From the Cerebral Dimestore
From the Cerebral Dimestore
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 1
Editor's Note: In December of 2017 we traveled to Boston to interview and video the ceramist, Mark Burns on his election to the ACC College of Fellows. Here is a generous excerpt and an edited transcript of the interview. Mark Burns has had a long and distinguished career as a teacher and maker. Please join ACC on October 6, 2018, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the 2018 ACC Awards ceremony as we welcome Mark and seven of his peers into our College of Fellows.
American Craft Inquiry: Look in the camera and say your name and your title.
Mark Burns: My title? I left my crown at home. My name is Mark Burns, and I am a retired professor emeritus and a maker.
ACI: How did you begin working in your field?
MB: I was attending undergraduate school in Ohio at the Dayton Art Institute to be an illustrator. A friend of mine said, “You should take a clay class. It might be good to relieve the tedium of sitting in a cubicle and drawing all day.” And so I did, and I ended up taking a secondary degree in ceramics. I realized I was tired of that two-dimensional space. I wanted to see what was on the other side of it. And I was trained to be a potter, and I was terrible at it. I just don’t – my brain doesn’t work that way. And somebody said to me, one day – the most valuable thing in school – looked at my portfolio and said, “Why don’t you try to make things the way you draw?”
And that’s the thing that set it off.
ACI: Tell us more about that connection. When did it come together?
MB: It came together pretty quickly, with one exception: I was so used to the flat picture plane, and I certainly learned a lot from my studies there – arrangement and geometry and planning – but I tended to make things that were flat. Illustration, painting, there’s the illusion of depth, and then suddenly, you have a material that gives you depth. And so for the longest time, things seemed to be – they were formatted the way you would format them on a piece of paper, if that makes any sense to you, and so it took me awhile to overcome that. But still, even after all these years, it’s very hard to photograph the work I make, because the camera often reads them as illustrative; it makes them flatten out. So for many years, people would be surprised, when they finally got to see a real object that I had made, that it was as textural, it was as layered as it was, the size, scale, and that sort of thing.
ACI: And then going from Dayton to Washington state, was that your first time out of Ohio?
ACI: What was that like?
MB: Well, the Dayton Art Institute is no longer a teaching institution. It’s returned itself back to the museum. There were 180 full-time students, and of course, it was the 1960s, so there was a lot of activity going on, both artistically and politically. And I hadn’t thought about graduate school, and then Howard Kottler walked into my life. He came into the school to give a lecture and basically turned around as he was leaving, and he said, “If you ever want to go to grad school, let us know.”
And I did, and so they took me in, basically, on the strength of my illustration portfolio. They thought anyone who could draw like that probably could handle clay in a similar fashion. And of course, that’s also right there during the Funk period, and Seattle offered an opportunity to do non-traditional clay work with Howard Kottler and Patti Warashina, giving you the freedom to have an authentic voice with the material.
But it was heady for me. I grew up in a cornfield. There wasn’t much to do there, but it’s become apparent, over these last years, that I didn’t live very far from the source of what we now call the “Ohio potteries.” Much of that stuff was made there – Homer Laughlin, Hull, the Niloak factory. And so I saw that stuff every day, and it ended up really affecting the clay work that I do.
ACI: Your parents also had an antique shop?
MB: Well, if you can call the back of a pickup truck a shop, but when my dad retired from General Motors, he and my mother were always interested in antiques, and they became self-taught experts on chairs. In a tristate area, they were called “the chair people,” and they were famous for finding orphan chairs of a certain style. My father would do the restoration, and my mother would do the embroidery or the caning. And they helped feed my mania for midcentury objects, because they’d hit every flea market in the tristate area. And of course, at that time, they could get these things for nothing, because no one wanted them.
So I have kind of a historical connection to ready-mades, factory-mades, industrialized ceramics. The history has always served me well, I think.
ACI: When did the mold-making become important in your work?
