Lilian Thomas Burwell: Being Creative in Living Life Itself

Larry Saxton | 3/10/2009, 8:50 a.m.

Artist Lilian Thomas Burwell writes in her catalogue, €I so strongly believe that the individual€s search for his own particular voice and purpose is indeed the design of the Creator! THAT is the true art€the eternal journey that calls us to be creative in living life itself.€

A native New Yorker, Burwell graduated from D.C. Teachers College and earned an MFA from the Catholic University of America. After studying and teaching art at the Pratt Institute in New York, she was a master art teacher for D.C. Public Schools, and part of the Visual Arts faculty at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Her book, €From Painting to Painting as Sculpture: The Journey of Lilian Thomas Burwell,€ was published in conjunction with her 30-year retrospective exhibition held at the Hampton University Museum in 1997.

She was nominated for the Mayor€s Excellence in the Art€s Award (1981, 1984, 1991), and was honored for Best of Fine Arts by the Urban Artists Alliance in 2007. Her work has evolved from abstract expressionistic paintings to sculptural painted canvas-over-wooden shapes.
WI: What has had the most influence on your art work?

: I believe my work has been influenced by my life experiences and my belief systems, and not by what somebody else is doing. I believe that one of our strengths as a people is our originality.

WI: How did you make the decision to go from two-dimensional art to three-dimensional art work?

I was challenged by a well known journalistic art critic, also a friend, who after seeing my work, [told me] to €let go.€ He said I was like someone at the top of a mountain, arms spread like wings, but not quite believing I could fly. I knew what he meant. I had become quite comfortable and satisfied with my work. I couldn€t seem to €let go€ and had picked at details on the canvas. I decided to work on something so large that I couldn€t continue to do that without going crazy.

WI: How did the change make you feel?

By working large enough for a person to actually enter into the space of the work and be surrounded by the elements in it, I am creating whatever world I choose, restricted only by my own limitations. Whether creating room-size installations or pieces suspended from wall or ceiling, I can literally invite you to become part of any idea that I perceive. The feeling of being able to interact with the work can be overwhelming.

WI: How do you feel your three-dimensional work is being received?

I never worried about how it is received. That was sort of anti-mission to me. There was a point at which I cared; I call that my professional adolescence. But as I€ve matured and grown, I€ve found that the more I know, the more I realize I don€t know, and it€s very exciting to me to know I don€t have to have all the answers. I know my body follows my spirit, and development of the spirit is primary. I try to be free of as much outside influence as I can. It€s like breathing: I can€t inhale what life gives me without letting it out. Everything that €LIFE€ gives me is what I am.

For more information about Lilian Thomas Burwell visit www.burwellstudios.com.

Larry Saxton can be reached at lsaxton@washingtoninformer.com.