All children love to draw, at least for a time, but when others were hanging up their plastic aprons and throwing out crayon scraps, Marc Burckhardt kept drawing. And he never stopped. It’s a testament to both his talent and determination, that aside from a brief stint bussing tables, he’s always made a living as an artist.
“I was always drawing from early on,” Burckhardt says. “My mom was an art history major, who became a philosophy major. She was painting and we had art around us all the time.”
His inspiration came from location as much as example though. “My father was from Germany, and my mom was from Chicago,” he says of the cultural diversity that shaped his life and his art, “but we lived in Waco, Texas!” His parents were both teachers, so summers were spent between the cultural poles of Midwest America and Heidelberg, Germany.
Burckhardt attended Baylor University where he received an undergraduate degree in art history and printmaking, and met his future wife Janice. After graduation Janice went to England to work at Sotheby’s and he moved to the West Coast, where he attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, graduating in 1989. She joined him after a year, and they were married in 1988. After years in the gallery business and public relations and marketing, in 2001 Janice turned her skills to work with Marc. Married seventeen years, they are one of those couples that perfectly complement one another, genuinely appreciative of the other’s talents and interests.
Within a month of graduating, they headed to New York City. The California airbrushed look that was popular at the time wasn’t to Marc’s taste and he was especially interested in the book market, so off they went to Manhattan.
After five years, they returned to Texas, settling in Austin. Having established his career, they wanted to be closer to family and Austin’s dynamic music scene was a big draw.
All through their moves, Burckhardt’s style continued to evolve. In his paintings meticulous detail combines with a playful sense of discovery of new materials, subject matter and story.
Merging Byzantine style with a twenty-first century take on culture and what is American, Burckhardt has neatly melded his ancestral German roots with his American cultural roots—the blues, true country and hip New York sophistication—into a demonstrably personal look. Whatever the subject matter, dead rock stars for Rolling Stone or bizarre denizens of the deep for the New York Aquarium, you can sense the heart and soul of the illustrator.
He fuses together elements of religious icons, Mexican retablos, American folk art and circus sideshow banners to create unique editorial and advertising illustrations. So it makes sense when Burckhardt paints Kurt Cobain as a saint or elevates a chihuahua to kingly status. He enjoys the craft aspect of framing his paintings with pressed metal, often forming small sculptures or elaborate patterns in the metal, creating an icon-like frame. His paintings, while often of rather monumental subjects, are surprisingly small in size, often no more than a few inches in diameter.
The writings of art historian Leo Steinberg opened his eyes about how one looks at art. “The theory behind much of his writing is that there are a lot of symbolic references in art history we’re either unaware of or misinterpret when we look at the work,” he says, warming to the subject. “Steinberg’s writings deal with the original context of the work, its symbolism and intent, and how we see it today. It made me look at historical works differently, but it also made me realize that we carry so much stuff with us when we look at art.
“I don’t necessarily know that my work is always profound,” he adds, “but all these things like texture are not superficial, they have an emotional impact, they make you feel and respond to things within your own experience.”
Marc relishes explorations of different varnishes and tools as part of the discovery process in his work. “All of those details and the technical side of things also feed very much into what I think the purpose of making a picture is, which is to convey an idea. I think they go hand in hand. I don’t see myself so much as imposing a technique upon a problem as seeing the problem first.
“I use the digital technology we have today to deliver most of my artwork to people, but I still make my work by hand. It’s the reason why I do this. Most of my art is done on old boards (many from the ceiling of his studio or those he finds in alleyways). I like having something that I start with that already has some character.”
Burckhardt is a great listener; he is attentive and warm, with a painter’s observation of place and light, detail and nuance. He enjoys several long-term relationships with art directors and designers including fellow native Texan, Pentagram partner DJ Stout (former art director of Texas Monthly), who says, “Marc is an art director’s dream. He listens carefully to the art director’s brief. He reads the story and tries to understand it. He thinks about what he wants to communicate visually and then he offers up intelligent thoughtful ideas. He never stomps around if the idea doesn’t float. He’s a great collaborator who always brings something to the table.”
Burckhardt’s clients include Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Sony Records, Young & Rubicam, Pentagram and Random House. He has received awards from the New York Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, Graphis, Print, STEP, American Illustration and the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. Previously an instructor at New York’s School of Visual Arts, for years he has taught illustration at Texas State University, in nearby San Marcos, Texas.
A stuffed armadillo (a gift) and antique toys form part of the colorful backdrop to shelves and shelves of thick art books in his studio, a sunny front room in the landmark house in Austin’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood that he and Janice share with their schnauzer, Diva. The room has good light even in winter, two deep windowseat benches for guests, a drafting table in the center of the room and a flat-screen wall-mounted TV. Upstairs, etchings by former classmate John Hancock (of Austin’s the Amazing Hancock Brothers) and posters of friend James Victore’s work grace the pale green walls. Burckhardt inherited many European antiques from his family, which populate the rooms with a stately elegance, providing a nineteenth-century foil to his modern sensibilities.
His favorite assignments involve music. He enjoys responding to another art form: “It’s one that is almost abstract in a way. You can paint a picture of a person, but it’s hard to paint a picture of a song from anyone’s viewpoint but your own,” Burckhardt states. His abiding love of music has led to a string of celebrated covers for a variety of musicians, but an assignment for the cover of June Carter Cash’s last album, Wildwood Flower, proved to be one of the most emotional and satisfying; “It was just a dream project.” Carter died shortly before the album’s release. Her husband, country legend Johnny Cash, was so moved by Burckhardt’s portrait, that he commissioned Marc to paint a portrait of June for his home outside Nashville, Tennessee. Johnny followed his wife in death by months last year; Burckhardt has kept in touch with their son John Carter Cash, and he plans further work with the family.
Ever mindful of changing markets, Burckhardt has joined with friends and colleagues Anita Kunz, Seymour Chwast, Brian Cronin and Mark Ulriksen, to form 5artists.com, a site where they will offer limited-edition Giclée prints. Also, they hope to mount exhibitions of their work in different venues. This is one of many new collaborative ventures in the illustration community, such as the successful Picture Mechanics (of which Burckhardt is also a member), formed after the advent of the Illustration Conference in 1999. Marc is a past president of the Illustration Conference, helming the second conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2001.
“Handmade things give us a touchstone, and sense of humanity, in what can sometimes feel like a very alienating modern culture,” Burckhardt explains. “The artwork I’ve always been drawn to—naïve, historic, iconic—has an individuality and timelessness about it, like it survived a lot and came out the other side with its message intact. I think other folks connect with that feeling too, and it’s behind what makes the work a powerful vehicle for conveying ideas; we intuitively sense that old objects are around because people valued them, so their message must have been important. And those things connect us with our past.”
Happy to connect to his past and enjoying his future, Burckhardt plans to work part of the year abroad. What else does the future hold? “There is one type of project I’ve never done but would love to do: stamps. Sounds weird, but it’s something that sums up what I love best about illustration—totally functional and at the same time commemorating important benchmarks in our culture.” ca