Radio Maine Episode 27

Emma McHold Burke

Emma McHold Burke started working with the Portland Art Gallery just as Covid was causing small businesses like the gallery to “shift direction.” She had recently graduated from the Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania after gaining an education in painting and art history, and had planned her next life steps around the Philadelphia community in which Tyler is located.  With the uncertainty of the pandemic looming, Emma reluctantly gave up her post-college apartment and moved to her family home in Maine. Wanting to maintain her connection to the art world, Emma reached out to the gallery. When she learned that the gallery, as a non-essential business, had been instructed to close its doors to the public, she volunteered to work behind the scenes. Her work ethic and enthusiasm were immediately evident. She was soon offered a paid position, and her willingness to work through strange and challenging times eventually earned her the position of gallery manager. Learn about the power of creativity, and the importance of resilience, in Emma’s conversation with Dr. Lisa Belisle on today’s episode of Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. Today I have with me, one of our colleagues from the Portland Art Gallery, Emma McHold Burke. Nice to see you today.

Emma McHold Burke:

Lisa, thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, one of my favorite recent stories was, when you were in the gallery and all of a sudden my voice apparently came over the gallery’s speaker system, and I think I said something like, “hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle.”

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, yes. I was actually playing the podcast and our Bluetooth hooked up to the speaker in the gallery. I think the even creepier part was, you just said, “hello,” so your voice  boomed through the gallery and this poor couple was just  standing there and I could tell they were pretty spooked. But I paused it right after that, and they were  looking around and I had to explain to them like, you know, this is  what happened. And then they shared with me that they're staying in this haunted hotel and there was this ghost tour that  spooked them the night prior. So I really got them by accident. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I was actually an anonymous ghost then in this particular case. Well, I'm  thinking that it was almost like I was calling to you to come be with me on the radio show today. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Well, I will take that call. I'm happy to be here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Then it worked out okay. 

Emma McHold Burke:

It did. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did they tell you what hotel they were staying at? 

Emma McHold Burke:

You know, I think it was up north, probably closer to Camden. I think it was more that they were on the balcony and a ghost tour walked right by and the stop was their hotel. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Oh. So they went into this, not realizing that this is what they were getting out of their stay.

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. Yes. So I really spooked them at the Portland Art Gallery, but we had a good laugh. So I think they'll still come back. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. That's good to hear. Well, I remember there was a story that we did once when I was working for the magazines and I believe that there is a hotel, I think in Lewiston, that has some strange backstory. Like the people that we had working with us, they were staying in a crypt or something like that. I think Maine actually has a fair number of spirits wandering about. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, well, you know, I shared with them that when I was quite young, I grew up going to Boothbay, East Boothbay and Ocean Point. And when I was really young, probably about seven, I went on a tour of Burnt Island and there were all of these ghost stories that I was told while touring the island. And there were very beautiful parts as well.  People were doing their laundry outside and making pies, but all I really remembered obviously was the scary stories and it scarred me for quite some time, but, nevertheless I'm still in Maine and loving it. It didn't scare me too much. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. So you're   back again because you grew up in Maryland, right? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, yes. So I grew up right outside of Annapolis. And even though I was in Maryland, I've been coming to Maine all my life,  to Ocean Point. But I’m settled here for  the first time in my life. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So tell me about the art school excursion. You have a degree in painting, I believe with an art history minor. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. I went to school in Philadelphia at Tyler School of Art. I was really lucky to spend four years learning about painting and art history and  getting a wide range of lessons and learning and meeting professors. And while I was in school, my family moved to Yarmouth where they are now.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So why art? What was it about art and painting and art history that really called to you?

