Sculptor Ikuko Burns
Sculptor Ikuko Burns poses at Rainbow Farm with one of her creations.

Ikuko Burns: The art of memory

By Pat Waring - October 19, 2006

The bronze sculptures by Ikuko Burns have become part of the landscape at Rainbow Farm in Chilmark. Placed around the lawn near the Campbell & Douglas Harness & Feed shop with a few cows peering curiously over the fence, the pieces, softened by a blue-green patina, blend into their pastoral surroundings.

The sculptures that make up the show entitled "Memories in Bronze," are all of a modest size, on a human scale, a mixture of lyrical and surreal. Though crafted of sturdy, heavy, metal, many have a delicate look.

Several of them are straightforward, taking recognizable subjects as their focus. A curly-headed cupid stands in a fountain, hand aloft holding a bunch of grapes, several pears beside his tip-toed foot. A nude wearing a hat, while standing erect, has an air of abandon, one hand on her hip, the other at her head. Eyes shut with a half smile, she seem to be unabashedly soaking up the sun, or rain, or perhaps attention. A sturdy little baby Buddha all summer has perched meditatively on a tall hay bale, serene and self-contained.

While these pieces are interesting in their own right, the others are mysterious, seeming to tell a story whose symbolism is just barely beyond grasp. Along with exhibiting fine workmanship and exquisite detail, the sculptures raise questions and offer exhilarating food for thought. Disembodied limbs and body sections are part of Ms. Burns's repertoire - hands, legs, a portion of a torso, even a face is seen, but only half. Surprisingly, these small glimpses of the human body have great personality and can convey considerable meaning, even emotion.

It is almost possible to see the toddler on this little tricycle, and his mother standing near, though only hands convey their presence.

Here is a tricycle, perfect in every detail from the ridged pedals to the horn with its rubber ball to be squeezed. The front wheel is turned sharply to the right. A closer look shows two chubby toddler hands tightly grasping the handlebars while another, larger, slender hand holds the child's forearm. But that slender hand rests only gently, barely touching the little arm, just enough to guide, not coerce, the child back in a safe direction. Here then, the essence of motherhood, gentle and protective, expressed through hands alone.

Another pair of hands is seen washing above a round basin, a big seashell leaning nearby, for a scene of peace and domesticity. The sculpture calls to mind a simple home, or a cleansing ritual. Other pieces have a more surrealistic feel for an effect sometimes jarring, sometimes curiously whimsical. Two shapely legs skip rope all on their own; an arm wraps about the jagged section of a torso; an array of shapes - a man's hat, a tiny cupid, a reaching hand - are combined in a single piece.

"My whole theme is memory, and memory has to be universal," Ms. Burns explained. She said that the images she chooses are meant to invite interpretation so each viewer - whether in Japan or America - can imagine his or her own meaning.

Supple legs, a shapely foot held high, a lacy metal edge, all are frequent images in the art of Ikuko Burns.

"A fragment is something very provocative," she added. "It gives you more freedom to imagine, it is a way for an audience to make up more fantasies."

Ms. Burns said that her use of uneven edges was influenced by a work by Rodin. Some 30 years ago she saw a piece by the famous sculptor in which he let the edges of the flashing - a thin layer of metal used in the molding process - remain rather than smoothing them away. She was struck by the effect and began to use it herself, leaving unfinished flashing to create a lacy softness.

She also began fabricating similar delicate additions to her work, because they are particularly apropos to the concept of memory. "My goal is, memory is universal, (and viewers) will connect to the works and enjoy," she said. "Art has to be beautiful, it has to be something you can really relate to in your life."

Japan to America, pottery to bronze

"I was enchanted," says the ebullient Ms. Burns, recalling her inspiration to move from working in pottery to bronze sculpture. Trained at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after moving to the United States from Japan at age 23, Ms. Burns became enamored of bronze and worked as a studio assistant so she could learn the craft.

A pair of slender hands washing in a plain basin evoke a sense of peace and simplicity.

Born in Tokyo, Ms. Burns graduated from Yamagata University and worked as an announcer for the Hokkaido Broadcasting Company. She met her husband, Padraic Burns, then a psychiatric resident from Yale University, when he was working at a military mental health center. She reminisced about her experiences during World War II, how after the war the American service men gave out food to children. Tall and sturdy compared to the Japanese, they walked through the streets with an air of optimism, "strikingly light."

