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Artist Interview: Elizabeth Burden

Arizona-based artist Elizabeth Burden and I met for conversation on a windy, dreary Sunday morning at her daughter's apartment in Chicago's Hyde Park. Each with tea or coffee in hand, I appreciated the opportunity to talk with Liz about our paths as artists, the practice and process of art making, the current projects that we're birthing as well as those that may never come to light.

  • Below is the transcription of my interview with Liz.

  • Here is the raw audio of our interview.

  • And here you'll find Liz's blog with me as the interviewee.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Artist Elizabeth Burden

Akwi Nji

Let's jump right in. Why do you create?


Liz Burden

Because I'm an artist.


Akwi Nji

Why do you create art?


Liz Burden

Because I'm an artist. You know, I say that flippantly. But I think it's taken me a while to come to call myself that. But in looking back, I think


that even as a child, I was an artist. All of my work that has been non artwork, I approached with an artist mind. And so even when I was not creating art, I was doing artful kinds of things. And it runs deep, I think, because I had a childhood of relative grace and privilege where those things were encouraged. From art making in school and being able to go to special arts-based programming and events and camps, to -- in third, fourth, fifth grade -- being engaged in a project at the public television station in town that I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, of us as children actually producing a television show (it was called Wet Paint); through doing community theater; through grade school, high school, and college. All of those things tell me that I've always had, I think, an artistic spirit.


Why I create now as an adult or am drawn back to creation? I actually stopped creating when I got to college and became an adult, in some respect, or creating in that way. I had an experience of a class as an undergraduate in art where the very first assignment we were asked to draw a still life of some plants that had been arranged. And then we put all of our works up on the wall. And mine was a highly stylized line that was very, very different from everyone else's. I actually don't think the critique, in looking back, was all that critical, but I felt a sense of, "Oh, that's what art's supposed to look like. Not mine." And I dropped that class. And I actually didn't draw again, for probably 15 or 20 years.


I went into journalism, which is also something that I had done as a kid. So it was also creative process or creative practice, broadcasting and video. But it wasn't what I had originally intended to do when I went to college -- same as my mother, isn't that interesting? So I've come back to art making in terms of painting and drawing and making objects because I think it is a way into the subjects and the themes that I'd like to address both for myself in working through them, as well as the viewer that I envision seeing them. To stop and create a space of thought and reflection, and the like, that's different than what you can do in other media. Yeah, so ultimately, it's to say something.


Akwi Nji

Yeah. Yeah. Tell me more about the themes that you work on addressing in your work.


Liz Burden

If I were reading my artist statement, I would say some particular things that I'm not going to say as a part of the interview because in this process of starting the MFA program, I'm thinking a little bit more deeply about what are the recurring themes. I think it has to do with relations and relationships, power dynamics, lessons and loss, our culpability in both our own life's work, as well as the systems that surround us. And our culpability, not only for the negatives, but for the solutions that could emerge.


I was really struck byTourmaline's conversation about freedom dreaming and that may have crystallized some different things for me as well, in terms of, I think you have to do critical thinking and critical feeling and critical analysis to get to freedom dreaming. I think. But that that freedom dreaming is the ultimate outcome, as well. So, I mean, the series that I work on, I bounce back and forth between broad systemic societal themes like incarceration and the whole carceral system, not just imprisonment, but law making and policing and judging and re-entry and all of that. Both from a systemic perspective, as well as from a personal and familial perspective and dealing with both.


Some of my work really has to do with historical legacies and vestiges that come from my personal family history and some archives that I've inherited from family and the like. Broader themes, as well. I mean, it's hard to be, I think, an African American artist and not deal with the themes of Black Lives Matter and extrajudicial killings and state violence that impact our psyches in a variety of ways. But for all of those heady themes, I think, again, it's to create object, or a space, or a process for some of the social practice work of the critical thinking, critical feeling, critical reflection. And I'll add freedom dreaming to that now. Critical dreaming.


