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Being Burke: Town of Niagara artist gets into the spirit of his Burchfield exhibit in the Niagara Gazette

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A lot of people are familiar with the work of Philip Burke. His colorful portraits of celebrities, politicians and rock stars have graced the pages of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and many other prestigious magazines. Even if people don’t know of the man himself, they surely know his subjects.

Walking through an exhibit of his work at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, is like hob-nobbing in Hollywood. Everyone who is anyone is there, living and dead. There’s Princess Diana looking pensive and lovely, hanging with comedian Danny DeVito and singer Bono. All five of the Rat Pack are there and each guy has the devil in his eye. By another wall, assembled in a group for what surely must be the first time, are The President and Mrs. Obama, Sara Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

What people might not know is that Burke, a Tonawanda native, now lives in the Town of Niagara. He moved there from Manhattan several decades ago to be with his beloved when she refused to move to New York City to live with him.

What people also might not know about Burke is that his work is infused with his Buddhist beliefs. He says that once he started chanting, his paintings exploded in rich colors that drew the attention of the world, and that the devout practice has benefited more than just his painting.

“When I started chanting, my life opened up completely,” he said recently while touring a visitor around his exhibit at the Burchfield Penney.

The way he tells it, something had to change. Fame came too early and too quickly when some of the most prestigious magazines in the world sought him out for his drawings of their story subjects. “It had a bad effect on me. I turned into a very nasty and very arrogant young man.”

He became interested in Buddhism when he saw it’s peaceful impact on an old friend, and when he went to a meeting with that friend some 30 years ago, he met the woman who would become his wife.
Touring his exhibit, Burke appears fairly joyful and at peace as he points out his favorite paintings, stopping at one point to pose for a ‘selfie’ with a pair of gallery visitors from Iran or to share thoughts with a couple from Buffalo.

Buddhism has brought so much to Burke’s life that he appears delighted to talk about its impact on his life.

You gain the wisdom of how to change the patterns in your life that cause you to suffer,” he explained. “From day one, I felt my pores open up. I felt my heart open up. I dove into the deep end.”

His wife, Geri Minicucci of Niagara Falls, was a leader among those practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in Western New York. After they fell in love, she didn’t want to leave her family, so Burke moved to the Town of Niagara.  

“I came here with this passion to support her and help spread this Buddhism message.” These days, Philip and Geri, joined in their passion for their practice, are coordinators for Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in WNY and eastern Canada.

Spreading the message is part of the faith, he said. “You practice for yourself and teach others to the best of your ability.  Without sharing it, you will never attain enlightenment.”

Lucky for him, his colorful paintings provide him a stage to share the spiritual philosophy that he credits for infusing light into his work and his life.

Some observers can see it clearly. Donna Campagna of Buffalo was touring the gallery with her husband, Daniel, a musician with a local band, Bluerock, when she spotted Burke. “It lifts the spirit,” she told him, speaking of his exhibit and depiction of so many famous faces. “You can just feel them the way they are ... You can see their souls.”

Burke told her he attributed that effect to his Buddhist practice. “Before doing a painting,” he told her, “I chant for an hour.”

Leaving the couple to enjoy his work, Burke continued walking through the gallery, pointing out his favorite work.  He stopped in front of a painting of Tupac Shakur, whom he depicted in a head scarf. “I love this one,” Burke said, “just because you can almost climb into his eyes.”

Burke noted that people often comment on the intimacy of the portraits, and most observers think he has met the celebrities he paints, but he typically has not. During the seven years he provided images to Rolling Stone Magazine, he worked from photos, typically about 30 assorted poses of subjects, which result in about 20 drawings before he puts brush to canvas, all oil.

When he popped into a gallery painting class, because its attendees had requested to meet him, one of the participants asked him about his process.  “It’s my initial impression that comes and goes. I’m always trying to get back to that,” he explained to the group.  He also admitted to a bit of artistic vanity.  “I take delight in doing someone everyone’s already done. I’m very competitive.”

His process always includes music.  A punk enthusiast before he became a Buddhist, he plays “very loud music” when he paints. “Usually when I start a painting, I put on Nirvana.”

Museum Director Anthony Bannon said that creating a special exhibit of Philip Burke’s work was one of his priorities when he took the Burchfield helm in 2012, after 16 years directing Rochester’s George Eastman House Museum of Photography and Film.  The exhibit opened in April, had a re-opening on Friday, and will remain up at the gallery until Sept. 13.

Bannon has high praise for the artist and appreciation for the exhibit and “the surprise we offer to all those who aren’t familiar with Philip’s work.”

“The interesting part for me is the distortion,” Bannon said, pointing out the way that Burke draws attention to particular traits of his subjects, like the glasses he painted on rock star Bono’s face, which are slightly out of proportion.

“The understanding of what is a core characteristic of the subject comes through,” Bannon said. “The distortion of line or light draws you in. You don’t see it so readily unless its pushed around a little bit.”

The artist, standing among his unlikely assortment of the best and the brightest of humans, tries to explain the connection he feels to all those he paints, which might account for the deeply personal depictions. It boils down to what he has learned in his Buddhist practice.

“At the deepest level of our consciousness,” he said, “we are one with everything.”

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