Emma McHold Burke:

I think I have  always felt that connection, which I think is a lucky thing to be able to say. I think not everyone gets that opportunity to just  know this is something they care deeply about always.  My grandma's actually an artist and my grandpa was a surgeon, but he can draw as well. He taught me when I was quite young how to draw an apple, and we would look at it and  dissect it and learn to draw. So from a very young age I had been drawing. And then, what I realized through school was that I really also connected with learning the history of it and learning the stories behind the artwork, and then beginning to apply that to some of my own paintings and my own conversations with my peers as well.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You spent some time in Rome when you were going through school. Tell me about that. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. So I was there for a year, I was very fortunate to have that experience. I think most people get to go for a semester, which is still an honor and such a lucky thing to have done, but I feel extra lucky to have been there for so long. I was actually living right by Vatican city. So I would walk from school through the Vatican City, to my home in Italy. And I was a painting major there as well, but I was learning a lot about natural materials.  So one of the projects we got to do was I built a fresco up in a small town in Italy with a materials class I was taking. There's so much art in Italy that I was so close to, which was really special.  So I was walking around and my school was near like six Caravaggios, so I could just pop into the churches and see them and spend some time with them. So I was really lucky that I got to live in Rome and really  see it for what it was. Studying abroad is such a romantic thing to get to do, but I think I was glad that I got to stay there for so long because it just became a real place that I could live and stay in.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you learn how to speak Italian before you went over?  

Emma McHold Burke:

I took a little class online, so I didn't know much. I knew enough to not get poked fun at the sandwich shop. That was part of why I was so lucky I was there for a year, is that I  picked up on enough and I could understand what people were saying which  got me through. I think what I realized is that,  when you're coming into someone's country and you don't speak their language that, English just so happens to be a language that a lot of people speak, but if you can put in the effort to really just, you know, say a couple of things in Italian, even if you're stumbling through, that it's appreciated.  So that was  my favorite part about just learning and giving the deli guys a hard time. But in Italian it was pretty fun. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you live in a little neighborhood and get to know people that were around you? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. So I lived right by this little grocery store and everyone would have those like rolling carts with your groceries in them. And I lived right by a market outdoors. So I became regulars in those places and then around my school as well, which was right on the Tiber River. A lot of people I think, were traveling during that time, which I did a little bit as well too, but I really made a point to like hunker down in Rome and get to know people and the places and spend time there. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

For the fresco that you created, you were using natural materials, like crushed berries and other objects. Was this meant to be a fresco that would last a long time?

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. So it'll be there for thousands of years, which is pretty crazy. It's in this little hilltop town called Casperia and the process is that you're putting plaster onto a wall that already exists and then you're painting into it while it's still wet. But the pigments we had made, which is really all you're putting into the wet plaster, was through some natural materials, like saffron is a good example.  We would take berries and melt them down and add vinegar to stabilize some of the color and then add that too as well. So, there's a beetle called Cochineal, and when you crush up the shells and add some, either liquid or oil to it, it makes this really beautiful and deep red. So that was also something we were using and lapis is a historical way that blue was made, so our professor was bringing in that stone and we would crush it up and add it to this, to this fresco. So it was a learning experience in multiple ways. Obviously I got to build a fresco, which is a very cool experience.  But, also learning about being engaged with it all the way through.  So making those materials, making the fresco, making the painting and then having it live for quite a long time.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Was your professor or the school, was this something that they were known for? Did they do a lot of natural materials work? 

Emma McHold Burke:

It's a class that's actually offered both in the international campuses and on-campus in Philadelphia.  I think my professor just had a specific liking to it actually. He's from America, but he's lived in Italy for a long time now, I think over 20 years. So it’s his own research.  So he has this funny relationship  with cooking and art as well. That's what so much of that is.  So he would teach us, we would make,  I guess a good example is he brought in little squid and we dissected them in class. We pulled out the ink sack, let it dry, and set it aside. And then we had all this squid leftover. So he gave me a recipe on how to make risotto. So you take the squid and it's just like a dark, really rich risotto with the squid in it as well. And,  then we would come back and make paintings for the same ink. So, it was just his passion that he taught us. And I think it was a specifically special class because of where I was taking it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's interesting because we're so technology forward these days and we are doing so much with the science around creating color, but you're talking about going back to the roots of color really.

