Like a teenager of any generation, Cathy Burgess was impressionable. Doubly so: she had her most important youthful epiphany at the Museum of Modern Art.
Fifty years ago, at age 16, she visited MoMA thanks to a summer art scholarship she’d received from her Brooklyn high school. “I encountered three paintings that changed my whole outlook on art,” says Burgess. Those canvases seemed to capture the touchstones of 20th-century art — Picasso’s 1937 Guernica (since repatriated to Spain), Pavel Tchelitchew’s similarly anti-war-themed Hide and Seek from 1940, and Yves Tanguy’s Surrealist The Furniture of Time, from 1939.
“I sat in front of them immobilized with a friend,” recalls Burgess. “I think that was what one calls an ‘aesthetic experience.’”
The experience still resonates in her work today, although her images aren’t drawn from the turbulence of global conflict like those seminal works. Her parents, in fact, fled Malta during World War II to settle in New York, where Burgess was born. Her non-figurative landscapes in pastel or oil, with their softer, nature-inspired palettes of blues, greens, yellows, and muted whites, soothe rather than startle. “I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember,” says Burgess, adding that she had already begun to consider herself an artist by the time she made that fateful trip to MoMA, though there was no family tradition in the arts.
“The only trait, I think, that comes from being of Maltese heritage is perseverance,” she decides. “Some of my intimates also call it ‘stubborn.’” But it was her good fortune to grow up in New York, where some of the world’s greatest art was just a subway ride away. Burgess eventually received her Masters in art from SUNY Buffalo and taught in various schools before retiring to Hendersonville in 2015.
With a more settled lifestyle after their earlier itinerant years of marriage — her husband worked as a frequently reassigned Federal government executive — Burgess turned from full-time teaching to becoming a student again, notably studying with the American portraitist John Nelson Shanks, whose best-known work is his 1996 portrait of a contemplative Princess Diana, completed just a year before her death. “What I learned about color from him was invaluable,” says Burgess, who also cites John Singer Sargent as an influence, for his en plein air landscapes, not his more widely known portraits of Gilded Age society. In the former, she is awed by his strong abstract design. “Such simplicity,” she says, “is not easily attained.”
In her own world, she is best known for her pastels, though she sometimes works in oils. Burgess’s first sale as an artist was for a portrait in pastel; more recently, she served as program chair of the Appalachian Pastel Society. She favors soft pastels for their purer pigment, producing a more brilliantly colored work with suggestive, near-Impressionist lines. “I like to draw, and pastel is immediate in its facility … the colors are already in their value ranges, which makes the working process much faster in some respects,” she explains. She uses pastels, too, to develop composition and color studies for her oil paintings, but she is a strong proponent of pastel as an important medium on its own.
“The one thing pastellists want critics to know is that it’s a painter’s medium beyond compare when it comes to longevity.” Pastel, she further declares, retains its “original state of brilliance” long after an aging oil painting has started to yellow.
Burgess’s works in pastel and oil have been widely exhibited in the Southeast, most recently in the juried exhibit On Common Ground in Greensboro and with Tryon Painters & Sculptors. She has resumed a private teaching schedule in pastels, oils, and cold wax. “It’s a calling I respond to with enthusiasm, when I’m invited,” she says. “I still delight in seeing the light go on in my students’ eyes.”
Cathyann Burgess is represented by Woodlands Gallery (419 North Main St., Hendersonville) and Asheville Gallery of Art (82 Patton Ave.). For more information, call 804-833-7903 or see cathyannburgessfineart.com.