Biographical Sketch of Dan Burgette
In all art is dialog. Artists tell stories. They give the viewer information. Just as reading a novel can open one’s mind to new insights about how the world works, looking at art can present new ways of seeing our world.
Looking at the stories Dan Burgette tells in his bird sculptures tells a lot about his personal story of being passionate about, and excited by, the natural world. And it can provide openings into how to see the natural world in fresh ways.
Dan’s journey into sculpture perhaps started during childhood near New Haven, Indiana. He did the standard art classes in grade school, he asked for sculpting clay for his eighth birthday and he tried wood carving. But his sister was the one to major in art in college. Along the way, he focused on the natural world. Fishing and hunting, roaming the fields and forests and bee keeping kept him observing nature.
When it came time for college, he went to Purdue University and majored in Conservation. That major was a cross between Forestry and Wildlife Management. That suited him fine because he was a generalist and thought that being a good naturalist that knew about a wide range of the natural world was the ideal.
During college, he was active in the Purdue Outing Club and learned to enjoy hiking and rock climbing. A trip west resulted in the Grand Teton being the first mountain he climbed. That was the start of a path that resulted in his being emotionally attached to the Teton Range and the web of life that covers its hills.
After spending two years working on a community development team in the jungles of Bolivia, he returned to Purdue for a Master’s degree in Conservation. There were a number of things he didn’t get in undergraduate studies that he was curious about, especially aquatics and botany.
During an Outing Club trip to Canyonlands National Park, he met a ranger that had just transferred from the Everglades. In talking to him, it was clear that during a Park Service career, one could live in the mountains, in the swamps, along the ocean, in the desert or in Alaska. That was attractive and fit his educational background. After seasonal jobs at Devils Tower, Craters of the Moon and Grand Teton parks, he got his first permanent job at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, IN.
Part of his duties there was to dress like a frontiersman, sit under a tree whittling, and talk to the tourists about George’s role in the Revolutionary War. His new supervisor arrived from Redwood N.P., and his wife had a redwood duck decoy that had been carved with a chainsaw. Thinking that it would be neat to have a duck decoy, he went in to the woods, cut a section off of a tulip poplar branch, and carved his first decoy with his tomahawk while he talked about George.
He didn’t really know what a duck looked like, and he didn’t know about reference materials, so that bird was pretty crude. But the fire was lit. His wife got him some X-acto knives, and he was on his way. Painting was another thing. When his sister saw his first effort, she knew he needed help. When she saw his second effort, she thought that she didn’t need to worry.
A transfer to Grand Teton N.P. led to meeting a woman whose parents sold bird carving supplies in Pennsylvania. Through them, he learned about the Ward World Wildfowl Carving Championships in Ocean City, MD. After attending that show, and competing at the Novice level, his eyes were opened to what the top wildfowl artists were doing. He bought books, attended seminars and talked with other artists. He sought critiques from judges and local artists in Wyoming and over the years improved his skills.
Since he started working with birds, as he progressed in his art career he stayed primarily with birds as subject matter. And as he studied and learned more about birds, he became more fascinated by them. He attended the World Show every couple of years, and worked his way up to the Open Class. He wasn’t winning top ribbons, but the Honorable Mentions he received, and more importantly the feedback he received from other artists, led him to continue to push his carving and painting skills. He also looked at design and composition as an area that was a weakness for many carvers.
In the late 1990’s, an important event was seeing a World Class interpretive bobwhite quail piece done by Dave and Mary Arendt. The flow, implied motion and power of the piece caused him to want to try interpretives.
One of the problems sculptors have, especially with birds in flight is how to support them in air. Usually the solution seemed to be a bird on a stick. Dan thought about this problem, and thought about how birds fly through the air. And he imagined how the air molecules were disturbed as a bird passed, yet the molecules and air currents calmed after the passing. Couldn’t the air currents be used like the Arendts had to support his birds?
With that thought in mind, he watched birds and tried to image the air currents. In the right light in the right fog, some of those could be seen, which confirmed what he was imagining. Looking at slow shutter speed pictures of flying birds gave further clues. The challenge was putting that into wood.
