The National Original Print Exhibition (aka NOPE) is an annual print show held by the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers at their home by the Thames, the Bankside Gallery. This year, the Jackson’s sponsored Visitor’s Choice Award was given to Ian Burke, a printmaker, painter and Drawing Master at Eton College. In this interview Ian shares his inspirations, how his teaching influences this artwork and his love of the nature that surrounds his home in the Yorkshire Moors.
Lisa: Can you tell us about the process of making ‘Stonegate Owl’, and whether it was an intuitive process or one that was carefully pre-planned?
Ian: I was very pleased if not thrilled that I was awarded the Jackson visitors choice award at the National Original Print Exhibition.
“Stonegate Owl” is an image that is definitely inspired by where I live in North Yorkshire. When I am not school I live in a Watermill near the River Esk near Whitby that it transpires my great-great-grandmother lived in 1745. It’s on the North York moors and in a wood. Consequently we have several tawny owls communicating in the summer and autumn during the evening. I purchased the model of my owl on eBay and unfortunately it is not very mobile but still magnificent. I did question why I was doing owls when burning some rubbish in the garden and I was feeling less than contemporary and rather pedestrian. Fortunately I was persuaded by an obliging Tawny owl who was attracted by the bonfire and reassured me of my decision. Ultimately I always follow my gut instincts and for once it has genuinely paid off.
I use woodcut and lino printing a lot in my teaching of GCSE and A-level. When I finished my first degree at Newcastle University I attended a course that was run by Michael Rothenstein RA and he convinced me that I could be a printmaker as long as I had a kitchen table, relief material ink on a wooden spoon. I have researched this concept thoroughly over the past three decades and hope I have passed on the information to numerous other enthusiasts.
Lisa: Can you tell us about how you etch the lino?
Ian: Etching lino is dodgy business and not part of my educational practice. It involves lino and wax resist or stop out varnish and the caustic material such as caustic soda or cleaner. The artists must be well protected and wear eye protection and cover all areas hands and arms. I use molten wax which you can carve into and then every day oven cleaner. I repeat this stuff is dangerous and must be respected also it has to be cleaned very carefully and make sure it does not enter the natural water system. I like the results because I am not always in control and it seems to complement the rather mechanical cuts of the gouges and chisels.
Lisa: I read on your website that you have a river and waterfall in your garden in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors – it sounds incredible! And a far cry from what I imagine your work experience to be like. Is it fair to say that the contrast between your home and work life serve as a very rich source of inspiration for making work?
Ian: I have always lived in North Yorkshire working first on the oilrigs and then the educational platforms of boarding school. I have also worked half my career in state schools. I like the North Sea, the North York Moors and enjoy walking with my dog and fishing. My work I hope reflects my interests and I always try and convince students to deal first with what they like and love. Increasingly I found that if you want to make your way in the art world you have to operate in a very London centric world..
Lisa: I’m interested that you consider yourself a teacher first and foremostly – because a lot of artists will usually say they see themselves as artists first and foremostly, even if they teach for most of their working week. Do you think your passion for teaching somehow eases the pressure off making art, and perhaps in a way makes making art easier?
Ian: I am an art teacher and I have enjoyed my career very much. I make art alongside the students and I think any art teacher should reinvent themselves on a regular basis otherwise you lose interest and become stale. Some of the best artists of the 20th century such as Rothko for instance was not afraid that particular job description. In Art education you pay the bills and have long periods of holiday when you can explore your own interests and technical objectives. I am in regular conversation with Sean Starwars a very good artist and printmaker and also a High School teacher in Mississippi.
Lisa: You have taught at some very well respected private schools, such as Barnard Castle, Rugby and currently Eton. How do you think art education has changed over the course of your teaching career, if at all?
Ian: I presently work at Eton which is a very privileged position but I have taught in inner-city London, Cumbria and County Durham in state schools. I am desperately sad about the statistic that art and design in many state schools has been side lined and underfunded. One of the reasons I moved over to private education is that I was exhausted of begging and making ends meet. Coming from Redcar Teesside I also hope that I can change things from within. I also get four months of the year with pay to make my own work which is probably as much as most individuals get as a college tutor.
Lisa: What do you love about the process of relief printing in particular?
Ian: The relief process is important to my teaching as contemporary children seldom draw and I find that the dexterous involvement of carving means that they are not thinking about drawing but are unwittingly making graphic work. I run workshops for local art departments about the principles of printmaking towards drawing which involves basic woodcut and lino printing. The majority of students enjoy the process and slowly but surely they realise that making an image is more than possible. I have published a small pamphlet of my research which is basically called Printmaking towards Drawing.
Lisa: What are your favourite printing inks and paper to use? and can you describe the press you use?
Ian: We have a press at school but I do try to encourage hand burnishing with a Japanese baren or a wooden spoon. Apparently a tobacco tin is very good but not to be encouraged in a school situation. I am increasingly conscious of health and safety and try wherever possible to use water-based inks that do not involve cleaning fluids but soap and water. In my own work I still prefer to use oil based inks because of the definite drying time and now that I can afford it I love good quality Japanese paper which seems to be perfect for all forms of relief printing.
Lisa: What’s the best and worst thing anyone has ever said about your artwork?
Ian: In the gallery that shows my work in Staithes in North Yorkshire I often hear from the owner that young people have bought my work because is both affordable and is probably something they identify with. The most positive thing about selling work is that other people think it’s worthy of displaying in their home which is extremely gratifying. The worst insult I’ve ever received about my work is that when I was student at Goldsmith’s College doing the MA course burglars broke into my studio in Clerkenwell London. At that point I was preparing for my final show and all the work was framed and ready for delivery to Camberwell. Not only did they break my door down but they were art critics and left my work untouched and stole a Mickey Mouse alarm clock.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Ian: I am represented by a gallery in the North of England Staithes gallery in North Yorkshire. My work and also be seen on Instagram @Burke1913 (I have no idea why I selected this name.) In November of this year I will be having a one-man show in Zillah Bell gallery Thirsk in the first two weeks of November will be in the Masters print exhibition in November with a collaboration with Ade Adesina RSA.
Header Image: ‘Whitby Translated’, a collaboration between Ian Burke and Ade Adesina, Linocut print, 95 x 130 cm, 2019