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Stories of Contentment and Other Fables

by Laura Horne-Gaul March 20, 2017

Amanda Burk's recent exhibition at The Thunder Bay Art Gallery titled, Stories of Contentment and Other Fables, explore's human psychology by harnessing our nature to anthropomorphize animals when telling stories. For example a popular fable is The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing where the wolf covered himself with a sheep skin. A lamb followed him and was eaten. The moral being appearances often are deceiving. These fables create sinister atmosphere's which are often used to drive the intended moral of the stories home for children. Although, Burk explains that in her exhibition she "is not referencing specific fables or mythology, but is drawing on the tradition of animals being used to play out human narratives and to reflect human experience. In evoking the idea of fables her intention is to position the viewer to see the work through that particular lens. The animals are a vehicle to speak about human experience."  

Stories of Contentment Thunder Bay 2017 view 2 IMG_6330
Burk It should come as no surprise (Badger)
The misperception of stillness detail possum
Stories of Contentment Thunder Bay 2017 No surprise 2 IMG_6368
Burk_Bound (my Aesopian sadness)_2016
Things coming into being 2016

TUSSLE: Can you explain the title of your recent exhibition, Stories of Contentment and Other Fables, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery and what the moral message you want your viewers to take from the work (as compared to that of a Fable)?


AMANDA BURK: The title Stories of Contentment and Other Fables was intended to call to mind moralistic stories of anthropomorphized animals, but is also intended to play with the meaning of the word fable and to provoke the idea of falsity.  I wanted the title to point the viewer towards thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the untruths that may lie at the center of those stories.  In Stories of Contentment and Other Fables, I am not referencing specific fables or mythology, but I am drawing on the tradition of animals being used to play out human narratives and to reflect human experience. In evoking the idea of fables, my intention is to position the viewer to see the work through that particular lens. For this exhibition, I have used only animal imagery, however the work is not about the animals – it is never about the animals – rather the animals are a vehicle to speak about human experience.  One of the stories we often tell ourselves as humans is that we are civilized, but personally I am not sure that we are nearly as tame or as civilized as we pretend to be.  


T: Have you always worked predominately in drawing? Is there a series of events that lead you to work with this medium?


AB: I have always been a drawer, right from an early age. Even when I thought for a brief period in time in art school that I was a painter, I was still a drawer. During this time, everyone around me was a painter and by default I figured that I must be a painter too. In many ways, the pathway for me to consider myself a drawer was less straightforward - there were few examples of artists around me who were working in the field of drawing and drawing wasn’t being positioned as a viable direction for a sustained and successful studio practice. That said, there were some exhibitions that I saw that changed my perspective. The Betty Goodwin exhibition at the AGO in 1998 was definitely one of them; her exhibition changed me profoundly. Goodwin’s exhibition might have been the first instance where I really understood the power of drawing.  The scale of her drawings, the emotionally charged nature of her work, and the touch of her hand so clearly captured on the surface of the paper stopped me dead in my tracks. I hadn’t expected to be so caught off guard. I think I spent all day in her exhibition, not wanting to leave. A short time later, I began following the work of other Canadian drawing artists - Sophie Jodoin, Ed Pien, John Scott, and Alison Norlen, among others. The work of these artists taught me that drawing was just as viable a path in contemporary art practice as any other art form. Around 2001, I began to define myself as a drawer and since then my connection and dedication to drawing has only deepened – drawing is one of the most accessible, open and adaptable practices today, so I do not, in any way, feel limited by defining myself as drawer.


T: You have mentioned that your current work is reflective of your time living in Northern Ontario, Canada. Can you provide some insight on how/why this shift occurred?


AB: As someone who grew up in Southern Ontario, I thought life in the north would be quieter and more peaceful, but my experience has been contrary to my expectations. Living in a northern community requires more involvement for things to happen, especially in the cultural community. I found that immediately I was busier than I had ever been. But there is also a restlessness in the north, a deep and persistent restlessness that I think stems from a lack of infrastructure and community supports, but also the instability of jobs. My drawing Full Circle (unrest) which is a large-scale charcoal drawing of both crows and ravens contained within a circle is my attempt to express this restlessness. The birds in this drawing appear to flap, fly, squawk and generate a feeling of uneasy commotion. This work for me is about struggle and desire for change, it is about the collective power of the many, however the moment is suspended - a perpetual moment of restlessness with no certain outcome or foreseeable change.