The couple married when the war was over and they moved to New Haven, Conn., where she worked as an instructor at Yale University's Institute for Far East Languages while her husband was a psychiatric resident at Yale. Later the Burnses moved to Brookline. During the 1960s, Ms. Burns studied art in Boston, interspersing her school work with child-rearing. The couple have two daughters and one son, all grown, and a five-month old grandchild who brings Ms. Burns great delight. Mr. Burns is now semi-retired and teaches at Boston University Medical School as well as seeing patients in his private psychiatric practice.

Enchanted by bronze

Although she began as a painting major, later she moved to ceramic sculpture, but was not satisfied with it, and was seeking a more free-form expression. While working at her rented studio at Fort Point, an artists' community in Boston, Ms. Burns was introduced to noted sculptor David Phillips who worked with bronze and stone and had a foundry in nearby Somerville. She was fascinated with his art and began to help in his studio. "It's very muscular work, very physical," said Ms. Burns, who was determined to learn the art form.

"I always wanted to be as strong as men!" said the petite artist. "I dreamt that I could be as strong as men - I failed," she said with a burst of laughter.

She explained that working with bronze is a challenge because of the need for strength and coordination. Nonetheless, she became "an assistant's assistant" in order to experience as much as she could and learned welding, although she could not always heft all the materials herself.

Ms. Burns creates her sculptures using the lost wax method. The lengthy, many-stage process entails shaping a clay sculpture which is then encased in wax and a ceramic shell. The wax is burned away and molten metal at a temperature of 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit is poured into the space creating a bronze image from which the shell is chipped away. Final touches include smoothing the metal and treating it with acid so it will develop a soft patina.

Asked how her Japanese heritage influences her work, Ms. Burns said that all her art studies took place here in America so her training is in the Western tradition. She counts as her primary influences European art and surrealism. She added that even in Japan, art schools teach a background of Western European art. But, she added, because of her upbringing in Japan, that country and its culture will always be an integral part of who she is and the work she does.

Martha's Vineyard connection

Ms. Burns's longstanding relationship with Martha's Vineyard began more than 50 years ago when her father-in-law, a New York City journalist, employed a young woman named Annie as his secretary. That young woman would later marry the artist and woodworker Bronislaw Lesnikowski. The Lesnikowskis came to the Island to visit and soon bought property on Hines Point, on the Lagoon in Vineyard Haven and settled here. Padraic Burns, who had developed a close friendship with the couple when he was a student, immediately brought his young Japanese wife to meet them. The couples became fast friends and through the Lesnikowskis the Burnses met a number of colorful and creative Vineyard neighbors. When a lot became available near the Lesnikowski property, its owner, the late Toby Kramer, offered it to Iko and Padraic. For years they continued to stay with the Lesnikowskis when they visited the Island, but when Ikuko's parents planned to visit to celebrate their 50th anniversary, Mr. Lesnikowski built a small house for them. Later, they had a main house built on the property; it remains a beloved vacation home.

David Douglas of Chilmark was one of the many friends that the Burnses met through the Lesnikowskis during their early days on the Vineyard. This year, Ms. Burns told David and his wife Laura about her hope to have an exhibit here on the Vineyard and they graciously offered the space at their Rainbow Farm. Ms. Burns said this is the first time that these pieces have been shown in the United States.

Ms. Burns has had solo exhibits at The Art Complex Museum in Duxbury and The Japan Society of Boston and took part in an exhibit with the Asian Women's Artists' Association in Boston. She has work in City Square Park, Charlestown, and at Dartmouth College. Ms. Burns works with organizations involved with Japanese art and has had solo exhibits in Japan. Her sculptures are displayed in Japan in Sapporo City, Yamagata City, Tokyo, and in Kyoto where last year she had her "finale" exhibit. Ms. Burns said that she now considers herself retired, although she will take on small commission work.

She is a Senior Advisor to the Board of Directors of Japan Society of Boston and a Vice President of the Massachusetts-Hokkaido Sister State Association.

The sculptures will remain on the lawn at Rainbow Farm only until next Tuesday. They may be viewed rain or shine.