Akwi Nji

So, as you're beginning to answer that particular question, you said you'd answer in a way that probably is not, you know, the way your artist statement reads. Yeah, I get that. I mean, I'm feeling that, too, right. Like, we have the language that we use for artist statements. But tell me more. Is that because already in the three weeks that we've been here, your understanding of your own work has shifted that much that your artist statement that you may have updated just, you know, not that long ago, is already outdated? Tell me more about that.


Liz Burden

Yeah, I think it's because it's ever-evolving and shifting. I also think it's because, although, in another part of my life I'm a technical writer, I struggle with writing about my work. And so on one day, it may be about geographies of space and place and dispossession. And another day it may be about loss and another day it may be about that, but I do think the three weeks of being here has already shifted my thinking about what the work is about, as well. And I'm not sure...I think it's been...my thinking has been deconstructed but it hasn't re-emerged and reconstructed yet so I'm not sure how, necessarily, to fully describe it at this point.


Akwi Nji

Yeah, yeah. I feel that because I'm thinking I've already started thinking the same thing but my own artist statement and the way I've written about my own work online.


Earlier you used the phrase, in talking about your why -- why you're an artist, why you create, and going back to childhood -- as having always had an artist's mind. How would you describe an artist's mind?


Liz Burden

What it means for me is I've always seen the world differently than everyone around me. Always. Everyone in my family, everyone I went to school with, everyone in the community, you know. A part of that may be because of my unique positionality growing up as an African American girl in a predominantly white community in the Midwest with a family who, on my father's side has a long-ish (relatively speaking) history in that area. It dates to statehood, right? Close to statehood.


I'd also characterize it as, you know, folks would often talk about me being lost in my own worlds or my own thoughts and that's where I would spend a lot of my time. Whether it be sitting in my room scribbling on things or out at the park happily swinging by myself, whatever, I would spend a lot of time in my head thinking about What if? What if we did this? What if we did that? That could also be seen in some ways as a scientist's mind, I guess, and Cheng has also convinced me that maybe that could have been a mathematician's mind (my father was a mathematician), but because both my parents were in the hard sciences, I think it was also all three of us -- me, my two siblings -- we all did arts related things. We were like, "We're not scientists! We're artists!"


But I've come back to science and really thinking more deeply now about art as research, right? And what does it mean to use an artistic process in our artistic practice as research because -- again -- I think that's what I've done my whole life in thinking through. Sometimes it's the scratch and the doodling and the whatever. That's me working through a problem. Or it's mind mapping words and concepts. It's the visualization of that that brings the meaning. And so, I mean, I just think my brain is wired to think differently in that way...to think in pictures and words. To think in color. Even though I don't always use a lot of color in my work, but yeah, I think that's it. Odd, quirky kid. I was an odd, quirky kid and I've grown into an odd, quirky adult. And I'm becoming an odd, quirky elder.


Akwi Nji

This is partly in response to a little bit of the conversation that we had downstairs. I'm curious. And you alluded to it with one of the questions recently to one of our artists. I'm curious about how you draw the line between and also integrate the personal and the familial and the lineage, in terms of history, with the more social or public or universal?


Liz Burden

Yeah, I think those distinctions can be interesting. So, in the series that I'm doing more about my family in Nebraska and homesteading, Palimpsests, that line is really clear to me. And maybe it's because I've thought about it the most. I've been working on the series since 2007. So I've thought about it a lot. And I really think that the story of my great grandfather Henry Burden; his wife, Mary Barber Burden; their eight children; and all of us who have followed from that is a quintessentially American story -- I really do believe that -- of freedom seeking, manifest destiny, settler colonialism (but from a black perspective, if you will). It's all of that. And so --


Akwi Nji

And freedom dreaming.


Liz Burden

And freedom dreaming at the same time. Yeah. I mean, my great grandfather -- I think I mentioned in one of the [visiting artist Q&A sessions] -- walked from Alabama to Wisconsin and then Nebraska freedom dreaming. He had to have been freedom dreaming! How the hell else would you walk halfway across the country? Right? You know, even if he hopped a rail, or whatever, as a part of that (I don't know that whole story). But in essence, he made his way -- he didn't have a car. Didn't have it, right?


