominate a big wall.

While those portraits are his claim to local fame, Andy Burns also paints street scenes and landscapes, and as you might expect, some of those extend to mural dimensions.

“I really like to paint landscapes,” Burns says, “but then I’m always tempted to put people into them, and then they turn into something else.” The “something else” is often reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton’s work — realistic in places and reshaped, perhaps even mythic, in other parts of the scene, always with vivid colors.

A Burns landscape often starts with a view that other artists wouldn’t consider. “I like to take a scene that seems crowded or artificial or ugly, and work with it, see what I can make out of it.”

That is, instead of looking to pristine Mt. Shavano with its snowy angel, Burns prefers to observe Tenderfoot Hill, with its gazebo on top, the S on its rocky flank, and Spiral Drive on its denuded slopes. While some people might think the electric red heart that blinks every night is tacky, “it gives me the warm woozies inside,” Burns says, “and I want to find a way to capture that on canvas.”

For the past five years, Burns has seen Tenderfoot Hill from his apartment and studio above the Cornerstone Pub on North F Street — which is where you can see some of his work adorning the walls.

He’s 54 years old and grew up all over Colorado — Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Boulder, where he received an art degree from the University of Colorado. Widely traveled, he has never really settled anywhere.

HIS FIRST STAY in Salida was in 1980. “I used to ride the bus between Santa Fé and Boulder, and when it went through downtown Salida, I really loved its old brick buildings. On one trip, I got off and walked around, and saw an apartment for $55 a month. I’d always wanted to live in an upstairs room in an old downtown, so I did it.”

Burns stayed four months that time, “while I had some money coming in from a mural I’d done in New Mexico. Then I ran out of money and it was time to move on, to where I could sell some work.”

That’s pretty much the story of Burns’s career, he explains. “Aside from the portraits, I don’t do commissions. I paint what’s interesting to me, and then if it sells, I make some money. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m pretty good at living on a shoestring.”

What interests Andy Burns? “Sometimes it’s personal catharsis, I suppose. When I was a kid in Glenwood Springs, we often took family car trips to Grand Junction to visit relatives there. I always got carsick in DeBeque Canyon. For years afterward, just seeing rocks that color made my stomach churn. So I went there and sketched and painted, worked with those colors until I got the old sick feelings out of my system.”

A Burns painting usually starts with a walk, either around town or more often, into the countryside. He takes a sketchbook or a camera, captures what looks interesting, and pursues it in his studio.

“I used a camera a lot at first,” he explains, “but then you realize how much it distorts the perspective, makes everything look flat.” So he used the sketchbook for 20 years, although “I’m trying the camera again now. You’re always learning.”

This five-year Salida sojourn might be called “Andy Burns learns to work with oils.”

“For years, I used colored pencils. The neat thing about them is that they don’t take much space. You can work in a closet — I did that, once, when I was on an oil-drilling crew. You need an open space, an airy studio, to work with oil, and I’ve had that here.”

NAME A BLUE-COLLAR JOB, from hard-rock mining to construction, and Burns has probably held it at one time or another when his art wasn’t selling.

“The odd thing is that I don’t like to paint. But I’m not very good at anything else. I’ve worked construction off and on for more than 20 years, and as a carpenter, well, I’m still just a framer. I don’t advance at that work, I don’t pick up the tricks of the trade. But I do enjoy it in a way — I really like physical work a lot more than I like sitting in front of a canvas.

“I do get better at art by working at it, and I also feel a sense of moral obligation — it’s a talent I have and I feel I must develop it, even if it isn’t pleasant or something I enjoy doing.”

After five years of tramping the local countryside and developing his oil skills in a room over a Salida saloon, it’s time to move on — Burns is heading south to Santa Fé, where he’s lived before.

“I was there in the ’80s, and as the place got more sophisticated, I found it increasingly distasteful. For the last five years I was there, I was trying to find a way to leave.”

So why’s he going back?

“It’s another thing I need to learn to deal with, like oils or cameras, I suppose. I’ve also found some affordable studio space there, and I’ve got a show there coming up. So everything seems to be falling into place.”

As for Salida, “there aren’t any hard feelings. Well, not exactly — the jukebox downstairs drives me crazy some nights, makes me want to grab an assault rifle and visit a fast-food joint. But Salida’s an easy town to live in. I wouldn’t say it’s exceptionally friendly, but it’s not hostile, either. I’ve come and gone before, and I could be back again someday.”

Although he can neither paint nor draw, Ed Quillen helps publish Colorado Central magazine. The portrait with Andy Burns’s picture is of Michelle Giancontieri.