This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Meg Cullar.
Alumnus Marc Burckhardt has built a successful career speaking his mind through art
MARC BURCKHARDT HAS SOMETHING TO SAY. He communicates through a personal language that only he can speak, but people seem to have no trouble understanding him.
“I see everything an artist does as language,” says Burckhardt, who earned two degrees from Baylor in 1985—a BA in art and a BFA in art history. “The language conveys different ideas, and you choose tools based on what you’re trying to communicate.”
Burckhardt is a well-known illustrator and gallery artist, and the unique style he has developed is as readily recognizable to his fans as a Monet or Warhol. When his portrait of the late Tejano music sensation Selena appeared on the April 2010 cover of Texas Monthly, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Burckhardt’s work easily saw the mark of its creator.
The iconic look of a Burckhardt painting—typically produced on a wood panel—draws on an Old Master sensibility but addresses con-temporary issues. Burckhardt’s imperceptible brushwork and use of symbolism hark back to his love of Flemish and German Renaissance painting, but he throws in a twist, giving his paintings a folk-art flair through the use of perspective and design elements. He tops each painting with a unique technique that produces a fine crackle finish over the entire painting. He may add gold leaf or tooled tin to produce the look of a religious relic.
Burckhardt’s distinctive artistic language isn’t a monologue, he says. “A painting that reveals everything about itself is an unsuccessful painting,” he explains. “I think there needs to be a dialogue with the viewer, that they need to bring something to it, too. It’s that interaction that makes art interesting, generally speaking. It’s open for discussion and interpretation.”
Burckhardt’s success in the world of commercial illustration has led to numerous prizes and recognitions, including his being named as the 2010 State Artist by the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Texas Legislature. Communication Arts, the leading journal on illustration, has given Burckhardt awards and published an artist’s pro-file of him. He’s also won awards from the magazines American Illustration and PRINT, and gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators of both New York and Los Angeles. His recent illustration work has focused on portraits, and he has painted commissions of Barack Obama (for Newsweek), Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela (Time), George W. Bush and Willie Nelson (Texas Monthly), Carlos Santana (Rolling Stone), and Ho Chi Minh and Walt Disney (the History Channel), to name only a few.
While the magazines buy one-time licensing rights to the art-work, Burckhardt retains the original, which he can then sell. Some of his portrait subjects—including Oprah and Ralph Lauren—have purchased their own portraits.
Attending Baylor was a foregone conclusion for Burckhardt. His parents were the late German professors Jochem and Chris Christenson Burckhardt ’55, MA ’71. “They were called the ‘umlauts; because they were always together,” Burckhardt says, referring to the German diacritical mark consisting of two dots over a letter. Everyone the family knew was connected to Baylor, he says.
Childhood for Burckhardt was an education in itself. The family spent summers in his father’s native Germany. In fact, Burckhardt was born in Riisselsheim and holds dual citizenship in Germany and the U. S. He still spends time in Germany every summer and finds inspiration in the art of the region. Traveling in Europe and exploring its culture and museums “feeds me,” he says. He counts North-ern Renaissance artists among his strongest influences.
At Baylor, art professors recognized Burckhardt’s talent early on. Department chair John McClanahan, who taught most of the painting classes during Burckhardt’s student years, calls his former student a “creative soul” whom he fully expected to succeed. It wasn’t just Burckhardt’s talent and smarts that predicted a promising future—he was also “serious, intent, focused, and dedicated;’ McClanahan says.
A large Burckhardt two-piece canvas of a nearly life-sized sofa—done in charcoal and washes—hangs in McClanahan’s art department office. “I took over as chair in 1985, and that’s probably the first thing I did in here—hang the Burckhardt. It’s been hanging here ever since. He did that under my supervision, and I’ve treasured it.”
After Baylor, Burckhardt studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, graduating with an illustration degree with honors in 1989. Burckhardt calls the school the “Harvard of design schools” and a “boot camp for art.”
With his third undergraduate art degree in hand (“I have enough of them to paper a bathroom”), Burckhardt headed directly to New York City to be at the hub of the commercial illustration and publishing world, and his career took off. Early on, he did mostly book jackets, he says. But after five years in the Big Apple, Burckhardt and his wife, Janice Thompson Burckhardt—a 1985 BFA graduate in art history with an additional BA in 1986—headed back to Texas.
“Janice’s father passed away, and my mom was ill, so we decided we wanted to be closer to family,” Burckhardt says. “The timing was right, and I’m glad we did, because we didn’t have much more time with my mom.”
