Living and vegetative work
The metal work of Isla Burns is not only alluring, but inviting. Her pieces have a breath of life to them, asking you to come closer, while some of the smaller pieces shout ‘touch me, take me home.’
Of course, you can’t. All you can do is inspect their intricate design.
“I have always liked the organic aspect,” Burns says. “Looking closely at the pieces, it sharpens your eyes and makes you notice the little details.”
Her latest exhibit, Tempered Steel, is made up of a dozen or so organic sculptures depicting flowers and various forms of vegetation crafted from steel and scrap metal.
The organic aspect to Burns’ work has followed her for many years, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, after graduating from the Alberta College of Art—now the Alberta College of Art and Design—and taking a welding apprentice course at SAIT, Burns landed a job practicing industrial welding work in Vancouver.
This was in the ‘70s, a time when women working with metal, or in any trade, was considered—by much of the public—outlandish. Due to this, Burns faced persistent adversity.
“I would phone around for an apprenticeship job and the first thing I would always get was ‘Well you’re a woman, aren’t you?’ I would always answer ‘Oh, well you’re quite astute,’” she explains.
Finding no success in Alberta, Burns was convinced to try her luck in Vancouver where she found a job welding and riveting freight carriers. She found Vancouver much more accepting at the time.
“My foreman, when he met me, he stepped right on top of my toes and stared me right in the eye,” Burns describes. “I was like ‘What the fuck did you think? That I’m wearing ballet slippers?’ and he jumped off my steel toes.”
After saving enough money to buy her own studio, Burns crafted metal sculptures that, much to her frustration, stemmed from a more mechanical style.
“All I could make was these bloody machines,” she says. “It was because that was all I was looking at for a year. You have to wonder what it’s like for someone living in a prison. I couldn’t stop.”
It took more than a year for Burns to retreat from that automated style of metal sculpture and move on to her now “organic feel.”
“I was using industrial parts in my sculpture, but then I realized I had to learn how to forge. I think that’s when I stopped,” Burns says. “That’s the reason I called the show ‘Tempered Steel’, because all of the organic shapes you see have been heated and beaten into shape.”
Her current surroundings also affect and persuade her biotic artistic approach.
Burns moved from Edmonton to the hamlet of Mulhurst Bay with her husband Phil, who is a painter, in 1997. She was in search of a more artist-friendly environment.
“It used to be a hardware store so there’s land attached, a lake to look at and 75 percent of the space is dedicated to our work,” she explains of her home. “The life out here has influenced my work tremendously. You’re constantly exposed to nature, landscapes, and severe weather conditions. It seems to make my work more blatantly organic.”
Burns will continue to make her sculptures inside that warehouse studio until she physically can’t anymore.
“I don’t think artists retire. I certainly don’t have any plans to soon. It’s physically demanding, but that’s why I love it,” she says.
Until Sat., Apr. 22
Peter Robertson Gallery, Free