MB: Well, I didn’t learn a whole lot in undergraduate school. I learned how to roll a good joint and how to not get drafted. And when I got to Seattle, I didn’t have very much clay experience; technically, I could throw, but my heart wasn’t in it. And so trying to make things the way I drew, to realize these Technicolor fantasies I had in my head, was a struggle. And I turned to mold-making. My goal was to remove what I think a lot of people refer to as “maker’s mark” – you can tell, by how a thing is handled, whose hands were on it.
I didn’t want any of that. I didn’t want any of that baggage that went along with it. I just wanted the thing to be there, no more than anybody thinks about a dinner plate in front of them. Of course, we do now because of the historical connection back to factory-mades, but at that time, that anonymity was kind of frowned on, in some places, and “cold” was often a word that I heard connected to the work I was making. There just was no sense of the person. There was just a thing sitting there, which is what I wanted.
ACI: At some point, you started to do self-portraits and include yourself in your other work. How did those two things parallel each other?
MB: Well, it’s all show biz. And artists are actors. And – or directors, let’s say: They direct, and then something appears. And since I was a narrative person, a storyteller, I thought, I can’t ask the characters that appear in my work to do something I wouldn’t do myself. And so I started inserting myself in it. They don’t always look like me, but there’s something often – I had the same hair, the same clothing – in there, somewhere, as a participant in whatever activity was going on.
And of course, in those early years – that’s how I got labeled a punk artist in the ’70s, because I was using subject matter that you just didn’t see. Polite people didn’t make that kind of thing out of clay. I thought nothing about sticking pens in people’s eyes or – it was all very cartoon. When you watch a cartoon, and somebody gets an anvil dropped on them, there’s a moment – and then they’re right back up, doing something else. And that often appears in my work. Those characters, something extreme is happening to them, but they don’t really feel it. It’s just part of the world they inhabit.
I think, at that time, and many people my age will tell you, that clay had a kind of outlaw quality to it. It was just ready to explode, to come up out of post-war craft movement. And the possibilities were endless.
ACI: Were you a maker as a child?
MB: Yes, I had always been a maker. And it’s become apparent, over these last years, that the activity I was involved in, as a child, is always omnipresent in the work that I do.
ACI: You also did ceramic restoration with conservator Grady Stewart in Philadelphia. How did being a restorer shape your perception of objects?
MB: Well, first of all, it was a great education, and I was getting paid to do it. I originally auditioned for that job as the decorator, because when you do that kind of restoration, obviously, a lot of times there are just big blank spaces that have to be re-illustrated or painted in. And I couldn’t take the job at that time, so when I went back, another, very talented person had filled it. But the owner of the place said, “Do you know how to model?” And I said, “Yes.” They gave me a test, and I passed it, and I worked there for five years, handling unbelievable objects that, usually, you normally see behind glass. I learned a lot about architecture and structure; figurine tradition, how things were put together; the fact that polychroming has been going on since the dawn of time, so we could kill that old dinosaur – it doesn’t have to be glazed. I learned so much from handling that stuff, I should’ve been paying them.
A lot the pieces were factory-made, anonymous – we don’t know exactly who made them. They have a really interesting personality, when you’re engaging with them. Plus, it taught me a lot about history, because people aren’t paying to get my version of a missing arm of a Dresden milkmaid. Well, they want a Dresden version. I had to learn how to work in that style. And because it’s a time-based thing, every single thing I worked on – I’d come in, there’d be maybe 50 objects on my tables, and each thing had a piece of tape on it with a number, and if it said “five,” that’s how many minutes I got to rebuild what was missing. Stop and think about that for a minute. And some days were finger days: I just sat and made fingers all day long. The ability to pick up speed and be economical with your work, is a great thing to have. It has served me well here in my current small space – it actually took me back to those days. I didn’t have a lot of workspace, and so rethinking what I wanted to make, to fit the physical space – I had already been there.
ACI: When did you know this would be your life’s work?
MB: When I met Howard Kottler and got into his amazing program at the University of Washington: that pretty much did it for me, as I got better, realizing three-dimensional objects and learning processes that were satisfactory to me.