By then, Burckhardt’s career was notable enough that the Austin American-Statesman ran an article about his relocation to the city. That came to the notice of Texas Monthly art director DJ Stout and eventually launched a longstanding relation-ship with the magazine, one of Burckhardt’s few Texas-based clients. Stout, a renowned figure in the design world, is now a partner at Pentagram, a nationally known design firm with an office located just blocks from the Burckhardts’ house. It was shortly after Stout’s arrival at Texas Monthly in 1987 that he began to direct commissions to the artist, who has become one of his closest friends.
“One of the early things he did for me was an illustration for an epic poem—the first time we ever ran an epic poem;’ Stout recalls. “The poem was about the Alamo, and Marc did this really great painting of Stephen F. Austin standing gigantic over the Alamo. I think it was one of the first paintings he did in the particular naive kind of folk art style [that he’s now known for].”
After thirteen years at Texas Monthly and ten at Pentagram, Stout can’t even remember how many times he has commissioned Burckhardt. The artist’s latest project with Stout is a large one, a series of labels for a hydroponic food company. “We wanted it to look like packaging for groceries in the old days.”
Stout says. “We also wanted a character of an animal on each label. Marc does really beautiful paintings of animals, so I knew he could do that.” Stout says he values Burckhardt for his design sensibilities. “He’s become in some ways a bit more of a designer than an illustrator. He involves typography, flourishes, banners, and borders in what he paints,” Stout says. “He has a good design sense for an illustrator.”
Stout also appreciates Burckhardt’s work ethic. “He’s really responsible and professional;’ he says. “He is always on time, always follows through on deadlines, and always does what he says he’s going to do. Having worked with a lot of illustrators, I can tell you they’re not all that way.” Recently, Stout paid Burckhardt the highest compliment—he chose the artist to paint his own portrait. As the winner of the 2010 Society of Illustrators national award for an art director, Stout will be featured in the organization’s annual publication with an essay and portrait. He chose Burckhardt to do both. While he says, “It will be interesting to see what he comes up with” for the portrait, Stout says he chose Burckhardt not so much for his portrait style, but because, “He is a very thoughtful thinker and writer.”
Day to day
After sixteen years in Austin, the Burckhardts are still thrilled with the city. They moved to a larger home about three years ago, and Burckhardt finally has ample space for his business. Seven years ago, Janice joined him in the business as his project manager.
The addition of Janice to the process has made him more productive, Burckhardt says, and she wasn’t just the easy choice for the job—she is highly qualified for the position. The couple met in Baylor’s art department and started dating, but following graduation they pursued separate opportunities.
While Marc headed to Los Angeles, Janice spent a year studying in Sotheby’s Works of Art program in London. She was offered a position at Sotheby’s New York, but headed to Los Angeles instead to marry Marc. She was assistant director of an art gallery in LA and then director at a Soho gallery when the couple lived in New York. She later held positions as manager and producer at ad agencies in New York and Austin.
Now Janice is “managing” her husband, including website development, promotional efforts, and various paperwork. She also applies some art skills by helping him prepare board surfaces for painting and doing the transfer work of putting his sketches onto boards. As for her own art, she says, “When you live with someone who paints as well as Marc does, you lose all desire to go there. My interests were always more on the art history side, while Marc’s are more on the studio side.” She channels her creative energy into quilting, knitting, and crochet—”all kinds of things that he doesn’t do,” she says.
Austin is the perfect place for him to be, Burckhardt says, even though the majority of his work still comes from New York and about a third of it comes from Europe. Burckhardt is a serious lover of music, and being in Austin, known as the live music capital of the world, is an inspiration to him—especially since he lives a block off of Sixth Street.
Every day begins with the joys of the city. Just outside the back door of the Burckhardts’ renovated 1910 house is one of Austin’s hike and bike trails, and the couple walks about four miles each morning after coffee. Then the work day begins in earnest.
During the day, Burckhardt’s time is often filled with e-mails and phone calls. “It’s usually later in the day that I get earnestly into painting and drawing,” he says. “And I’ve always been a little bit of a night owl. I’m often up working until three in the morning, but, at this point in my life, I try not to do that as much as I used to. Janice keeps me a little bit more disciplined.”
Every work of art—whether produced for an illustration client or for gallery exhibition—begins with a “thinking” stage, Burckhardt says. Most of his art is filled with multiple layers of symbolism, so the thinking and planning phase is the most important, the artist says. Sketching out his ideas is part of that process, which can take place anywhere in the house—on a second-story porch or the antique drawing table in the den—as long as it’s quiet.
