It’s the end of the year and the end of the decade for Reno.
I thought I’d take a moment to reflect and consider who I believe has made a big impact this year in the visual arts. One artist immediately comes to mind, and that’s Erik Burke.
Now, I must be transparent and disclose that he is one of my board members. I’m proud of the fact that we have an artist of his caliber advising us. He definitely helped Art Spot Reno have a successful Elko Mural Expo this year. In addition to painting a breathtakingly beautiful mural, it was because of the contacts he has made on his worldwide travels that we were able to invite an exceptional artist from the Basque country in Spain. But enough about Art Spot.
Walk around Reno, especially Midtown, and you’ll see several impressive murals that Erik has painted over the years. It’s pretty easy to see how much he has progressed as a muralist. But this year, there are two exceptional mural projects that show his versatility as an artist, his attention to diversity, and his keen craftsmanship, especially when painting large scale — the Reno Rodeo mural and the Washoe County parking garage on Center Street.
I always applaud an artist who isn’t afraid to make a social, cultural, or political message. Burke loves spending time researching at the Nevada Historical Society for inspiration and information. When he did that for the Reno Rodeo mural, he learned about the origin of the word “cowboy.”
“The typical phrase for anyone working on a ranch around the turn of the century was “cowhand,” but as many freed slaves made their way West to take up jobs, they were often called “boy” and quickly given the derogatory term “cowboy,” he wrote on his webpage. “These vernacular digs permeate our society and I hope to honor the working class by shedding light on the topic and give them the dignity they rightfully deserve.”
His Center Street mural makes a more subtle social commentary but is so jaw-droppingly beautiful that I can practically smell the floral bouquet while standing on the sidewalk.
So, congratulations, Erik. I understand if you need to take a few months off, chill, and take good care of your body and soul. You’ve given Reno (and northern Nevada) some doozies that we will be able to admire for years to come! Thank you!
Here is a recent Q&A with the artist:
What do you think about the murals you’ve painted this year?
I think I’m exhausted, ha! There have been some real stand out works this year and I’m really fortunate for the confidence people have in me. I got to test out some new techniques and further develop others.
How many did you paint this year?
Fifteen by the end of the month.
Was this a banner year?
As far as quantity, no. The last 5 years, I’d paint around 25 a year, but this year was by far the most amount of square feet I’ve painted. I hit 52,000 square feet, which is crazy! I guess technically more like 100,000+ because you always have to do at least two coats. Either way, it was a ton of paint. Probably somewhere in the range of 250 gallons.
What’s your favorite mural?
Oh, it’s so hard to choose. I like them all for different reasons and the diversity of work this year was pretty interesting. If you’re really gonna twist my arm about it, I’d have to pick the abstract floral mural in eastern Ukraine just because it seemed to bring so much joy to a place with a lot of trauma. You could really sense the heaviness there and by the fourth day of painting so many people were coming out to see it and take pictures. I made some good friends there that I think I’ll be in touch with forever. And an old woman even brought me to her house and gave me a few jars of handmade jams.
What inspired the recent floral bouquet mural?
Several factors, I guess. When working on something so visible, so public, with so many stakeholders, it’s really hard to get everyone on board. I didn’t want to alienate anyone a2nd I didn’t want to make something that leaves people with a sour taste in their mouth about how their tax dollars get spent or what art is. With that in mind, I also wanted to paint something that worked with the building and its architecture. It has this really interesting vertical cladding and I wanted to accent. I ended up wrapping that stripe motif around the building and then opening it up to create an organic circular window where this huge bouquet of flowers bursts out of the space. It’s super baroque and dramatic with the lighting. So, it kind of takes people back to like a Dutch master’s vibe.
Underneath though I view it from two different lenses. The first is that it is done almost entirely with spray paint and something called an Astro Cap, which is the cap that allows you the fattest spray and is most associated with tagging. To me, I wanted to reference graffiti, since that is where I came from and, in a sense, flowers are the natural world’s graffiti. They pop up when and where they want, they are a burst of color in a muted world, and they are very temporary. Since I am on the street painting almost every day, I get so many comments from people saying, “well it sure looks better than that damn tagging” or something along those lines. But really the two are inseparable — tagging, piecing, painting, there is a lineage to it. A long process. This mural is about that process and going full circle whereas the path is unique and not at all geometrically circle.
The other side of the mural is that it has a political undercurrent to it regarding cages and a sincere desire to be free. It’s been a troubling few years to say the least and I wanted to subtly reference the context it was made in. When I saw the vertical cladding, it seemed obvious that the architecture was hinting at a cage, so I decided to use it to create tension.