“The goal of sculpture is to activate space – positive space and negative space.” is a favorite reminder that Dan uses. He found that using the swirling grain of redwood burl to suggest swirling wind currents was effective in activating space. Then he started carving negative spaces between the ribbons of swirling grain to depict the wind flowing past a flying bird. That thought continued as he used forged stainless steel or titanium to form the air currents that supported the birds in flight. Since using quality materials so a piece will stand the test of time is important, moving to metal was necessary to make long, thin air currents that were strong enough to support birds cantilevered from the base.
His efforts to push the quality of his work forward were rewarded in 2001 when he won Best in World Interpetive Wood Sculpture with his piece “Chasing the Next Generation” which depicted the mating flight of white-throated swifts using redwood, forged stainless steel and granite.
The stories told by Dan’s interpretive carvings include the physics of flight, the kinetic energy of fast flying birds like white-throated swifts and stooping peregrine falcons, the fluttering twitter of a male woodcock during its courtship flight, or the frantic parental flight of robins chasing a raven that has stolen eggs from their nest.
He uses the sweep of powerful lines to imply the speed of a diving kingfisher. Positive space that represents birds, fish or air currents contrasts with the negative space that represents air or water. He sometimes uses the natural weathered grain of the wood to provide the information that suggests the energy, power and speed of a flying bird.
As he works on new ideas, Dan strives to increase the quality of his art. In his mind, what sets the top artists, like Larry Barth, above the others is their design and composition abilities. Using the Golden Mean, and elements that keep the eye moving within a piece, an idea is formed and refined. The process he uses often starts with brain storming sessions with a pencil in his hand. When the ideas become more firm, he moves to a clay sketch. This 3D sketch allows him to work out design and composition problems. It’s easy to add more clay or move an element this way or that. Once the project is worked into wood or stone, it isn’t easy to change things. Carving is a subtractive process, so once material is gone, it can’t be added back. Having a clay model helps prevent false moves.
Wood is the primary medium for his birds, even if he uses other media in the piece. Some pieces are inspired by the grain and character of the wood so he is always on the lookout for interesting wood. He has twenty-five species of wood in his stash. Some of these are quite large and he lets them dry for many years before trying to work with them.
The sculpting process can use many tools. Dan has a wood shop with lots of tools. Stop by his studio for a tour. An average piece takes three to five hundred hours, and the longest time spent was over twelve hundred. Because of the time the work takes, he will use any tool that speeds the process. That means hatches, knives, chisels, files and other hand tools. But over eighty percent of his work is done with power tools. Chainsaw and air tools are used, but most are electric. Power tools generate lots of dust, so he has a good dust collection system in his wood shop.
Since metal is important to some of his work, he has a metal shop in his studio. The tools for cutting, forging and welding are available. Most of his time is spent working with wood, but making metal branches with several hundred bronze pine needles keeps him in the metal shop some weeks.
Depending on the piece, he paints his birds using acrylics or oils. To avoid cleaning the dust from the entire studio before painting, he has a painting room.
Dan’s interpretive pieces are most easily recognized as being his work. However, he also does some decorative pieces since the discipline required to focus on anatomy helps when he does an interpretive piece. He believes that it’s important for interpretive pieces to have enough wood to allow for correct anatomy. At the World Show, the decorative sculptures are the ones with every feather carved, textured and painted. The measurements are exact and the birds look more life-like than taxidermy mounts. Even though the styles are different, Dan sees both interpretive and decorative pieces as sculpture. They both need strong design and composition elements. The only difference is the amount of information the artist puts in to the piece.
As he explains it, the same sculpture could be made using decorative and interpretive styles. The basic location of positive and negative spaces would be the same. The basic design using circles, spirals, triangles or vertical lines would be the same. The composition that gives a feeling of balance or forward movement would be the same. But the artist would provide more information in the decorative piece. The story would be told with all of the colors, the color patterns, the size and shape of the feathers, the size and shape of the bird and its surroundings. The viewer would have all of the information provided.
