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The Bakken Project

"This Exhibition of paintings from the Bakken oil patch are not so much about the oil as they are about the lives of people working and living there, mixed with the trains, trucks and pumps that have rapidly transformed the once-quiet western North Dakota landscape."


At first glance, Joe Burns' story seems almost fictitious. The accomplished full-time painter with an intriguing back-story is writing a bold, new chapter in his life on 25 canvases, capturing the people and expanses of the Bakken oil boom with his new exhibition, Canvassing the Bakken Oil Fields. For Burns the painting experience on the remote Great Plains inspired his creative work to a new level, while giving people another way to see the oil patch from an artist's perspective.


Documenting the Bakken Without Political or Environmental Agendas

The former graphic artist, high school and college wrestler, and current wrestling coach at Southwest High School has always been a keen observer of people. After reading about the North Dakota oil boom and thinking about other historical events such as the Hoover Dam Project, the California Gold Rush and the Great Depression, he was inspired to document this event through his art. Much of his artistic inspiration came from the Museum of Russian Art and the paintings capturing the plight of the working people by the Russian Masters. 

"That same flood of humanity has now swept into western North Dakota with their hopes and dreams," he says. "That's what I wanted to discover with these paintings -- a way to tell their stories -- while also giving a special sense of place about the remarkable land out there, without any political or environmental points of view".

The artist's fascination with documenting the shale oil rush with oil paintings is a natural culmination of Burns' considerable talents, his rigorous commitment to his craft and natural curiosity with people. He was "always drawing and painting" as a kid and it continued in earnest through high school where he was also playing football and wrestling in the rural farm town of Fairmont in southern Minnesota. While later attending Mankato Area Vocational-Technical Institute in the '80s, his interests turned to graphic arts, a niche that led to fairly steady employment after graduating and moving to Minneapolis.

In the big city, he worked as a freelance artist for more than 15 years, doing projects for packaged goods companies, along with corporate logos and other marketing communications design and branding work. But in 2006, inspired by his love of master world portrait painters like John Singer Sargent and renowned artists such as Jeffrey T. Larson, plein air painter Scott Lloyd Anderson and others, Burns went back to school for four years -- painting seven hours daily at The Atelier Studio Program of Fine Arts in Minneapolis. He studied primarily under Dale Redpath and Cyd Walker, who were students of Richard Lack.

The Concentrated Solitude of Painting and Wrestling, and The Art of Seeing

"Although the Atelier elevated my ability to draw and paint, what I really learned there was how to see, and then how to interpret on canvas what people believe they are seeing," Burns says of the legendary school with roots in 19th century French Impressionism. "In painting, especially in these new works, I hope that the public will also learn how to see the oil boom in a new light. That is really a painter's goal with any subject matter, I believe. The artist's job is to convince viewers of their work; that those dabs and brush strokes of color on canvas are really something else!"

Painters copy old ideas, artists create new ones. "It's easy for classically trained artists such as Joe to fall into rehashing classical themes and subjects. It takes an original vision and confidence to look around at the world today and capture on canvas what they see. Joe is the right man to be chronicling artistically what's taking place out in the oil fields, a testament to American exceptionalism and the free market system and hopefully a path to American independence, and I applaud his efforts."
    Jeffrey T. Larson


With a handful of exhibits under his belt, Burns gained more notoriety in the summer of 2013 after painting 57 portraits of neighbors in the Fulton neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis where he lives with his wife Kris and their two teenaged children. As a 17 year block captain, he thought, "It would help me to get to know my neighbors even better and serve as a good gesture in community building." (see article in the StarTribune)


Working three-to-four hours on each neighborly portrait it was the ultimate way to make a connection. The newspaper article also noted: "But he’s also had a less artistic, more altruistic purpose: “The neatest thing for me was to get to spend four hours with everyone on the block. You never know where a portrait, or a conversation, is going to lead you. ”

As to what connection he sees between the classical art of wrestling and the timeless act of painting, Burns notes that "to be good at either, you have to put in a lot of time. Both require discipline, there is no easy way to do either. There is much solitude in wrestling and painting, you're on your own when it matters most."

Burns spent over a month in North Dakota taking four separate trips to Williston, Watford City and driving countless rural roads painting on-site and taking photos. While on site he met numerous people working on drills, in machine shops, in the bars and restaurants and for the local utilities. After working in the field, Burns went to work in his studio to develop large-scale paintings, some as large as 52x28 and 76x19. 

Burns is not hinting where next he will apply his artistic vision, the colorful oil dabs of paint and fine brush strokes used to make people believe they are seeing the hard working strangers and the remote, lonesome landscapes of the wind-swept Bakken oil patch. But one thing is clear after seeing the work of Canvassing the Bakken Oil Boom: Wrestling with whatever subject matter comes his way, Joe Burns will deftly work his illusionary magic on canvas.