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Al Burts: "Passport Please"

11/20/2012, 12:13 p.m.

Winner of National Art Competition Holds Solo Exhibit

The phrase, "Passport Please," is something most people frequently hear at the airport as they enter and exit foreign countries and the familiar territory of their homeland. But to Al Burts, winner of the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Semi-Final art competition, that request has a much deeper meaning.

"A passport is a person's identity, citizenship, right to protection while abroad, and right to re-enter his or her native country," Burts says in his artist's statement. "For the descendants of Africans who endured the brutality and torture of slavery and yet still stand; the definition of 'passport' is more complex than just photo identification and travel. It is a sense of inclusion in the process of finding one's destiny and purpose."

Burts, an Alexandria native and graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Virginia Commonwealth University, was chosen from a field of 200 DMV artists who entered the national art competition. Out of those, 30 artists from the region were selected and Burts and his entry, "Veiled," were selected for the semi-finals. His work will be entered into the final competition at SCOPE Art Show in Art Basel in Miami Beach next month. The Artisan Series competition is sponsored by Bombay Sapphire Gin and the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.

"Passport Please," exhibits 28 of Burts' works; eight are from the like-named series, along with other selected pieces. Apart from the artist's skillful handling of the human form, Burts utilizes an unusual medium of expression: ballpoint pen.

"The ballpoint of my choice is a fine point Parker Quick Flow because of its archival ink," Burts said. The results are finely executed portraits in which the pen stroke is barely visible, if at all, resulting in smooth forms, flawless surfaces and incredible depth of emotion."

Others see his talent.

"Al has very strong technical skills in drawing and painting and in developing an emotional connection with his viewer," said Tim Davis, founder and director of International Visions Gallery, where Burts' exhibition will hang until Dec. 8.

"His portraits and figures that he creates pull you into the story and you come away from viewing one of his works [as if] you were part of the experience."

Some of those stories are gleaned from history, as in his portrait on wood, "Josh," which captures the image of Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson, or "Dignity: A Beautiful Mind," where a youthful James Baldwin stares impertinently at the viewer, capturing the spirit of the famous author.

Other works appear to be someone in particular, but are actually composite portraits of no real person. "Many of the faces in my pieces are a collage of sketches from subway riders and magazine photos that makes up one face. Depending on the mood and story I'm telling dictates the style," Burts added.

Within the relatively small gallery space, the range of Burts' talent is readily visible. "Mercy Me," depicts a large central figure of D.C. native Marvin Gaye gazing upward in the pose of a martyr against a collage of images from African-American magazines.

Other pieces, such as the minimalist "Contour of Jean Michel" are dominated more by the negative space surrounding the image than the actual central figure. "Ink Study" depicts a country farm worker in repose with his enlarged bare feet becoming the focal point of this portrait.

"To show family strength I would use cubic realism with heavy hands to represent work and strength and exaggerated feet to represent deep rooted stability," Burts said. "The Empty Vessel style would normally represent dignity and class," he said. "It's all spirit guided."

Davis alluded to the unique qualities that catapulted Burts to win in his second try in the Artisan Series competition.

"Al Burts winning the Artisan Series shows the strength of his work," Davis added. "The judges in both years, 2011 and 2012, voted for his work unanimously."

Al Burts "Passport Please" is on view at International Visions Gallery, 2629 Connecticut Avenue, NW. An Artist's Talk with Burts will be held on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 5-7 p.m. at the gallery. International Visions is open Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. by appointment. Call (202) 234-5112 for more information and to schedule a viewing of the works.