I could never have anticipated how my relocation to Northern Ontario, nearly eight years ago, would change my work. Almost immediately after my move, animals began to show up in my drawings. On a very basic level, I think this occurred because I was trying to come to terms with being that much closer to nature. Deer, moose, and bears were all right there in the woods and I couldn’t pretend otherwise. On another level, wild animals for me represent the unknown, and also represent our most basic human drives and instincts.  It is likely no coincidence that animals remained forceful in my work during the time that I became pregnant and became a mother. Pregnancy, in my experience, is such a biologically driven process and is wild in its own way - once the wheels are set in motion it is quite outside of our control and it follows the rules of nature. Drawing animals then was a way of trying to come to terms with the untamed aspects of myself and my body, and in many ways still is, except now my work has shifted to examine the psychological and behavioral side of my wildness – specifically the instincts tied to viciousness and aggression.

T: Your work has an ouroboros element, can you reflect on your use of this symbolism?

AB: For a number of years, I have been thinking about moments in our lives where we, as individuals, come full-circle to see ourselves anew. This metaphorical circling has featured in a number of my recent drawings and has manifested as mirrored animals who appear to be chasing each others’ tail, as mirrored animals facing one another, and in imagery that is suggestive of moon and lunar cycles. 

I like the idea that as individuals, we are constantly recreating ourselves, not in dramatic ways, but in quiet, small, incremental ways that mostly goes unnoticed. As if we develop through a series of small rocking motions until the momentum is enough to bring us full-circle. This is not to say that these changes are always for the better, but rather to say that the act of becoming is perpetual, is something that cannot easily be observed directly, and is a process marked by key periods of reflection.

T: Do you use source materials for your portraits of animals and people, if so what are they? Also what medium do you use, how long does it take you to complete a drawing?

AB: I use source material for all of my drawings. For my work that involves animal imagery, I have been using books and online sources. Sometimes the drawings are composites of more than one image. In my recent drawing, Bound (My Aesopian Sadness), featuring a mirrored image of a fox leaping, I actually used three images of different foxes – one for the head, one for the body, and another for the legs. I also use tangible life experiences and memories to help develop the work, for example when drawing the foxes, I tried to translate the feel of a real animal fur into the process of making the drawing, and I heightened the articulation of the paws by relying on what I knew about the structure of a dog’s paw.  In general, I spend a tremendous amount of time searching for images. I am always looking for something very specific, a certain angle or positioning of the body. Most days it feels comparable to looking for a needle in a haystack and inevitably when I go to draw the image, the drawing always changes it – it never ends up being the same.


In terms of images of people, in recent years, I have worked exclusively from images of myself, family, and individuals that I am close to. My subjects shift depending on the content I am trying to develop. In my 2013-2014 series, Quiescence, featuring large-scale graphite drawings of human subjects, I was confronting ideas about dormancy or winter in the human body as a way of speaking about illness and recovery.


My process in terms of developing a direction for a body of work is intuitive and slow. I am much faster at drawing than I am at the preparatory work.   Sometimes ideas take years to surface and then months to research and source the imagery. Once I am actually in the studio ready to work, drawings happen relatively quickly, maybe a few days to a few weeks, except for very large drawings - Full Circle (unrest) for example, took me a couple of months of solid work to complete.

In my practice, I commonly work with either charcoal or graphite on paper.  My means are simple and intentionally accessible. I really love working with powdered charcoal because I can use my hands directly to apply it to the paper and it allows me to work almost like a sculptor to develop form and value. Graphite and charcoal pencils on the other hand allow for more control and precision, but the results are more careful and conscious as a result. I try to find balance between these two ways of working, as well as finding balance between the materials I use and the content I am trying to convey.

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