With a similar interpertive sculpture, some of the information would be left out. There may not be any color except the natural color of the wood, or, as some artists do, it might be painted all black, or electric blue. Instead of having every feather carved with the barbs burned in, only the suggestion of feather groups might be seen. Or only the suggestion of the head, beak and tail might be obvious. A lot of information might be missing. But the design and composition would give enough information to tell the story. Is the bird sitting calmly, or is it plunging into the water after the fish? The real difference is that the viewer has the opportunity to fill in the missing information based on their past experiences, or based on their knowledge about how nature works.
Dan has spent over thirty years hiking and climbing in the Teton Range. In his wanderings he has witnessed many amazing events where wild animals were making their livings, or playing. Although he likes to watch animals during their quiet times, he is most attracted to movement.
As he has written, the Tetons are the setting for significant human endeavors and experiences. Their geology has dramatic rocky peaks jutting into the sky. When one ventures close by climbing to a peak, one sees that the rocks are hard bare minerals. Looking closer, the veneer of lichens add splashes of color and texture. Tucked into nooks protected from the wind where a bit of soil fills a crack is a clump of alpine forget-me-nots. Where patches of alpine tundra communities grow, the brief growing season produces a riot of colorful flowers. And the sunlight caught by the thin layer of vegetation supports food webs of spiders, insects, mice, pikas, weasels and birds.
The living layer of plants add sublime colors and softer textures to the bare minerals. This layer is captured by landscape painters. However Dan gets most excited when the landscape is enlivened by the presence, and especially the movement, of animals. The evening he was watching for sheep in a high basin in the north end of the Tetons is a good example. After glassing the landscape for a half hour without seeing anything move, a tom mountain lion walked across a snowfield. That sight brought the landscape alive. It confirmed that the mountain wasn’t just rocks and alpine vegetation. It confirmed that there was a web of life that included enough bighorn sheep to support a lion.
Highlighting the vitality that brings the natural world into focus is central to Dan’s art. Most any animal can capture the notion of the web of life, but birds serve this role especially well. Birds enliven people’s lives in the wilderness and in the city. They brighten the scene with their colors and song. And a factor that especially attracts Dan is how they move.
The eye is designed to detect movement. Birds move through the air, hop on the ground, or swim in water. They flap their wings, or soar without flapping. Chickadees flap their wings 23 times per second, so their wings are a blur to watch. Hummingbirds are faster.
Ravens flap slower, but they are superb fliers. One of Dan’s memorable times was climbing the East Ridge of Disappointment Peak, which sits just east of the Grand Teton. A group of ravens were playing by repeatedly flying up to the top of the Grand, and then tucking their wings and stooping down three thousand feet to Amphitheater Lake, which is a tarn on the east side of Disappointment Peak. As the birds roared past the ridge where Dan was less than twenty feet away, the sudden noise and rushing black streaks were startling. The ravens’ play enlivened the experience of being in the mountains. And hearing the loud noise created by wind rushing over raven feathers got his mind working trying to imagine the air molecules.
Drawing on those sorts of experiences, Dan tries to tell a story with each piece of art he creates. He hopes that he provides enough information that the viewer can finish the story based on their own emotions and experiences. And when they do, he hopes that they will feel the connection humans have with the natural world. Drawing on his degrees in Conservation, he hopes that his artwork will encourage dialog that leads people to appreciate the natural world. Because things we appreciate we want to preserve.
Having one or more of Dan’s sculptures in one’s home has been rewarding for collectors. One collector says that visitors to his home invariably focus on ‘Silent Eyes’, an interpretive great horned owl. Another placed one of Dan’s redwood white-throated swift pieces with forged stainless steel and a walnut base carved and ebonized like the shadow of the flying bird as the centerpiece where visitors enter his great room. The owners feel that it enhances their Jackson Hole home and embraces their love of the wildlands in the Greater Yellowstone area.
After retiring from the National Park Service in 2004, Dan moved to an aspen woods on the west side of the range. The view of the Grand Teton from his home and studio near Tetonia, Idaho keeps him grounded. He still gets out to hike, climb, fish and backcountry ski, but most of his time is spent trying to find the illusion of motion using wood, metal and rock.