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. Yes. There's this recipe book actually by Giannini and it's a handbook and it has all these recipes on how to make glue and how to make your own canvas and how to make your own tracing paper all from those materials. And it was definitely a unique experience, but it's things I'm still using today in my own practice now.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about your art practice now. 

Emma McHold Burke:

I have a studio at Running with Scissors in Portland, Maine, and I have some good friends that I'm sharing a big space with in the warehouse type building. I'm making paintings that are a bit about sewing, a little bit about alternate materials and I'm using this old way of gessoing a canvas with rabbit skin glue so it's see-through, so I'll go to Marden’s and I'll grab some fabric and it's mostly transparent and sew it together and then paint on top of it. So it's mostly just about playing and materials and  kind of experimenting and just having fun with it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, gessoing a canvas, what does that mean for those of us who are not art majors in any way?

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, so, the basic structure of a canvas is you have the stretcher bars, which are the frame behind it, and then you have just a raw canvas or really any material. So linen is another example. And then you put this acrylic, white coat on it, which is what we normally see.  It's actually just like a marble dust and that just primes the canvas. So your paint will sit on top of that and not soak into the fabric behind it, so it's just a way of prepping the canvas to be painted on top of.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why rabbit skin?

Emma McHold Burke:

The difference is that it's see-through actually. So rabbit skin brings the canvas really tight. It's almost like a drum. It has a shrinking ability and you can reactivate it with heat because it's a biological substance, it's not permanent. So it just gives me a little bit more room to play.  If something's not working, I can  just sand it off and even the friction will make it sticky again. Gesso is also obviously really wonderful and a lot more stable than rabbit skin glue, which is why it's more widely used. But for me, the rabbit skin glue just gives me a little bit of freedom to make some mistakes and then play with them.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you're probably not vegan. 

Emma McHold Burke:

You know what? I actually don't eat meat. For my own reasons I don't eat meat, I eat fish and eggs, but I also don't eat dairy. I just have some dietary restrictions.  So that's  a comment I've gotten my whole art career. I'm  fascinated with these more like biological textures that show up, but I'm not a big meat eater myself.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I mean I also don't eat meat and I also eat fish. So I think you're right. Everybody has their different reasons for doing things, but I wonder if you ever encounter people who are vegan, who say “uhh, rabbit skin glue and crushed beetles?” Do you ever have to have conversations about that? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Absolutely. Yes. I think the most interesting part about utilizing these tools or these parts of the animal is that they're being used purposefully and respectfully,  which is what that class was all about. So using all of the parts of the pieces and noting that everything has a use, even if we maybe don't use it like that anymore.  So another example is my classmate cooked a fish whole, and we had a beautiful meal that we all shared. And then we took the bones and boiled them for a long time and they make a gelatin that you can use as glue. So I think that when things are being used anyway,  you can accept that if that's part of your life already and repurpose it so that you're being mindful of all those places that those things can actually be useful and honor it because they are so useful.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Which is traditionally the way that animals were always, and really plants were always dealt with anyway, was with respect and honor, and understanding that they were part of the life cycle. And this is  almost a gift that they're giving human beings really. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Exactly, right. Which is why I feel so lucky to be here in Maine where I'm surrounded by so much nature.  I'm living with a couple of people who know a lot about plants, and a project we're working on is we’re going to make a cyanotype, which is when you treat a fabric or a canvas with a certain kind of chemical that becomes reactive to the sun. And so you can create this solution, treat a fabric or a canvas or a paper, and then place objects on top of it and let it sit in the sun. And when you take those things off,  those places will be white and the rest will be blue. So it's like making a photograph or a print,  but with those plants. And so being in Maine, I have plenty of foliage to choose from and identify and learn about while also making a piece with my friends, which is also really meaningful. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I also think that plants are really very important. And even though I practice medicine where most of the medicines that we use are pretty far removed from their plant origins, I still really enjoy growing chamomile for the chamomile flowers, and we have coneflowers, which is, echinacea essentially, so I think that there is this strong sense that many people have that it's important to connect back to what was once a bigger part I think of our living existence. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Exactly. Yes. Well, and I think also being in Maine, I never spent a full year here, so I'd only seen the summers, which obviously are gorgeous, but Maine has so much more to offer than just that I'm so beginning to learn what's in season and what plants I'm seeing and why I'm seeing them and the relationship to what's happening around us has been so interesting. And I think I'm in the perfect place for that to dive in and, and engage with that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

