Looking at Butte, some may see environmental disaster, but artist David Burke sees a work of art.
The Oakland, California-based artist has been making paintings haunted by iconic images of the old mining town this summer.
It’s part of a month-long artist residency through the Montana Preservation Alliance's Reimagine Montana Residency Program to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary. Burke is the only artist of six in the program working in Butte.
Burke, 40, and two other Butte-inspired artists, Ebon Goff and Kathryn W. Schmidt, will hold a presentation Wednesday at the Imagine Butte Resource Center to talk about what Butte has meant to their art.
It makes sense that Burke’s art — acrylic paint on light boxes and acrylic panels — looks like visions of a haunted space. After touring the Anselmo Mine yard, Burke was so entranced by the hoist house, where miners were lowered deep into the mine, he asked if he could turn it into his temporary studio.
“It’s like sitting amongst the ghosts in this space,” Burke said Tuesday. “When the wind blows through here, this place really talks.”
Painting among the old workings, Burke is mindful of the hundreds of men who toiled underground at the Anselmo for decades, criss-crossing beneath Butte with pick and ax, and, up until 1912, candles to light their way.
Burke is drawn to Butte because he specializes in “fractured” landscapes — and the raw, physical impact of the city’s mining history has created such a backdrop.
Chere Jiusto, who heads the Helena-based Montana Preservation Alliance, said Tuesday that Burke takes inspiration from the contrast of the natural world juxtaposed with the industrial history imposed upon the landscape.
“He sees beauty in the way the environment has been manipulated,” Jiusto said.
Mary McCormick, Butte-Silver Bow’s preservation officer, who has been Burke’s local contact, agreed with Jiusto that he is drawn to industrial themes. When he first arrived, McCormick showed him different mine sites.
“I could tell immediately he was inspired,” McCormick said.
Burke said he finds inspiration in how the natural world, despite what humans have done to it, comes roaring back in its own way. He is particularly interested in how the tunnels underneath the Butte Hill are filling with water and contain “a forest of timber” from wood used to build and stabilize the shafts.
“We have an insatiable appetite for natural resources. I’m curious about the overlap — the confrontation between man and nature,” Burke said.
Perhaps because of that, he originally thought he would focus on the Berkeley Pit. He created an acrylic painting of the pit on a light box. When backlit, the environmental degradation takes on new layers of meaning and becomes a thing of beauty.
But Burke soon found himself drawn more to the history of Butte underground mining. When he entered the Anselmo hoist house, he fell in love.
"The first thing I noticed was the smell," Burke said. "Every morning it hits me; it sets the tone."
Odors of oil and other lubricants still linger inside the cavernous hoist house along with a pungent, earthy smell.
"These (the paintings) are born out of this space. They couldn't have been made anywhere else," Burke said.
In a sense, the month-long artist residency has been a homecoming for Burke. He started painting landscapes 10 years ago on a camping trip through Montana. He’s been trying to get back to the Treasure State ever since.
But in the intervening years, his work has altered into how the landscape can be carved by the telltale signs of mankind.
Not surprisingly, Burke felt an immediate connection to Butte and to the story of Butte’s past.
“It’s a powerful place to make art,” Burke said.