As a child in the 1950s, Julia Burr hammered boards and crossed wires, constructing forts for her plastic cowboys and army-green soldiers. “I was always making things. I created my own world,” she says. “Now, I get to do that as an adult and call it art.”
Burr is a Black Mountain-based sculptor, and if her name feels familiar, it might be because of her high-visibility local installations: the sculptural steel railings in Pack Square, for instance. Burr’s “Honor” is an important anchor at the NC Veterans’ Park in Fayetteville, one of six large-scale outdoor sculptures there, and the only one created by a woman.
Taken whole, her portfolio is marked by extremes of pragmatism and whimsy. Her artist’s statement is finished in four dry but inspiring words: “Art increases brain size.” Before moving to Western North Carolina two decades ago, the sculptor, starting at age 18, created maxillofacial prosthetics for a living (her grandmother had painted prosthetic eyes for decades for veterans at Fort Sam Houston at Texas). She also sculpted three hyper-realistic fairies at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. “Don’t make a big deal of that,” she requests. “That’s not who I am anymore.”
She means that her style — what she calls her “voice” — has evolved. Now, even her abstract work has a grounding focus. Last spring, she created “Wild Things,” a large nest of steel, for the Black Mountain Greenway Commission. Cradled 10 feet up in a conceptual metal tree trunk, the wiry steel “branches” mingle with a lush green canopy. “When you create public art, you have to think about the logistics,” says Burr. “Wild Things” was relatively easy, but typical large-scale installations require balancing windload, frost lines, and public-safety issues with wavering budgets and fickle committees.
Her smaller fine-art pieces, a mix of wood and steel, are understandably more intimate, exuding a folk-art feel. The almost figurative “St. Sebastion Revisited,” impaled with knitting needles, droops its head in surrender. “My World Divinity” also mixes whimsy with iconography; the saintly totem, its arms outstretched, is fixed along its length with plastic googly eyes.
“My art is about trusting my intuition and not thinking too much,” says Burr. “Orchestration,” her temporary installation at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, reflected that effortless, visceral approach. Using organic materials and parts from defunct musical instruments, Burr made a statement about death, specifically the importance of participating in the dying process.
“I’ve watched a lot of death,” she says matter-of-factly. She worked in Hollywood during the AIDS epidemic — “it changed my life” — and, more recently, her parents passed away.
Loss also naturally informs Burr’s handcrafted urns. Unapologetically modern, sweetly irreverent, even cheerful, the mild steel pieces seek to both honor and represent the deceased. “I ask lots of questions to get a sense of who they were,” says Burr. One urn is molded with a mother-in-law’s knitting needles, another is shaped like a stretching feline. “It’s always an honor when someone asks me to create an urn,” she says. “Always.”
No matter the medium, there’s a certain grace that unites the sculptor’s works. Burr calls it a “subtlety of gesture.” A non-artist might call it honesty.
“Some type of synchronicity happens,” she says.