At the same time you were also utilizing social media and specifically Instagram for a really interesting project. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. My good friend and I, Liv Pancheri who I know from school, have started this page on Instagram and this little program where we're connecting with other artists who maybe wouldn't connect otherwise. As I'm sure,  everyone feels like during the pandemic connecting has been hard and even more important because we can't connect in other ways. And we realized that there's this group of people that are fresh or fresh-ish out of college and are missing some of that structure and connection that college provided us, especially, you know, being in the pandemic where all of the classes are on zoom. So even if you are in school, you're just not seeing people or talking to people in the same way. And my friends and I shared that feeling of like, I just want to talk to someone about my work casually and judgment-free and put the feelers out there with some of our other friends  and people now even farther outside that circle and people are feeling the same. So we have meetings on zoom every month where people show their work and ask for some feedback  and we get to just talk with them. And there've been some really meaningful moments where, you know, someone I met in Portland, Maine has joined the zoom and someone that I  knew in Philadelphia is now on the zoom and they're connecting about like dance or something that just wouldn't come out in a painting class together. So it's been really, really special to  be the facilitator for those kinds of conversations. And we're hoping to continue and expand it as well. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

What's the name of your Instagram page?  

Emma McHold Burke:

We're The Studio Wall, and Liv Pancheri is running it with me and then our Instagram is @onthestudiowall.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So this is something that people could look into if they wanted to. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Absolutely. Yes. And we've been doing other little things, like other programs as well. So, we're having like monthly or quarterly shows on our Instagram and we're posting other things, like what's happening in the art news and maybe discussion questions around,  what is an artist statement. So we're just hoping to engage a variety of people and  just casually talk about, kind of like this, like what is art? and what can it be? and how can we engage with it? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It seems like feedback is a really important part of progressing as an artist. And I know that it should be an important part of pretty much everybody's progression in every field, but it's very difficult. And especially now where, we all want to be very sensitive to other people's feelings and we all want to understand where everybody's coming from. And at the same time, it's helpful to get really honest engagement from people. So how do you strike that balance of understanding how to be respectful and sensitive, but at the same time offer information that might be useful to other artists? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, I think that was a skill I learned in school actually.  I was having critiques all the time, which is the benefit of school. And I think that has really strengthened me as a person. I think that it's helpful when someone says just how they're feeling, talking about just your core feelings, when someone says, you know, this makes me feel blank and then you can ask them. So it's fun to be the facilitator when I hear someone say, I don't know, this painting is making me feel a little wonky. Then I get to just step in as someone saying like, “oh, cool, let's talk about that and let's figure it out and let's name what's making you feel that way.”  That way it's not personal. I think that's my favorite part about setting this up  outside of a school environment where there's no pressure, you don't even have to have gone to school at all to join.  I actually met someone at the gallery last week who is in high school and looking at colleges and just needs some help with her portfolio. And I was excited to tell her like, “Hey, I actually know where you can go for that.” And it's without judgment and we're not, you know, trying to make anyone feel bad, obviously. So I think the most exciting part about this scenario is that people are volunteering to have that feedback and actually saying, I need help, which is my favorite part too.  People who aren't afraid to ask for help and then people who also aren't afraid to give it.  I think that if anything were to hurt someone's feelings, I would hope that someone would say, “Hey, that hurt my feelings.” And then we can  go from there. Just because, you know, everyone is so valid to both say things like, “I need help.” And then also “that's not the help I want.” 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you ever find this feedback skill useful when you're working at the gallery? Do artists ever ask questions about their work or about placement or about shows that you're putting up? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Absolutely. Yes. I think as an artist, your work is so personal and, you know, it's kind of your baby. So when it's going into a space, you want to know it's taken care of and going to be appreciated. And the gallery obviously does a great job of that. But sometimes artists will ask, like, “how was the reception of that piece? How did the show go?” which obviously they want to know, and we're happy to tell them, you know, “Hey, people are really engaging with this” or, you know, “maybe you could do a work that's a little bit brighter” and it's just everyone's advantage, I think, so that the artists can have their work best received, and their skillset best received. And then, the viewers have something that they can also engage with. So I think that both giving and receiving feedback is really helpful for everyone involved. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Is it a delicate balance between staying true to your art and also creating something that others would want to buy? 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, I think that's a pretty complicated question.  Personally, I'm pretty early on in my art career and so I haven't found that balance.  But working at the gallery has been really helpful to see, like, what people are interested in, like that keeps going, or like people are looking for something like this and getting a good sense of what the market is looking like. I think what I've realized is that actually, you don't have to sell everything you're making. So if you find something that is really working, for me right now, it's this,  this Instagram, Studio Wall project, it's really engaging with people, so that's where I'm going to focus my time and see how I can market that and ask people to engage with it. And the painting is just for me, so I think that it's a balance, but I don't think you have to sacrifice either one. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that's common that people who create physical art also do other types of things? They work in a gallery, they have an Instagram business... Is that something that you're seeing more and more?

