photography: Kirsten Shultz
(page 2 of 3)
Take a hard left at Tenth Street just north of town and then the first hard right, and you’ll find yourself in a long, paved alley lined with workshops and studios. From this unassuming, light industrial neighborhood have sprung many of the precious, well-lit objects that stand in pristine Ketchum galleries and in grand homes around the world. Visitors are welcome here. And if you stroll in under the number A3-L, Jack Burgess will brush the wood chips off his apron, bend to shake your hand (he’s six-foot-four), and be more than happy to show you around.
The tools of his trade—three hundred chisels—bristle from a rotating rack beside a honey-colored basswood panel from which he’s carving a section of a woman’s torso. It’s 70 percent done.
“The shapes have been established but there’s no refinement,” Burgess says. “I want the feeling that there are soft tissues underneath.”
The torso is part of a new series of carved reliefs in which the composition has removed the section of a figure from a larger context. The curves and textures must hold their own, as almost abstract designs.
Burgess, who studied anatomy as well as drawing in college, also has a deep love of the outdoors. Most of his commissioned pieces have centered around trees, fish, birds, and bighorn sheep. All of his work reveals a deliberate craftsmanship, a deep knowledge of anatomy, a pitch-perfect sense of composition, and an instinct for beauty. Given the tightness of the composition and the tediousness of the carving process, one would never guess that Burgess is “surrendering to the process in order to allow a state of chaos to reconstitute into some other form of expression.”
Up the narrow studio stairs, a stark gallery displays a variety of Burgess’s work. A full-size ram’s head, its horns spiraling realistically, gazes out at a freestanding salmon with a blond wood tail that catches light in a thousand facets, lending an illusion of movement and light rippling through water. Several whimsical balance sculptures made of bronze, horizontal branches resting on vertical branches, invite you to touch them, to make them rotate. Burgess finds the raw materials for these sculptures on his frequent hikes, and considers each branch for several weeks before deciding to cast it.
When some clients recently requested a theme indigenous to Idaho for their grand carved doors, Burgess turned to Shoshone Indian blanket designs sewn with trade beads. A consummate researcher, he used a painstaking technique called “chip carving,” removing an eighth to a fourth of an inch of wood at a time to evoke the weaving and beading of a native blanket.
Another set of doors was designed to “pop the entry” of a modern home. In keeping with the building’s contemporary lines, Burgess stylized the human form in an African motif, then used several different stains to create a dark, rich surface.
Burgess, a fifth-generation northern Californian, discovered Sun Valley in 1974 while on a driving adventure after college. “My first impression upon seeing the Sawtooth Mountains was exhilaration,” he recalls.
He soon made Ketchum his home, continuing to work as a carpenter, as he’d done in California. Although, in the interim, he has literally sold art out of the back of his van (a woman spotted a man-sized vase he was transporting to a gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and had him deliver it right to her house), he didn’t start supporting himself as an artist until 1989. Even after that, he figures he averaged about five dollars an hour for several years.
Art runs in the family: his great-grandmother, Della, painted portraits of wealthy California families in the early 1900s. Burgess remembers, as a very young boy, loving the smell of her oil paints and turpentine. His preference for wood as a medium lies in “the sheer physicality of the process.”
When he’s not carving, Burgess is out in nature—minutely observing, taking thousands of photographs, and “just looking at the texture of rocks, bark, and trees.” He is first an observer: of himself, of nature, of his medium.
“You have to know and understand the medium, and then try to understand the client,” he says. “And then, you must still be true to what you know will work.” >>>