So, I think within that story, and pieces of that story, and where we are today there are parallels to the wider themes that we're talking about today around black indigenous solidarity or not. Around, you know, what it means to provide mutual aid and how that happens in communities of color and, perhaps, multicultural communities because the example, again, of my great grandfather's life is they weren't in a homesteading community like Nicodemus, Kansas, where there were a lot of other black homesteaders where there was mutual aid. They were in a predominantly Czech community and made a good life and found a way.


There's an Institute at the University of Nebraska -- the Great Plains Institute -- that's doing a lot of work on homesteading in that area, and I've had some conversations with their scholars. And one of the things I think I came to, in looking at their work, is that was a unique place, a unique time. And that my great grandfather was conscious, I think, in locating that place. Which is why he was in Wisconsin, and that didn't work and he was elsewhere in Nebraska (in Polk County), and that didn't work. And he ended up Homesteading in Saline County. He owned some land in Polk County and sold it almost immediately and moved to Saline County.


And I think why the mutual aid there worked between what we would see externally as black folks and white folks was because that was a Czech immigrant community. Those weren't folks who were moving from the south and had some of the baggage and all of that they were first generation plopped on the plains trying to make a way just like this African American family was. And so it was a different dynamic than was being seen even, you know, a few 100 miles up the road -- not even a few 100, probably 100, or so, miles up the road in Omaha, for example -- and race relations that were happening there. And so there's something in that story, too, to me that relates to the wider themes of Alright, so how are we going to do this differently in the future?


There's a personal in it for me because not only can I hardly fathom that freedom dreaming and that walk, I can hardly fathom raising eight children in a house that's half the size, if less than that, of the room that we're in. I can hardly fathom those eight children growing up and all living well into their 70s, 80s, 90s from horse and buggy through Apollo Moon Landing, and the changes that they saw. And yet everyone that I met, or that I knew, or that I've seen accounts of, or talk to others about had such an affirmative view of life. And so what's the lesson in that for me and, perhaps, for others in terms of living through true macro aggressions and direct aggressions and bodily violence that was happening around them (maybe not to them but around them) but they were definitely aware of as race men and women. And yet for them to have come out in the end still so joy filled. So full of life.


So that's that series. And the other series, the Carceral Archipelagos --


Akwi Nji

These titles! I don't even know how to pronounce "Archipe--"


Liz Burden

Archipelagos. That's a nod to a phrase that's in a book that Foucault wrote that's called Discipline and Punishment. He talks about these islands, Archipelagos, if you will, of the carceral state.


Akwi Nji

Okay. And Palimpsests?


Liz Burden

Yeah, so Palimpsests is a parchment or a scroll. A literal thing that is overwritten. So, what would happen with a parchment that a ruler would record his great deeds on is the next one would come along and often try and scrub that off the face. So they would basically overwrite. And so, for me, the history of my family's homesteading in Nebraska, it's like a physical or geographic palimpsest where our history overwrote the history of the Otoe that were in the area, the Arapaho that were adjacent, all the tribes that were removed in 1860, so that my great grandfather could homestead in 1880. Yeah. Yeah.


Akwi Nji

And then you were just getting ready to talk about the carceral work.


Liz Burden

Yeah, so that's obviously an issue, again, a historic issue for black folk in this country, but it's also very personal in terms of relatives: a daughter of mine who spent time in a federal prison, an ex (if they're ever ex)...a step son who was in prison in Nebraska, a brother who spent time in prison, cousins. I mean all of us -- well, maybe not all of us. Many of us have, you know, the experience of well-to-do and people who've done well on our families and the others who have gone to prison and everything in between. And so it's both thinking about how do we abolish. Ruth Wilson Gilmore and some of the other prison abolitionists have influenced my thinking. What does it mean to not just change or transform those systems, but abolish them and do something new?