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, I think the interesting part for me as being a young person, actually, my professor told me that he drove a Domino's car until he was 30, just to make his practice a viable option for him. So I think not only are artists used to multitasking to make things happen for themselves, but that also artists are creatives just in everything they do. So whether it's, you know, making the work and selling it and bringing it to a gallery and finding representation, or it's just having some hobbies on the side that become these really expensive projects, just because you are a creative. I think it's all  part of the gig.  I think I'm seeing a lot of that  around, just even people in my studio have different avenues and are always trying new things. And that's really exciting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

One of my favorite stories about you, Emma, is that you came to the gallery at the very beginning of the pandemic and you essentially said, I'll do anything I'll, I'll volunteer, I'll do whatever you want. And this was at a time where a lot of other people were drawing back and just for very personal reasons needing to not put themselves out there in the world more, but you just jumped right in. And I mean, I think it's been an interesting ride for you. So what is it about your personality that caused you to step forward and really seek out that additional experience, where others maybe didn't? That wasn't a comfort that they had.

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, well, I think I sat in a really unique position where I was new to Maine.  I moved here in March from Philadelphia unexpectedly, so I didn't know how long I was going to be here. And because I didn't really know how long I was going to be here. I was willing to do anything. I didn't know anyone. I  just knew my family, who I obviously love dearly, but needed a little bit more connection outside of them.  So I just needed to get my hands on something. I think I was lucky to have the option to, you know,  I was living with my family, so I could just jump in anywhere and didn't have many needs. I just wanted to do it. I was lucky to have that, but I think I also was just having to leave the network I had in Philly, and not having that same network here in Maine yet. I was just dying to meet other people and get back into the art field,  and make a space for myself in one way or another. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, that's really tough. So the pandemic is already hard enough and leaving Philadelphia is already hard enough and you get both at the same time and you're trying to have a life for yourself up here. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes, it was, it was pretty hard. I spent a lot of time rollerblading in Yarmouth at like 9:00 PM because my family went to bed at 8:30pm and I wasn't used to that.  So there was a lot of that, but also that's what the gallery was for me. That was how I made friends and actually how I made most of my friends.  I was joking earlier that that's also how I found my apartment actually.  Through the directors, the director's daughter was subletting a room and now my roommates are some of my good friends. So, you know, the gallery gave it all to me, obviously, you know, I got to engage with people and, and they liked me, but,  that background really helped me to  get my foot into the Portland scene and meet people and establish like a life for myself that now is super full of joy. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm very glad to hear that. And I think that it says something about your family as well, that they would even create the space for you not only to live with them, but also to just be your own person. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Exactly. Yes. I think I come from a family of really tenacious people,  who aren't afraid to fall, which is what I really admire.  But when you do fall, you let yourself fall and you accept it and you can  grant yourself some grace there. And because you're able to do that, you also are able to get back up.  So that's something my mom has really taught me and has always reminded as well, even when I forget it.  So in that whole, you know, like moving somewhere and not knowing anyone, it was really hard, but I  just let myself say, “Yes, it's hard. You know, I'm in a little bit of a unique position” and it was funny  telling people, you know, yes. I just moved here in a pandemic and they'd say, “oh wow, that's really hard.” And that acknowledgement to just let myself fix up, like I am in an exceptionally hard position and that's okay. And, now that I've accepted that I can also accept that, you know, it's not forever and I'll get out of it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why did you choose this piece behind us? This Petrea Noyes piece, which I believe is called Swimmers 1910.

