Burton continues legacy of watercolor art

Posted 12/5/18

Helen Burton, a local watercolor artist, has combined her experiences from a lifetime of art to create an entire gallery in her home, conveying not only the many memories from throughout her life, …

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Burton continues legacy of watercolor art


Helen Burton, a local watercolor artist, has combined her experiences from a lifetime of art to create an entire gallery in her home, conveying not only the many memories from throughout her life, but also the various styles she’s mastered .

Originally from Toronto, the 84-year-old moved with her family to Florida at age 3. She said they’d often go back to Canada in the summers, though, as they could never get accustomed to the Florida heat.

Burton initially attended St. Therese School — which was a K-12 school — from first through third grade, until her mother got a job in Dayton, Ohio, as a secretary with the U.S. Air Force. After two years living in Dayton, she said she attended boarding school for two more in Northern Ontario. She then came back to St. Therese for seventh and eighth grade, then went to Washington, D.C., for the first two years of high school until she returned to St. Therese and finally graduated.

“From there I continually lived in Florida. I had a scholarship to Berry College in Miami Shores for one year and I went to an art school for one year. It was after that, at age 19, that I got hired at the Miami Herald” newspaper, she said.

Each day she’d attend art school at Berry College and attend different art classes at the University of Miami in the evenings as well; however, it was during her time at the University of Miami that Burton would meet her future husband, William.

She laughed  he initially thought she was 21 when they started dating, when in fact she was 18. The couple married two years later.

She worked at the Miami Herald for three years, but decided to stay home after the birth of her daughter and freelance from home. She had two more children  by age 25.

Once her children were in school, Burton worked for a printer, which she said allowed her to use her design abilities while also learning about the printing process.

“Most commercial artists have to have that background, because you can’t design something that can’t be printed. This was before computers,” she added.

She notes that despite now having a computer, to this day she still knows how to lay out designs and adjust sizes and spacing.

Considering herself primarily a portrait artist because of her realistic illustration style, Burton paints not only people and pets, but also residences and buildings, as she has a profound interest in architecture as well.

As a child, she enjoyed drawing and while in high school, her fellow students would have her design posters. She even won an award in a national poster contest for her work.

When living in the Florida Keys, she was doing mainly acrylic paintings of birds and natural scenes. She belonged to an art group called the Purple Isles Art Guild, and it was during this time that she became interested in watercolors after taking a workshop on the subject in 1984.

“Everyone said that watercolor was so hard, but it was just enlightening. The instructor made it look like fun and encouraged us not to be intimidated,” she said. “I still continued to do the acrylics, but mostly stuck with watercolor.”

She said one of her most interesting long-term commissions was for the Museum Center at Five Points before it opened in 1999. The request was to represent the seven historic periods of Bradley County and the Ocoee Region with figures dressed in appropriate attire. Photos of actual locals were supplied, along with descriptions of their era. The 18-inch pen-and-ink drawings were then sent to a glass-etching artist in Georgia to sandblast the images as life-size figures onto heavy glass panels for the lobby of the museum.

An active member of the Tennessee Watercolor Society since 2002, Burton was regional director for the Chattanooga area with 70 artists for five years; served as publications editor for several years; and even served as chairman of the 31st Statewide Exhibition in 2010.

She also co-curated a Tennessee Watercolor Society exhibit at the Museum Center in spring 2011. She is currently co-editor of publications.

“I’m inspired by light and color. Light affects the way things look, and sometimes it gets me so excited to paint it. With all our travels, I have tons of photos to refer to,” she said.

Her most recent solo exhibitions in Tennessee were showings of 30 paintings in the Athens Fine Art and Cultural Center in 2010 and 48 original pieces at the Exum Gallery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga in 2012.

Burton’s works were also in the In-Town Gallery in Chattanooga for 14 years. Unfortunately, she had to leave the gallery when William became homebound and needed her care. While caring for him over the course of three years, she only did one painting, which was of him.

She encourages all aspiring artists to not be intimidated and to keep perfecting their style and their art. They must also find a good teacher, and use all resources available, including online videos.

For those interested in contacting Burton for a commission piece or for questions, contact her at helenburtongraphics@gmail.com


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