“My best ideas come to me when I’m waking up in the morning or if I’m just relaxing and not focusing on it directly,” he says. He doesn’t write down ideas, but draws them. “I have sketch books filled with almost indecipherable [images], almost like a visual shorthand.”
He wants to get the idea recorded immediately, not because he thinks he’ll forget it, but because sketching it will keep that idea from “nagging” at him and will make way for more ideas and different ways to solve the problem. “You have to keep pushing past the first thing that dawns on you, because probably it’s the first thing that dawns on everybody,” he says. “Art needs to be something that you feel like you haven’t seen before.”
When Burckhardt is creating a commissioned illustration, the planning stage culminates with a back-and-forth conversation with an art director until a final concept and sketch is determined. Then Burckhardt heads to the wood pile—his stash of various-sized old and new boards—located in his basement “dream shop.” After the cutting, prepping, and transfer of the sketch, painting begins.
Old Master painters used a buildup of egg tempera paints, finished with glazes, and Burckhardt replicates this process by building his paintings with water-based acrylic paints. To some paintings, he adds gold leaf elements. He then finishes the painting with oil glazes.
The fast-drying acrylics are essential because of the rapid turn-around required for some illustration projects. A magazine-commissioned piece is often completed in two or three days, Burckhardt says. “Time magazine waits for no one,” he notes.
Burckhardt’s trademark crackle finish gives each work an Old-World ambience and a recognizable Burckhardt flair. Other than describing the technique as a “combination of varnishes,” Burckhardt won’t reveal how he achieves the effect.
Some Burckhardt paintings are also adorned with tool-worked tin. He developed that process through trial and error, he says. “I sort of invented all of this stuff, mostly from looking at old icons and figuring out what might have been done,” he says. Throughout every phase of the process—whether thinking, painting, tinwork, or crackle—Burckhardt maintains an attention to detail that displays the dedication not only of an inspired artist, but of a master craftsman. Musically inclined
The end of a project often brings Burckhardt back to the reason he loves being in Austin. “Part of what we love about being here is if I finish a project late at night and we want to go out and do some-thing, I can walk right out my gate and I’m in the middle of the city,” Burckhardt says. The “something” he wants to do usually involves the Austin music scene, a reliable source of inspiration.
In fact, many of the music-themed paintings he has done in recent years have become favorites. He’s painted Willie Nelson, Kurt Cobain, Hank Williams, Carlos Santana, and numerous portraits of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Burckhardt’s relationship with the Cash family began shortly before the death of June Carter Cash in 2003 and has continued to deepen.
It all started when Burckhardt painted an album cover for a collection by songwriter John Hiatt with songs recorded by various artists, including Johnny’s daughter, Roseanne Cash. “She loved the album cover and showed it to her family, and they contacted me to do what turned out to be June Carter Cash’s final album, Wild-wood Flower,” Burckhardt says. In fact, June Carter Cash died before Burckhardt even started on the cover.
Burckhardt realized how important the album was to the family. “The Carter family is royalty of country music; some of the greatest songs of old country music are Carter family songs, and she did a lot of these songs,” he says. “This whole album was recorded with her family in her family home.”
The family, especially Johnny, was so pleased with the album cover Burckhardt produced that John Carter Cash called up Burckhardt and said his dad wanted the artist to come to Nashville for a couple of days to work on a portrait of June. “I thought about that for about a nanosecond and said, ‘Yeah, I think I could do that—but of course I have my assistant, my wife, who would need to come along.’ So we spent about four days at the Cash family home.”
Burckhardt did a mural piece of June and got to sit in on some recordings at the Cash Cabin Studio with Johnny. “It was just otherworldly,” he says. “We’re sitting in a little room with Johnny Cash and an engineer, and he started singing a capella. We just got shivers. It was amazing and an incredible experience.”
Burckhardt later did a pair of portraits of June and Johnny, plus an album cover for each. He also painted a portrait of Johnny for a special fiftieth anniversary of Johnny Cash music in a Sony box-set edition with some previously released material. That package won the Grammy for the best packaging in 2006. (But, no, Burckhardt doesn’t have the Grammy—that always goes to the record company—although he thinks it would look great on his mantel.)