Speaker 3:

Yes. So Patricia, I think connects to what I was talking about a little bit earlier about these alternate materials.  She has this unique way of working.  She's using this interesting process of taking these photos that are in this archive from, I believe her grandparents, and manipulating them and editing them and altering them. And then, this is actually an old way of working for her, but printing them out quite large, in this case, I believe it's on rice paper, there's this like texture in the piece that's from that certain  paper, and then there's this high gloss medium on top, which catches those, those ripples in the paper and accentuate some of the patterning in the design.  So I chose this piece because, you know, not only is Petrea working in a really different way of making, but she also connects to what I was just talking about being adaptable and, and tenacious in her making.  She has this funny story about this printer she bought, and it's just not working the same way because this large printer is no longer working for her. And,  obviously it's quite frustrating that it won't work, but she's still making paintings. They're just different. So they're a bit smaller and they're bringing in some other painterly designs that are new for her. So regardless of those kinds of tribulations or, you know, technical difficulties,  she's just making regardless. So that's why I brought her in today. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So for people or listening to the podcast, how would you, how would you describe this piece? 

Emma McHold Burke:

To me, I think that what's interesting about it is you're not quite sure how it's made.  So it asks you to spend some time with it and really get in there visually,  there's this mystery of how it's made and then  a clearer image of these swimmers.  The date to me references that archive of photos that she's referencing from and using in her work.  So it's this interesting, kind of lineage of family documents that she's making her own and then making quite large as well.  So personally, I just feel like it's engaging both, like maybe in my art history sense, it's  engaging that part. And then also, as a painter in a medium sense, engaging that part as well.  So just drawing from each piece and bringing them together pretty seamlessly. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And when I look at it, it's obviously a picture of what appear to be two male figures wearing old-fashioned swimming outfits, but it almost looks as if they could be wearing masks. I know that they probably aren't, it's probably just a shadow, but there's some sort of interesting mystery, some sort of story that I start to tell myself about what this could possibly be. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. I love that. I think that's actually one of my favorite things of working at the gallery is hearing other people's interpretations.  Yes, I think there's something  hidden in their faces that gives them this ambiguous look. I'm not quite sure who they are, maybe that's also their outfits, those swimming outfits we don't see anymore.  But I love that interpretation because I think that says a lot about what we've been through the last year and how that's affected how we're perceiving things.  So, you know, to hear that this reminds you of our reality today is really exciting actually, because of how old this actual photo is that it's still so relevant and reminding you of our life around us today. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's also so interesting because if you look closely at the photo, even though there is shadow around their faces on their necks, you could still see their mouths underneath in there. And at least one of them seems to be smiling.