Through thinking about the impact, again, perhaps my personal story. I share some of that, but it's not only my personal story. But I think I have a unique positionality with that, because of that, and also because my grandfather was a police officer. He was a cop. One of the first blacks, not the first, but one of the first that was on the Lincoln police force. And so both of those exist in my thinking, and a lot of the work that I've done, again, not art related in the last 5-10 years that has been health related -- community health related, population health related -- has been in and around the criminal justice system. So all of that plays into it for me.


Akwi Nji

And Palimpsests, you started in 2017. What about --


Liz Burden

No, in 2007. I've been working on that for a long time! I haven't been able to give birth to them. So it's interesting -- in the conversation, the interview with you -- there are things you can't give birth to. It's one that I just keep working -- I've overworked some of these paintings, and they'll never see the light of day. I haven't been able to fully give birth. I've given birth to pieces of it. So, installation pieces I've been able to give birth to and shown and I think they were relatively successful with what I was trying to do with them, but the paintings that I've been working on? Haven't been able to give birth to.


Akwi Nji

Interesting. I have so many questions still and it's, what, 12:01? Related to the two projects that we're currently talking about: Do you believe your art can change things? Can change the way we do things?


Liz Burden

I don't. What I do believe is I come back to it again. So this is consistent in my artist statement when I say I think art can create a space or a frame of mind for critical thinking, critical feeling, critical reflection, and I add now critical dreaming. And that individuals can change but I don't think art -- the art itself -- makes a change. And I think that's an important distinction because I do think it's a little bit of hubris to say, "My art's gonna change the world." If I have been effective and having somebody stop and scratch their head and put their hands in their head or walk away and come back and then ... then it will have achieved its goal, its purpose and what it can do, I think.


Akwi Nji

Yeah. I love that. I love that. I wish that was on video. [Liz laughs.] I do. Ok. I have one more question, if that's okay. Downstairs, you mentioned that there's something vulnerable, or that you've not tapped into or chosen to address about motherhood--


Liz Burden

[Laughs] And I may never.


Akwi Nji

--tell me more.


Liz Burden

I think motherhood is ... a difficult thing. And I have ideas in my journal, in my sketchbook for a series about mothers and motherhood and mothers and daughters that we'll see if I ever actually do. I think it's because the errors that I have visited upon my daughters -- that I have inflicted upon my daughters -- are painful to see play out now. And I had a professor painting in my BFA program that was making work about his mother who was dying. And he basically said to me"Please don't ever make work about your mother" because that'll be the only work he's ever made from then on out. Which I just find fascinating. Which is interesting and I'll probably begin to make work about my mother. And that mother daughter relationship? I think I can make the work about it. Because I can have a much more gentle and forgiving stance with her.


My sainted mother who is also human. I think I see my mother and have -- we have a very good adult relationship -- as a human. And, as I mentioned, she's suffering from dementia now and so, in some respects, the last several years in that transition, I've actually done my mourning and, in some respects, the mother that I know is gone. She's dead already. Even though she's still living with dementia, and this is another person another being another iteration of her that I am interacting with now. But the force and the strength of my love for her, I've long forgiven anything that I might consider a quote/unquote transgression, and there wouldn't have been many. She did the best she could with what she had, and that I understand. But going the other direction with my own children. ...Yeah...I can't afford myself that forgiveness yet. And I'm...I guess, to a certain extent, it's not for me to forgive, it's for them to. There's just so many things that if I had to do over, I would do so differently. Um. ...Yeah. I guess I'm a private enough person the world doesn't need to see that pain. Maybe it's not that I'm a private person, because you know, I'm willing to talk about it. Maybe it's more...I think it's too self indulgent to make work about that pain. Maybe that's it. It's self indulgent. Who cares? Who cares about that? Yeah, that's it.


Akwi Nji

Hm. I got goosebumps. Twice. ...all over, as you were talking about that. Thank you.


Liz Burden

[Laughs] And that's probably the work I should make.


Akwi Nji

Is there anything else that you would like to share about your work that hasn't emerged in our conversation?


Liz Burden

No, I think it was a good conversation.


Akwi Nji

Okay. Wonderful. All right. Thank you.


Liz Burden

You're welcome.

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