Also, it’s worth noting, historically, that I was doing mixed media from the very beginning. Clay was an inert material that I didn’t feel any sort of spiritual or emotional connection to, no more than I did Play-Doh or papier-mâché or cardboard boxes glued together to make forts as a child. It just was there. And I was lucky to have that freedom, because at that time, there was a fair amount of prejudice against the “pure” experience that was still continuing out of that post-war craft boom. It was an interesting time to work, and I thought that I had found this thing that satisfies me, in many, many ways, to be able to make, because that’s who I am, and that’s what I do. I make things.
And not being a respecter of material at the time, of course, you get branded right away as being sort of – you’re shuffled off to the side, because at the time, you were judged on your knowledge of clay and glazes and firing a kiln and all this other stuff. My thoughts about it was, it’s simply an available material, and that there’s enough precedent in the world through industrialized ceramics – the world of the knick-knack, the cheap souvenir – those things have energy all their own.
And I was gravitating towards that, because that’s all I knew. I was a boomer. We had a black-and-white TV that got two channels. We never went anywhere; there wasn’t any money. And I just started absorbing all the things I saw around me.
My recent exhibition was titled “From the Cerebral Dimestore” because there is a dime store in my head, and I stock it when I make things.
ACI: What’s in your stock these days?
MB: Souvenirs from places you don’t want to go.
ACI: Can you give us an example?
MB: I’m sure hell has a gift shop. Everybody’s got a gift shop. And if you go there, you can buy things, and they say – I produced this thing, a cup that collector Bob Pfannebecker owns, the “Damn You” cup. And there’s a pert devil in a cup, and it’s garish, and it says, “Souvenir from Hades.” But the cup itself is pierced full of holes. And somebody said to me, “Why would you do that?” And I said, “Don’t you know? In hell, if you ask for water, they give it to you in a sieve.” And I said to myself, “So what does a souvenir from the Black Hole of Calcutta look like?” And I had done this a long time ago, a souvenir from Sodom and Gomorrah – these things, because I’m very much a prankster, also, because I just thought, this is really funny. If you went to these places and managed to get out, you’d probably bring something back with you. Although these days, my work is much more about memento mori, and that’s simply because – when I turned 67, realization crashes in, without being morbid, that you’re moving into probably the last third of your life, and what do you want to do with it? And so the work became much more elegiac, I think. But they’re still funny. There’s a lot of jokes tied up in things.
ACI: In the early part of your career, did people get those jokes, or did you have to explain them?
MB: Sometimes, because often, there are so many of them that – they are pastiches of all sorts of weird things. I think the best description anybody ever gave me of the work I’ve done all these years is that it’s like peeling an onion. And I try to – if somebody is kind enough to give me 30 seconds of their life to look at something I made, I try to make sure there’s something there for them. And so there are often obscure art history references, TV shows, music, movies, pornography – there’s all sorts of stuff in there, and it’s like each person takes something away.
In my recent exhibition there is a piece called The Five Plagues, they’re all based on color and all that, but one of them is a ringer. There is no such plague, but people think there is. And that’s the Red Death. And Edgar Allen Poe made that up, and Vincent Price made it famous in a drive-in movie, and so, much of what you see there is based on that movie I saw as a kid at a rural drive-in. And I just said to people, “There are clues on one of them that will tell you about the other four.” And so it was really funny to watch people and some people found it, and then they thought this was tremendously funny.
ACI: What is the connective tissue in all of your work?
MB: The connective tissue that links all of this stuff together? It’s the figure. I can tell you that it dawned on me not too long ago; it all fell into place. When I was a child, I didn’t want to live where I lived. There was a kind of desperate quality about me. My father was an incredibly smart man, but he was abusive in his own way, and my sister and I avoided him. And so I spent many hours alone, working in my bedroom, and I had become a monster kid.
