Interview with Ed Burkes: Winner of the Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award 2019

Róisín McVeigh, Mall Galleries, April 6 2019

Since graduating from Falmouth University in 2016 with a BA in Fine Art, Burkes’ work has been selected for a number of group exhibitions, including Saatchi Invest in Art and FBA Futures 2017, shortlisted for Bloomberg New Contemporaries and exhibited at London Art Fair with Arusha Gallery. In 2016, he won the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Travel to Italy Award.

 

Burkes is currently living on the secluded Isles of Scilly, located 30 miles off the southwest coast of Cornwall. We spoke to the artist, between capricious WiFi-connections, about island life, how it's influencing his artistic practice and his plans for his upcoming residency in Derbyshire. 

 

Tell me about what you've been up to on the Isles of Scilly? 

 

Ed Burkes: There are five islands on the Isles of Scilly and the island I'm on is called Tresco. About 150 people live here permanently. There's only one pub, and there's no roads or street lights. There are these sub-tropical gardens here called the Abbey Gardens, which is where I'm living. I'm also working three days a week within the gardens. I'm not paying rent and I've got studio space, so it's an opportunity I had to take really because it's a wonderfully peculiar place. 

 

How has being on the Isles of Scilly impacted your artwork?

 

Ed Burkes: There are a few prongs to that actually. I'm big into my history and a lot of my paintings over the last year or so have come from various fifteenth and sixteenth century tapestries and things like that. So coming to the Isles of Scilly has been interesting. In about 500 AD, it was a single island but since then the waters have changed, so now you have this cluster of islands. It feels like you're still living on ancient Celtic hilltops. The landscape is very sort of rugged. 

 

Being outside is fruitful for art making. As a contemporary artist, I don't sit outside with an easel and paint a landscape, but there are definitely artistic secrets to be unlocked here. Traditionally all of these Old Masters and Impressionists and guys like that, just by being outside they’d take in the environment. Having that kind of response to work is really intriguing to me. There are all kinds of little weird flowers here. There's one called a yellow horned-poppy, another called a dog-rose and there's also a flower called love-in-a-mist. So there's all this language and the poetics of language is very anchored to how my images come about. There are so many visual stimuli but also just reading into things and looking into the history of the place. There's so much to latch onto. 

 

Have you thought about the Derbyshire residency and what you're going to do there? The "Sense of Place" theme ties in nicely with the Isles of Scilly. 

 

Ed Burkes: It ties in beautifully. Some of the works on paper, the "Dance Like a Lioness" ones, a lot of the motifs are from a tapestry in the V&A made by Mary Queen of Scots when she was under house arrest from Queen Elizabeth. She did these tapestries of elephants and fish and birds. In Derbyshire, there are lots of National Trust properties and museums. So I'm keen to explore all of that and find a peculiar little corner of history there. 

 

Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?

 

Ed Burkes: The work comes about in quite a hodgepodge. It's like a patchwork blanket and through the process of painting, images and text all lock into each other. It's something I can't quite articulate, but I think that's the magic of it. It's like music, when you listen to a song and it hits you in the feels and you can't quite explain it to someone. That's what really fascinates me: the problems of articulating things. 

 

I also enjoy contradictions. For example, one of my paintings is called "Hug Until We Catch On Fire". That is just one sentence but it could mean the seductive heat of a relationship or the impending implosion of one.

 

The titles of your paintings are very evocative and often humorous too. How do you name your works? 

 

Ed Burkes: I just write sentences and then maybe put two sentences next to one another. The title of the work changes as the work changes, and then it gets to a point where it doesn't change anymore, and that's when the work is finished. 

 

The text is just as important as how the work looks. I'm quite keen, when people look at a work of mine, for them to read the title. It's a little snippet, a little whisper. I don't want to tell the viewer anything, I just want to give a little hint

 

There's a real sense of spontaneity to your paintings. How planned are they? 

 

Ed Burkes: I wouldn't really plan a painting. The work comes from drawings and sketchbooks, but there's very much a vacancy when I start making an image. The whole process is art making for me. It's almost like a stage waiting to be filled. I enjoy when an image comes about as if from nothing at all, from the subconscious. I listen to music a lot and I just zone out. One thing I like to do is have quite an eclectic playlist of music on. So one minute I'll be listening to Ozzy Osbourne and next thing it'll be Prince. This creates a contrast in the mood of how I apply brushstrokes. It's all very intuitive. I'm not thinking about what I'm doing. It all just feeds in. 

 

How long do you spend on a piece, or does it vary?

 

Ed Burkes: A lot of the time the work is in my studio and they won't get touched for two or three weeks, then they might change completely or they might change slightly. There's a recent cluster of works on paper, titled "Dance Like a Lioness". That's the most recent body of work and they're all 15x20cm works on paper, so they're really quite intimate. 

 

With the residency I’ll be starting in Derbyshire, I'm hoping to keep that intimacy but transpose it onto a larger scale. It varies with works. The larger paintings I do which are 2mx2m, they take quite a while, but I never just work on one thing. There are usually around six canvases I'd be working on alongside smaller things. 

 

There is an immediacy and freedom to your work that is reminiscent of Rose Wylie's paintings. Are there any artists that you're influenced by? 

 

Ed Burkes: Yeah, Rose Wylie is amazing. I had some works in the London Art Fair in January and there were three or four people who had feedback and said it's like Rose Wylie, which is something I'm working on – developing my own voice, to a point where I own what I make visually. Not ownership in terms of copyright but “owning” in terms of doing something very well. I'm quite aware of that and that's something, talking to artists who are older than me, that just takes time to achieve. It's mad that she's 85 and she's making these huge paintings. They're just so visceral, aren't they? 

 

In your artist statement, you point to "the pitfalls of language" as a source of inspiration for your painting practice. You define your work as being "anchored around that inability to articulate, or at least the attempt to articulate." It seems you really understand what your practice is about. How did you come around to that realisation?

 

Ed Burkes: I think I came around to that realisation because I find it really difficult telling people what the work is about. I find that really frustrating when people ask, "What does this bit mean?" and then, "What's that?" So I tried to pin it down and ask myself what is the premise of my work and yeah it's trying to articulate things. Even just the attempt to articulate that is enough for me. 

 

The nine-month residency runs from 1 October 2019 to 30 June 2020.  The final exhibition will be held at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in late 2020 and at Mall Galleries in January 2021. Watch this space for updates as Ed’s residency unfolds.