Bunny Burson ‘traces’ family history in Anderson Ranch show

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
"Lost/Found I," Bunny Burson.
Jerry Atnip/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Traces,’ Bunny Burson

Where: Patton Malott Gallery, Anderson Ranch Arts Center

When: Through Monday, Oct. 26

How much: Free

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Printmaker Bunny Burson went in search of her family history in old letters from Europe, but discovered something more universal in “Traces.” The exhibition of her work at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center is the result of a yearslong project in search of her roots.

Burson said her parents and their siblings, similar to much of the World War II generation, were reticent about the tumult swirling around their youth.

“I never really felt like I had permission to ask too many questions about my history,” Burson said.

Her daughter, a singer-songwriter, was the first to broach the subject with Burson’s mother — researching and writing songs based on the family history she could elicit from her grandmother.

After that, in 2009, Burson discovered a bundle of envelopes containing letters postmarked between 1939 and 1941. They were in German, which she can’t read. When Burson had them translated, she learned that they were to her mother and uncle, sent by her parents to the U.S. as they desperately attempted to flee Nazi Germany.

Burson spent six years researching in Europe and working on what would become “Traces.” A St. Louis-based artist, Burson is a board member at Anderson Ranch and created some of this new work on its Snowmass Village campus over the life of the project.

As she learned more, she explored how to create visual art out of the letters based on their content and the story they contained. But eventually, she found that the handwriting itself — a gorgeous, calligraphic cursive — told the story best.

“In the end, I decided it was their handwriting that spoke to me,” Burson said. “It was so beautiful. It was such a gesture.”

Starting with the shapes of the text itself, she then began to layer her own hand over the private letters, covering them in opaque and transparent paper, experimenting with a variety of materials. The result is an adventurous body of work that spans media while exploring layers of memory.

An untitled collage takes the form of a map — writing from the letters covering roads or borders over an inky background. Handwriting is enlarged and falls out of focus in her “The Page Bore Traces.” In “Letters Last,” she plays with scale and zooms in on sections of letters in paint, which drips downward to the edge of the canvas.

The two-piece “Lost/Found” series is among the more literal representations in the exhibition — these lithographs each show two dozen postmarked envelopes laid side by side, with lines from the letters scrolling across.

In the four-panel “Dispersed,” letters are dislodged from one another and appear to fall into a meaningless pile.

“In Plain Sight” brings the letters into three dimensions, refashioning them into brass and aluminum sculptures of the envelopes, stacked together on a pedestal.

A brief artist’s statement in the gallery explains the origin of the letters and the works in “Traces.” But the pieces and their layers of paper and fabrication obscure the content of the letters. As a result, more than anything, they inspire curiosity in the viewer about the letter writers and also, inevitably, about the viewer’s own family history.

Her mother, now 96, came to Snowmass Village to see the show. The abstracted artwork based on those old letters has opened up communication about the family history and struggle during the war.

“It broke new ground in a lot of ways for us,” Burson said. “It was an important experience for me artistically but also personally.”

Burson made two woodcuts — “Her Hand” I and II — with the CNC router in the Anderson Ranch workshop that’s filled with cutting-edge technology and digital tools (known as “The Fab Lab”). The “Her Hand” pieces replicate pieces of the letters with their intricate script raised and depressed in wood. Made by scanning letters into a computer and then programming the cutter, it’s the kind of artwork made possible by such digital technologies, allowing artists to execute concepts that might not be possible with the human hand.

“As a printmaker, you’re always a step away,” she said. “I’ve always had a problem with wanting to be in touch with my materials and not wanting someone else doing something with my work. I think these tools allowed me to get over that.”

Filled with 3-D printers, scanners and a laser etcher, The Fab Lab opened in February and has exposed ranch students to a new realm of art-making. For traditional artists such as Burson, who might at first resist taking their hand physically out of the art-making process, it’s allowed for some breakthroughs like the “Her Hand” series.

“I’m getting used to the idea of being a step away,” she said. “It’s in some ways liberating. But you have to be comfortable with that liberation.”

A book documenting “Traces” is forthcoming, with a foreword by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. After that and six years working with these letters, Burson will leave the project behind.

But she may stay in this epistolary mode. Since “Traces” opened in September, she’s received family letters from people hoping she might make art of them.

“I might find someone else’s letters that I want to do something with,” she said. “But I think I’m done as far as my own.”