The monster craze swept America in the early ’60s when Vampira appeared on television, and all the kids got to see the Universal monster movies from the ’30s. And Aurora Plastics model company issued what are now revered in the modeling community as the “long boxes,” and for 90 cents, you could make Dracula or Frankenstein. And from that, I learned as much about those plastic figures as I did from handling Staffordshire, Meissen, Dresden, Chinese export ware, how the figure is presented three-dimensionally, and my love for the base. Each of those creatures had a place that it lived. That was their world. When they stepped off of it, they came into our world.
And so I’ve used that for years, and one day, I thought, “I’ve been making monster models for 47 years.” And it came as a shock to me, why I hadn’t seen it before; and it makes perfect sense. So when you look at all the early work I did, there are bases. I can control that space, and a lot of that came from the fact that in my real life, I couldn’t control what was going on, unless I went into a room and shut the door.
That’s where I developed this thing about being a solitary worker. I was very focused on what’s in front of me without any distraction. And I often don’t even play music or whatever, I just sit, think and work. And of course, the restoration thing came along; being a better mold-maker – it all just jelled together.
ACI: Let’s shift a little bit. Tell us what you’re currently working on and what’s exciting to you now.
MB: What I’m working on currently: memento mori. There’s unexplained territory that is mysterious. It’s gone on forever, but I find it really strange that people have embraced – Fiesta de los Muertos is the Day of the Dead, and that sort of cultural appropriation, because that’s all about being dead, not being afraid of it; to celebrate, to remember. And the piece Lavender Plague in my show touched a lot of people. In a way, it’s really a memorial to all the people I knew who died of HIV and AIDS early in the plague years.
ACI: And that piece is just riddled with secrets and narratives?
MB: Yes, only a gay man from a certain period can pick them all out. The piece reminds us that sometimes the thing that will undo you has a beauty all of its own. So when you look at those pieces, the viral essence of cholera or malaria, HIV, they’re all represented on those traditional bottle forms, and they’re all color-coordinated, and it’s like, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just simply a matter of nature doing what nature does. There’s a cycle to everything.
ACI: And of course, there’s a little bit of Halloween stuck in there, too?
MB: Yes, of course. And I always take a moment to poke fun at Japan. I shouldn’t really do it, but I do anyway. I realize, also, I’ve been battling cultural appropriation, without knowing I had done it, by saying I don’t want to make tea bowls. I’m not Japanese. That’s not part of my zeitgeist. I never lived that life. And so the rush to – now everybody’s in China and all that.
And that’s great – anybody out there, if you’re listening to this, go for it. But it’s not for me. And so that’s why I proselytized so many years about American design. We have things over here that are equal, that belong to us. Feel free to use those. Just because somebody did this in another country doesn’t make it better. It just makes it different.
So that’s been a lifelong pursuit of mine, is to try to work within my own parameter and use our country’s cultural icons, if that makes any sense. I just – I can’t take on something and give it any sense of authenticity – I just can’t. And in a strange way, by staying away from all that stuff, it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it; I do. And I think it makes me a better observer. I don’t feel any attachment to it, emotionally. And often – the thing about clay is, there’s a sort of spirituality that a lot of people carry about the material: it’s a biblical reference to flesh, to making; Adam was raised up out of the dust. And so it carries a lot of spiritual quality for people. But I’m just some guy from a cornfield. I don’t know anything about it, and I understand it intellectually, but when I sit down to make things, I don’t mess around with that. I tell stories.
ACI: Are people less interested in ideas, do you think?
MB: I think they’re looking for an idea and not finding one. I’m sure that sounds cryptic!
ACI: How would you guide someone into finding their own voice or idea or concept?
MB: Well, usually I start by asking them any number of questions about what they’re doing currently. Do they know that somebody down the road made a thing that looks just like that? This is inevitable. You go through enough ceramic departments, and you look at the stacks and all the work, you start seeing certain things over and over. It’s a human thing. Certain tropes will never go away. There’s always gonna be a bowl with a sad cat on it. There’s always going to be an anguished figure. It’s how those things are approached. And so, for students, it’s understanding – why you want to make things becomes the highest priority, and how do you best express that thing that you want to do? How might you make this a singular object? Maybe just a little tweaking here or there will lift it out of a larger group of objects.
