Carolina Home + Garden
If Jason Bige Burnetts rapid-fire speech and technological savvy bespeak the voltaic energy of his generation, his soldier-straight posture and old-school work ethic would make a Puritan proud. The possessor, at age 26, of three studio-art degrees a BFA in ceramics and BAs in printmaking and graphic design from Western Kentucky University, plus a Fellowship from the Core Program of Penland School of Crafts Burnett attended military school as a teen and uses an unusually rigorous technique to achieve his fine-art ceramic ware. Its a process he cheerfully calls tedious.
Interesting, then, that what comes out is deep whimsy. Matte candy colors interspersed with gold luster and decorative black-and-white doodling inform his bottles, containers and numerous styles of cups. Its vintage-catalogue chic, the feel of old circus posters. Irregular soft edges and unexpected textural embellishments (ruffled borders on Cake Jars, cheeky crown spires on Royalty Jars) compound the theme.
And yet sadness pervades true vaudeville is gone, trailing lost merriment in minor key.
Such emotional duality is intentional. One of Burnetts solo exhibits, Cakeboy, featured mouthwatering ceramic forms glazed in frosting-hued pastels. Here are all these delicious sweets, these beautiful cupcakes. But the sugar can rot your teeth out. You cant have one without the other, explains the artist. Its the same with the carnival. At night, its magic, with the lights and the music. But not everything is what it seems to be. In the daytime you see the garbage, the seediness.
Burnett reveals the upbringing that led him to create some of his campiest pieces (including cups printed with silk-screened images from Nickelodeon cartoons, early video games and vintage sewing patterns). Being the only child of a single mother who worked late and took naps during the day, I was constantly watching TV, immersed in the cartoons and the commercials of the 90s. Power Rangers, Batman, Spiderman, X Men I was still bringing toys to school in sixth or seventh grade.
Yes, I was an outcast. But I was safe in my imaginative world there, I could have no harm. And that constant stimulation, that identity with fictional characters and icons, has played a huge part in my art.
Burnett says the digital part of his process speaks for a generation but its studied evolution is his own doing. To realize a series of cups, he might create an image on the computer or alter a found one in Photoshop, burn it into the screen, apply the print to the clay slip that wraps the vessel and then carve, stain, gild and glaze the surface between its repeated stints in the kiln, all to achieve the desired effect.
It can take up to four firings, he reveals, to get that exuberant color. Since graduating from Penland, the artist works at Marshall High Studios, an imposing brick structure that underwent a high-profile renovation by Glazer Architecture and now shelters a diverse group of working artists. The former school, on tiny Blannahasset Island Park in downtown Marshall, overlooks the French Broad River and a live railroad track. Train whistles and church bells lend a soundtrack to the scene, peals of pure nostalgia despite the packed coffeehouse on Main Street and a scattering of galleries and bistros attempting to paint a showier face on the old-fashioned village.
Burnett lives and makes art in Marshall and commutes to Asheville for his night job and a livelier social scene. Its an intense, packed way of living, albeit one he was well prepared for at Penland. At that renowned craft institution near Burnsville, students are taught way more than technique. They learn marketing, grant writing the necessary skills to achieve a lifestyle in the visual arts, says Burnett. Theyre also required to immerse themselves in the whys of their craft, exploring the motivations that drive their concepts.
The journey wasnt a lonely one: Burnett releases a lengthy list of names, both fellow students and mentors, who have helped and inspired him. He is heavily represented by Crimson Laurel Gallery in Bakersville (his solo display there last summer was the venues first sold-out exhibit), has been highlighted in group shows, is the subject of forthcoming articles in national ceramics magazines, and has taught classes at Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts in Asheville. He knows that the path to a professional art career means diversifying and networking. However, he can also downsize his mission into pithy soundbites, including: Mine is an adolescent approach to ceramics processed through a mature mindset. He distills his laborious image-transfer method as advanced Silly Putty.
Burnetts wit is on tap, his mind quick. Behind the scenes, though, the toil is slow. He bathes each ceramic piece with a black underglaze, repeatedly applied and then stripped away for a weathering effect, an undeniable dark note. I want it to have the look of a beautiful object that has seen time, that has seen wear, that has been through stuff and has a story, he says.
A half-seconds pause, and he could be describing himself: I want my work to appear wise beyond its youth.