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. Yes. Well, it reminds me almost of those there's those jokes of like, oh, we're gonna all have sunburn on our faces and not where our masks are. And there's that funny outline except it's in reverse.  Yes, but there's those smiles, so maybe it's that persistence and just assertion that we're going to make it through and we're going to make the best of it regardless. I think that's a good interpretation. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, not being an artist myself and being in medicine where I hear a lot of stories, for me the story is also very important, not only the story of the piece,  whether it's my interpretation or whether it's the story that comes from the artist, but also the story of the artist themselves, because that really connects me personally with the artwork. I think if I was a collector or if I had a more, I guess, objective view of art, then I might feel differently, but I'm not any of those things. So when I've had a chance to sit down and talk with people,  it makes me want to be the collector of kittens. And I want a piece from everybody. And I wanna be able to  create this little family of artwork in my home because I know and I love these artists and the work that they do. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. Yes. That's what I think we're experiencing in the gallery as well. And that's my favorite part about,  having worked there for a little bit,  is knowing all those stories. So it's really fun when someone points to a piece, a story that comes to mind is those Eric Hopkins fish. And there's some story about he brought this beautiful fish that he just caught, I think it might've even been the first fish he caught, to his mom. And when he pulled it out of the ocean, it was shimmering and all these colors, and then he brought it to his mom and obviously it was dead. So it wasn't those colors anymore. And his mom said, oh, no worries. And pulled out some paint. And they painted right on the fish and recolored it, whatever colors Eric wanted. And that story for people hearing when they're seeing these pieces in front of their face, just really connects them and brings that artist  closer to their heart, and reminds them that these are people that the gallery is lucky to interact with pretty frequently. So they're, they're not these far away figures. They're just people who are around and have these stories and who everyone can connect with. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Is there traditionally more of a mystique around artists, a sense of the artists are those people over there who are doing that artwork, and then there's the rest of us and we just live our lives? And we wait for that special moment where we might interact with pieces of creativity and the people who create them. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Yes. Yes. And I think that that's an interesting archetype of these artists that are these creative geniuses. And I think it does actually a disservice to the artists because artists are allowed to fail and artists are allowed to make mistakes because they're people just like you and me, and they have breakfast every morning and they ride a bike and they do all the things that we do. And I think putting them on this pedestal also does us a disservice because we can't connect with them in the same way. And it's so funny, I'm seeing these artists and getting to work in the gallery and seeing them regularly, and then, you know, telling my friends, you know, oh yes, Eric Hopkins was giving me a hard time. We were joking in the gallery the other day and he's this figure for them and a real person to me. And I think that that  distance isn't helpful for the artist or for the people looking to connect with that artwork because we're all just people.  Those people are just making something that you happen to like, and you're probably doing something also as well that that artists would be interested in. So I think just understanding that as valuable as those pieces are, that we all have our value. And, I think people always say, you know, I think you might've even said it, I'm not an artist, but I think everyone kind of is, you know, you're a creative in your own sense. And even though that might not be oil paint for you, that doesn't discredit yourself. And I think that that sentence tends to do that. So for me personally, I  feel like that distance isn't that helpful. And we can all  just accept that we're all creatives in our own sense. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I know that my mother and my father both watch Radio Maine on a regular basis. She is a long time teacher and he is a long time family doctor and my mother will send me texts after she watches these or listens to them and says, “oh, I really, I learned this, I learned this, I learned this.” And she was the original person that told me, oh, I'm not a creative person, which I think you're right. I think that when we think that we have to go to art school or we have to know how to use pastels, it probably does somehow distance ourselves from something that we really have the ability within us each to do. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Exactly. Yes. Well, I think, you know, Emma Wilson is a perfect example. She is a creative in her own sense. Those shows every month are curated beautifully, and there's always this the sense of color and, and tying that comes in and she'll always say, you know, I'm not an artist myself, but all she's really saying is she can't paint, which is just one form of creating.  So I think that every month when people come in and those shows are so engaging and that piece of artwork is now jumping out at you, it's intentional. And it's because of her craft and her creativity that makes that happen. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've noticed the same thing with this show because I come in and I have the opportunity to speak with people like you. And this is something that I really enjoy. And on the other side of our camera and our audio,  there's actually a crafting around that. And I know that, Kevin Thomas, who happens to be the art gallery owner, that's not his original craft, but he is teaching himself. And so it's becoming its own way of weaving things together. And every week gets a little bit better and every week he learns something. So you're making a good point that this is something that we can be creative in lots of different areas, lots of different ways. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. And maybe that search for knowledge is what's at the basis of it. I think in these examples, we keep bringing up this,  just  curiosity,  which leads to some creative solutions,  which is characterizing each of these kinds of creative people we're identifying. Approaching an obstacle and then saying, hmm, how can I get around this instead of just saying, oh, I can't go there. So I think that search for an approach or search for learning or search for more knowledge is what brings creative solutions and creative thinking and creative people to those places. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What has it been like for you now that the gallery openings are live and in person? I think it's been two or three maybe. 