Most of the people that they look at in magazines and stuff have figured out how to identify. Now how do you know it’s a Sam Chung when you look at it? You just know. And I thought it was interesting, the great jawbreaker surfaces that Ken Price did — and Price was an interesting guy, because he was kind of a loner. He just made stuff. And of course, that surface is incredibly engaging. It’s delicious. And he wasn’t dead ten minutes before it started showing up on everything. And I thought, God, let the guy get cold. I mean it’s great you figured out how to do it, but why do you want to — it’s like wearing a dead person’s clothes. That’s a pretty good metaphor, right? Why do you want to do this thing? Can you retranslate it in some way? Suddenly, it was everywhere, because he didn’t own it anymore.
ACI: Throughout your career you have been identified with gay culture and identity. How do you define your subcultures?
MB: Well, subculture is a fascinating thing. Of course, all the cards are out on the table now, and a lot of people are not old enough to remember that being gay was once a curse. Parents would rather have their children be serial killers than homosexuals or lesbians or transgender. You have to remember, also, I’m a child of the ’50s. Nobody talked about this stuff, this was a bad thing. Then comes the day when you realize you are that bad thing. And I just – I did what I always did. I just simply blundered along from thing to thing. When I outed myself at NCECA, you could’ve heard a pin drop in the room. That’s the day I said, “I’m a gay man.”
Much of my work is about the things that I see. But I do make a distinction there: I’m an artist who happens to be gay. I think that being a “gay artist” means that you’re Tom of Finland, and that’s what you do, and you draw men with enormous penises, leather subculture, all of that stuff, or you’re RuPaul, and you’re inhabiting the drag world, that kind of stuff. Not everything I make is that. My work’s always been a diary of my life; not all of my life is wrapped around that. Of course, sometimes it sneaks in, but then in other places, it doesn’t. Somebody once said to me, “Well, there’s always something slightly fey about what you do.” And I said, “Yeah, there is;” I said, “It’s just there.” I’m not pressing an issue about it. I’m not making overtly gay art. Other people do it, and they’re better at it than I am. My approach to it is much more subtle. My goal, I think – although I do irritate people – is to entertain them in some way. So it doesn’t bother me at all.
Northern Clay Center did a show a couple years ago called “Sexual Politics,” and Kelly Connole called me. She said, “Do you mind if I call you the fairy godfather of American queer ceramics?” This is something that’s kind of dropped onto me. And I said, “No.” I said, “Somebody’s got to do it.”
I heard a podcast not long ago – it was really funny – in which this bunch of young artists were figuring out who I had begat. And there was a video that went with it, and they had drawn a family tree. And so, I was this branch that things were – and I thought, that’s really strange. I never thought about myself in those particular terms.
ACI: Did you feel like you had to pick up where Howard Kottler left off?
MB: Yes, historically, in the field, I had to pick up where Howard Kottler left off, because Howard suffered greatly in those years, to the point where they didn’t want to give him tenure. And Bob Sperry went and battled for him and said, “It doesn’t matter what he’s doing when he’s not here teaching.” Howard and I talked a lot about that over the years, and he said to me, “Don’t do what I’ve done.” He said, “If I could take it back,” he said, “I might have been more – I might have been more apparent.” But I think if he had been more apparent, we would’ve lost a lot of the unbelievable richness that comes across in his work, the plates that coded all of that, which reflected the tenor of the times.
I was much different. I didn’t care. I just said what I had to say, and I thought, so I’m going to pick this up and carry it along to the next place. And I’ve never regretted it. I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve helped many students come out, tried to make a space for them, when I ran my own department, to make work that felt authentic. And I do like that. There were places that didn’t allow it. They didn’t want you to make that kind of thing. And of course, now that’s all sort of gone away, and I like to think I had something to do to help those people. I wanted them to have a better life and studio life, and not to have to struggle so hard. So that’s a long-winded answer.
ACI: What would Howard think about our culture now?
MB: I think he would be delighted and amazed.
ACI: Did you ever think about forks in the road, alternative paths? What would you do, if you did not do this?
