“When people look at my work, the remark I most often hear is how well I use color.” Cathyann Burgess laughs softly as she says this. A lifelong career in art — including acclaim for her ethereal, luminous captures of the local mountains — have salved the sting from the dismissive words of a professor more than 40 years ago.
Looking at the portfolio Burgess had just submitted for her undergraduate art degree, “He laughed at me and my work,” she remembers, “and told me I knew nothing about color.
“I was devastated. His words stayed with me for years.”
Art is all Burgess had ever wanted to do — since receiving a pochade filled with brushes and oil paints, when she was 13, from her mother’s best friend; since she sold her first piece at 15 “to someone who didn’t even know me”; since her father told his teenage daughter they could not afford private art lessons but that her strong imagination was her superpower; since the nun who kept her in after-school detention for a week recognized her yearning to create and made her paint a mural on the classroom wall.
“There were subtle encouragements along the way that this was my path, and I kept following it.”
The roadblock thrown by that professor became a stepping stone to a fulfilling teaching career that spanned more than 25 years. “It made me a better teacher. It helped me to understand that a young person needs encouragement, and that criticism should be constructive and helpful.”
In her early thirties, Burgess got her Masters in Art Education and studied color while she was teaching, using Vermeer’s iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring to learn facial color. She took development courses and studied portraiture with a student of John Nelson Shanks, then a two-week book camp with Shanks himself. “I will be a student all my life,” she says proudly.
When Burgess retired from teaching in 2006, she dove into painting daily — and nightly, too. “I turned the garage of our house into a studio and loved that I could get up in the middle of the night and paint in my pajamas.”
The move to Western North Carolina with her husband in 2014 sent her outdoors. “I became serious as a landscape painter here,” she explains. “It’s such a beautiful place — the sky, clouds, mountains, the weather changes, stars at night, the color. It’s all right here.”
Most of her work begins en plein air, often starting with pastels because they’re easier to carry outdoors. Then she completes the piece in the studio or does an oil using the plein air pastel as reference rather than a photograph. “When you’re outside in nature, it feeds your soul. You feel the sacredness of this land and how fleeting nature and life is.
“When you can bring that back into the studio and use your skills of interpretation, then you understand you’re an artist, and you are painting what your soul wants to say.”
Cathyann Burgess, Asheville. Burgess is represented by Asheville Gallery of Art (82 Patton Ave., ashevillegallery-of-art.com) and The Lucy Clark Gallery and Studio (51 West Main St., Brevard, lucyclarkgallery.com). She will be featured in the two-woman show Soul of Place: Images Inspired by the Places We Love at Asheville Gallery of Art, with Karen Brown, running June 1-30. Meet the artist, June 4, 5-8pm. For more information, visit cathyannburgessfineart.com.