Emma McHold Burke:

I think two. Yes. They have been so much fun. I haven't really gotten to go to many ever in Philadelphia either I was always at school or they were through the school and those were fun, but they were just my peers.  So it's really, really exciting to  just chat with these artists as much as we're seeing them in the gallery and getting to talk with them.  It's a little bit more casual at the opening, which is so fun to just really hear what their lives are like and what they're up to and how they're feeling and seeing them on a more personal level.  This has been really meaningful and then also to meet people who just walk in and  say, “what's going on here and how can I be engaged” and to welcome them with open hands is also really exciting. They're always kind of surprised, but it's been really exciting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So after more than a year of doing things virtually to be able to have people back in the space and really interact on a human level, it sounds like that's pretty rewarding. 

Emma McHold Burke:

It is really rewarding. And I think the interesting thing is that I came in not knowing otherwise.  So when I first started the gallery, the gallery just very, very temporarily had its doors closed, like everyone else.  So there was no one in, and then slowly it's been this progression of, okay, now more people are coming in and you know, now slowly the mask mandate has changed in Maine. So I'm seeing people's full faces for the first time.  I've had a whole relationship with them and now I finally know what they actually look like. And then I get to see them and I get to actually hang out with them and chat just about ourselves, which is really fun.  So it's been a wonderful position to watch it all just unfold and flourish in it's reopening. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, it's funny, isn't it? Because I started my job in Waterville, as a doctor, and I had barely started and the pandemic started and now I've only ever seen most of my patients with masks on. So I actually have very little idea of what they look like. And so I'll do a virtual visit and I'll be doing it over the computer and I'll be thinking to myself, wow. I had no idea that this person's face was like that. So I think you're right. When we finally are able to, in healthcare, take our masks off, everybody's going to be a little surprised by the person on the other side. 

Emma McHold Burke:

It’s so funny. Yes. I think I met Jodi Edwards,  pretty recently for the first time without a mask. And she said, “oh, I didn't even recognize you.” And I think as far as sometimes the makeup on my face, I'm pretty recognizable.  So it's funny to hear that it makes that big of a difference.  No one can really tell who you really are until you see that full face, which is really interesting and exciting that we're getting to be in a position where we can see a full face because then I think the connection is even deeper and fuller.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It makes me think about all the small children who have never seen faces without masks and what they're going to think on the other side of it, like, oh, that's really odd. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. The ultimate peekaboo game, I think for them.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

 Good way to look at it. Yes. It's just, I probably won't even think any strangely of it. They'll be like, okay, well that's what they always do with me anyway. So no big deal. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Right. Talk about adapting. I think those children will be, you know,  growing up with that lesson instilled in them quite young. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. Again, good way to look at it. We're helping people with their adaptability. Well, I've really enjoyed my conversation with you here today.  Obviously you have a lot of different interests and we're fortunate to have you as a colleague at the Portland Art Gallery, because you're bringing your interests in, and  marrying them with the work that has been done for the last few years through the gallery. So it's really been great to get to know you better. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Thank you so much. I'm so happy with being part of that team at the gallery and being in Portland.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist and also Portland Art Gallery colleague, Emma McHold Burke.  It's been a really fun conversation for me because I have known Emma from a distance through COVID. And I think that those of you who don't know her probably should go into the gallery and get to know her a little bit better. She's really pretty delightful. Thanks for coming in today. 

Emma McHold Burke:

Thank you.