MB: Well, it’s been very much on my mind for almost a decade now. I went through – I was really prolific, and when I decided to try to move back into the body of ceramics – because I’d always been an outsider, I was considered a cult figure. And there was no middle ground; I just didn’t fit in very well. But when I took over that department at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, I owed it to my students to make a bigger, better, stronger connection to the body politic of American ceramics as it was. And so that’s why I did NCECA, all of that. I tapped into a lot of things for them, and then I was trying to work. And so, the first death kiss is when the university makes you an administrator. Your studio time just vanishes. You can’t serve two masters, let alone three. And so I’m starting to juggle a department, the ceramics department, the entire art department, and my studio career. And your studio career goes first. There’s just not enough time to do everything. And so, I slowly started to recede. I wasn’t as visible. I went through a long series of physical impairment; and I had planned to leave, to try and go into studio full-time, after I had become a full prof.
And at that time, my husband, James, was still alive. But he died unexpectedly, and I just – I really didn’t care about work anymore. All I wanted to do was sit and buy things on eBay. I turned into this thing I thought I would never turn into; I turned into a recluse. My nature is to be gregarious, and I love being around other people and talking and just having a good time, making work. And suddenly, I was this sort of curmudgeon.
And that’s why I made the decision to get rid of everything I owned and try to reinvent myself. And it was a pretty – well, you don’t live in Vegas all those years and not learn how to gamble. That’s my metaphor. I gambled on some better quality of life. And I had to recognize, I was getting older. My body doesn’t do the things that it used to do; it just does different things now. And I thought to myself, at one point, I thought, why do I want to continue to do this? I could do it and probably still be happy. And I thought, well, here’s the thing. I often get asked about what it means to be famous – which still strikes me as being odd. I don’t think I am. I’m just a guy who makes things. But once in a while, somebody would go, “Google yourself,” or “I saw a thing of yours in a museum.” And I consider myself to be a fortunate human being, but I thought to myself, how many books do you need to be in? How many museums, how many shows? Do you have anything worth saying anymore? And I had a real crisis of faith. I’m like a priest who loses their religion, and it had to be nurtured. I made the right choice. I’m more interested in making things again. People were very kind about the show I had here at Gallery 224 during my residency at the Ceramics Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard.
ACI: Was it difficult for you to show again?
MB: They didn’t realize, that was hard for me, in many ways, because I hadn’t had a solo show in many years, and I had figured that maybe, my time had passed me by. And if I didn’t do this anymore, I would still do something. And a lot of that comes from the fact that making ceramics is an expensive, laborious procedure. And I thought, well, perhaps no one’s married to anything for a lifetime. I know many people that I looked at as a student, or as an up-and-comer in the field, that made amazing stuff, just really the kind of stuff that you just – you want to make something that good. And many of them just vanished. It’s amazing. They just gave it up. They went off to do something else; they lost interest in it. They vanish. And they have perfectly happy lives. They go off and do other things.
I’ve joked for years to people, I said, “I’m going to write that tell-all book. It’s not sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, it’s sex, drugs, and ceramics,” who did what to who. And I said, “It’s like Valley of the Dolls with spodumene.” And it’s funny, because a lot of people say history books don’t ever cover any of these things, the interpersonal relationships between very seminal people, teachers and students. The outlaw part of it I’ve mentioned disappeared, somewhere along the line; it’s become much more corporate and, again – but when you’re working with a bunch of people, nobody knows exactly what they’re doing, emotions run high. All sorts of interesting things went on. It’s kind of biblical.
ACI: Tell us about a meaningful highlight in your career.
MB: This is really important. I talk about it when I do public lectures now, that in 1991, the Japanese government opened the Shigaraki Contemporary. And they spent – I think it was two years – looking for 10 American artists. That was the inaugural show there. It was called “Ten Americans.” And I got picked. And of course, I was dumbfounded. The roster – Adrian Saxe, Betty Woodman, Ralph Bacerra – heavy hitters; and me. I don’t know; okay, every pack of cards has a joker. They picked the work they wanted. And I was invited to Japan. And at the festivities, the night before the museum opened, they announced the acquisitions. The curator said, “We chose this Mark Burns piece because we think he’s the most American.”
