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Visual Arts Last Updated: Apr 16th, 2012 - 19:47:26

On ‘Rivers and Memories’
By Anne Contributing Writer
Mar 15, 2012, 12:41

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Before its opening, I spoke with E.J. Montgomery and Lilian Thomas Burwell about their current show, "Rivers and Memories," at the Brentwood Art Exchange. Montgomery says the show provides an occasion to share work that is being done on an ongoing basis. She shares the ongoing evolution of her artistic and spiritual growth as flowing from her relationship with nature and her recall of her experiences in natural environments.

She reminisced about driving through the country, and stopping at spots that spoke to her…corn stalks in winter for example. “I have an emotional response to such scenes and later I recall it and paint or print it,” she says. “Sometimes I reflect on and use the photographs I’ve taken. Sometimes I don’t…I sometimes paint using photographic content, and work with various screen printing mechanisms in a range of processes where the methods help depict and evoke memory and ancestry. I use photographs to blend textures, colors and figurative elements to enhance the content and image-making. The stream of work on paper evolves from notes, papers and letters to my ancestors. The unknown meaning of the marks and characters being a quality of communication that seems universal, and prompts a sense of recall for the viewer.”

She says that her paintings and landscapes are instantaneous responses to the beauty and power of nature, and that she “responds to the brilliant array of color in the environment, as well as the light and dark browns that are a way of building and constructing the landscapes.” The painting provides a tactile engagement and this is a major link with what she has seen, whether the result is two or three dimensional.

She says one of the larger pieces in the exhibit was the result of one of those ‘moments’ that stay with you forever. She was in a sculpture park in Japan, and the first snow of the season came upon her. The big white flakes of snow were coming down, but red, brown, yellow and orange leaves were still on the trees.” As I looked up, a row of international sculptures on the hill above. I’ll never forget that first snowstorm…the colors, the timing, the elements stay with me.”

Interestingly, she says that she was “literally touching up this very painting during our first storm of this season.” The work had previously been shown at her solo exhibition at Morgan State University, but she says she “was not pleased with it, did not feel done with it, and had always felt that I had wanted to go back into it and view it some more. Now I consider it finished.”

I only wish I had seen the painting before, to compare it with the ‘after’….


I finally connected with Burwell to learn her thoughts and intentions for the exhibit. She was ‘coming up for air’ after working mightily for several months toward the show. Two new works designed specifically for this exhibit were to have been shown with her older "Moses Rock" installation. "Moses Rock" is a freestanding sculptural painting that had been conceived for her 30-year retrospective at Hampton University at the inaugural opening of the new home of its renowned museum. She includes it here as a representation of a philosophy of continuum. “I have learned that life itself, along with our spirits, flows on…much like rivers,” she says,” adding proudly that she will be 85 years old this year and intends to “wear out, not rust out!“

The need to let younger artists know that this flow of life and work can continue, as long as the desire is there to allow it to do so, is important to her. “To me, I am my art. My art is, in great part, my life. In many ways I literally put myself into the work”.

Burwell writes words as part and continuum of her larger works here. For the installation Moses Rock, the title of the poem Rivers I Have Seen is in homage to Langston Hughes’ poem about rivers.

Of all the rivers I have seen
Just one was struck from out flint rock.
It was at Horab.
By way of the rod that Moses lifted
Against the wall of abandoned faith,
The quenching that allows life still flowed.
It was because of Love.

Burwell’s other installation presents a ten-foot-long river bed. On it are placed oil painted, canvas-covered carved wooden shapes in the forms of rocks. Some rocks protrude through the thick acrylic sheet which represents the flow of
the river. On the clear surface float the names of the…


And then there are the WATER PEOPLE...
Those who flow over
And between
And through the rocky parts of life,
Making things soothed and smoothed
And for a purpose.

I gravitate toward, and feel affirmed by, the extent to which both artists allow the ebb and flow of nature to direct the course of their work. They seem to be in touch with the cycles and lessons the Earth has to teach us, if we will only be still enough to listen. These artists listen. Their respect for and relationship to nature is a teaching for us all. Technology and man-made items appear to rule the world and define who we are. We are often so disconnected from the earth that we seem to believe that connecting with nature is weird, quaint, or for people who ‘don’t have a life.’

We don’t even want to talk about the fact that both women are always well presented and that I find it difficult to keep up with them! I truly desire to be like them when “I grow up!” Their work and their lives are living legacies.

"Rivers and Memories" is at the Brentwood Arts Exchange, Gateway Arts Center, 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, Md., through March 24, 2012, 301-277-2863; TTY 301-446-6802

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