Johnny Cash died only months after June did, so Burckhardt’s encounter with him came near the end of the music legend’s life. The mural of June, unfortunately, met a sad fate. When the Cash home was sold to Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, and renovations were underway, the house burned and the mural was lost. Burckhardt takes it in stride. “For me, it was the experience,” he says.
In recent years, Burckhardt has continued a relationship with John Carter Cash, an accomplished songwriter and producer. Cash has penned two children’s books, whose texts are actually lyrics from some of his songs. Burckhardt has been the illustrator for both of the books. “He and I are kicking around another project,” Burckhardt says. “It’s been a long and good relationship.”
Although he finds daily inspiration in music of all sorts, Burckhardt also has favorite artists that he studies and appreciates. His primary historical influences are Flemish painters and Northern Renaissance works, he says, and a current favorite is Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), a German Renaissance painter and printmaker, court painter, and friend of Martin Luther. ‘A lot of my work is very influenced by historical works, and it reflects historical genres and symbols,” he says. “A lot of it connects back to my German roots, mixed with a lot of Mexican folk art.” German and Mexican folk art, he points out, bear some striking similarities. “That is there in the music, too,” he says. “Tejano music is rooted in German polkas. A lot of Texas was founded by Germans, so there’s an interesting mix of those cultures, and I see that in my work.”
Burckhardt also admires contemporary artists, including Robert Crumb, the American illustrator and comic artist recognized for his “Keep on Truckin'” comic of the 1970s and characters like Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural.
“I like the iconic value of art,” Burckhardt says, ((something you can hold in your hand at the end of the process.”
Burckhardt’s knowledge and tastes run the gamut over the span of six centuries, and all of that combines to create a thoughtful and complicated artistic mind. He says that a lot of the influences in his own art happen subconsciously—but it’s obvious that everything springs from a mind deliberately steeped in historical, symbolic, and religious influences. Burckhardt says that a painting is like the artistic content of a newspaper’s editorial page, as opposed to the objective content of the front page. He thinks art should convey a point of view, but what that view will be is something that constantly evolves.
In the last five years, Burckhardt has expanded his career to include gallery exhibits and sales of fine art in addition to commissioned illustrations. His gallery work is significant, he says, because it indicates where he’s going rather than where he’s been. He gets to choose his subjects and his message, so it is more often revelatory of what he’s trying to communicate.
“I think that if you look at the body of my work, you begin to get it,” he says. “You begin to understand the stories I’m telling and the symbolism that I use. A lot of it is based in art history and symbols that have been used for millennia, although I may be using them in different ways or to discuss different themes.”
Part of what he likes about the historical look is that the viewer brings expectations to the experience because of the familiarity of the style. But then Burckhardt adds a twist that can be unexpected and unsettling. For example, he’s been interested in historical “status” paintings—-depictions of the possessions of wealthy patrons, like their horses or other prized livestock. His twist—an equestrian portrait of a camouflage horse or a couple next to a dinosaur on a leash.
One thing that has helped Burckhardt articulate his artistic perspective, he says, is teaching. When in New York City, he taught at the School of Visual Arts, and for the past ten years he has been teaching a class at Texas State University. “Teaching makes you talk about things that you don’t think about otherwise,” he says.
Most of his students at Texas State are on a trajectory toward graphic design, he says, so in addition to illustration techniques, he teaches them things like how art solves a design problem differently than photography does. “We do a wide range of things—I make them invoice and learn to understand the business of art as well as the creative side of it,” he says.
Teaching is a labor of love that he believes he inherited from his parents. His bread and butter is still illustration work, which can be lucrative when you’re as successful as he is. His gallery business is picking up, too. His originals sell for between $2,500 (for a small six-by-nine-inch painting) to $15,000 for larger-scale paintings. There are some prints of Burckhardt paintings available online ranging from $300 to $600, but the artist says he plans to produce fewer of those types of prints. He wants to get back into hand-pulled prints made from metal plates. “I want to carve out more space for the traditional printmaking that was my roots at Baylor,” he says. And he’s even thinking about doing some sculpture in the future.
Despite the evolution of new media or markets for his art, Burckhardt says, he’ll always stick with commissioned illustrations. It’s the variety and novelty of the work that appeals to him. “Every time I pick up the phone, it could be something that I’ve never come across before,” he says.
Burckhardt is an artist who will always have something to say. In terms of style, he may move on some day, he says. He might create a new dialect to add to his artistic language or learn a new language altogether.
But when Marc Burckhardt talks, people listen—and thus begins the conversation that he calls “art.”