There’s a Kleenex moment for you. Everything that I had talked about crystallized in that brief second. It still makes me really emotional, when I think about it, that I went from being kind of a crackpot to actually being a sort of – what’s the word I want? I was no longer that weird guy. I actually had done something.
And it’s funny, because the piece that they bought is me, aggravating the muse and just acting the brat. In that piece, I’m wearing footie pajamas that have cute little bear heads on the feet, with googly eyes, and I said, “They bought that because of the cute little bear heads with googly eyes.” But it’s – really, that piece is me all over. And I like the idea of that.
ACI: A special moment!
MB: It really was. Somehow I transcended. – As I like to say, I clawed my way to the middle, and I’m staying there. Well, you know, it’s interesting to move from being a marginal person into a center of something. And of course, when they gave me the teaching award at NCECA a couple years back, that was a really moving moment. I think I’m a good teacher, and I really cared about my students. I wanted their experience to be happy and productive. And as I think societal norms, things change for everybody – not just for LGBTQ community, but women – to see women move from being thought of as mere decorators into a real force, the sort of – the last gasp of the brute macho, which is what it was for a really long time – a place for everybody at the table. And that’s – I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see that happen. It just makes the world a better place, I think.
ACI: Not only has your work been archived in collections, but your teaching becomes part of the history.
MB: Oh, yeah, and that’s really important to me, because I have any number of students who’ve gone on – I used to say to them, “Your job is to eclipse me. You must be better than me,” I said, “because that’s how it works. There’s always a faster gun coming up,” I said, “and that’s fine. I share these – I give this knowledge to you in the hopes that you will be transcendent.” And many of them are in really incredible places, although I do find that there was a marked turnaround, academically; that people didn’t want to teach. They wanted to go off to be independent studio artists, to pursue other projects. And of course, as the job market became smaller and started drying up, they were forced to look for other things. And I really admired that, because I came out of a period in which that’s what you did: you got your terminal degree, and then you found a job. And it paid the bills, and you taught, and you had a studio. And of course, the face of that has changed considerably now. And I admire all those people who find some other way – they follow their bliss.
So yeah, getting the teaching award was a really amazing moment. I think I did okay.
ACI: You sound extremely humble.
MB: That kid locked up in a bedroom and listening to my mother say to my father, “Max, get in there. Get that stuff. He’s going to warp his mind.” I just didn’t fit in. I made a world of my own. But – you know something? I never got compared to other artists. I got compared to – first, it was Alice Cooper, and then it was Marilyn Manson. And the Boston Globe just called me the John Waters of Ceramics. The outsider thing, it’s still there, and it’s coming from my new work. Somebody said, “Well, how do you feel about that?” I said, “It could be worse. They could compare me to Jack the Ripper.” Or, like I said, when Dave Hickey wrote that article about me – that was also a really transcendent moment, to be compared to Mapplethorpe and Robert Gober. I just looked at it and went…
So, there have been some amazing highs – and some lows.
ACI: Can’t have the highs without the lows. What is next for you?
MB: Well, it makes you – it certainly makes you appreciate them a lot more. It really is true. It’s sort of like – but to come to some point of focus about “I know who I am, and I know what I’ve done” – I’d be the first to tell you, I’ve made some really good things, and I’ve made some barkers. But that’s just how it is. I’m restless. And so that question about “What next?” – I’m not 100 percent sure what that is. Soda firing – yeah. No, that’s a lie. That’s not ever going to happen. I just told a really big lie in front of that camera.
Artist Statement: For over four decades, I have made strange marriages between disparate sources. Mythologies, manifest spiritual tropes, historical truth and historical lies, sexuality, television, movies, music, literature, and the ravenous beast we call pop culture. Once considered, those who seek an explanation will hopefully realize my work is an outward physical manifestation of a simple truth. My work has always been the diary of my life. – Mark Burns