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Painting the town Greg


Longtime local artist Greg Burns keeps up with the ever-changing city.

Patrick Crain September 26th, 2012

Somewhere there exists a run of prints of a one-off Greg Burns piece containing a small detail that makes it rare. At first blush, it looks familiar enough: a rendering of the iconic Townley’s milk-bottle grocery store on Classen Boulevard.

The rare detail in this specific print is that, on the building, you can spot a campaign sign for the late David Hood’s unsuccessful congressional bid in 1980.

The inclusion of Hood’s sign was once a puzzling detail: “David who?” These days, it’s the name on the milk bottle that might inspire confusion: “Shouldn’t that say Braum’s?” “So many of these landmarks that you drive by all the time, you’re just so used to them,” Burns said. “All of a sudden, when one disappears, you don’t even think about it until then.”

Those changes can be particularly difficult if you’re an artist chronicling a city that seems to be in as rapid a state of transition as Oklahoma City. It’s clear when one looks at his newest work of Oklahoma City’s big-league skyline, and consider just how much has changed since his last skyline piece in 1985. That piece captured the newly finished Crystal Bridge at the Myriad Botanical Gardens as downtown skyscrapers loomed in the background.

“That particular print was very successful,” Burns said. “And it was kind of homage to our city. And finally, things are changing.”

That might be an understatement.

The differences between the skyline prints — viewable at gregburns-fineart.com — are not only a contrast in angles and architecture, but mood and history. Unlike the 1985 piece, which compacted downtown into an almost picturepostcard view, the new painting — from its vantage point atop the parking garage next to the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark — reflects a cityscape stretching well outside the borders of the piece. Quite the growth spurt, indeed.

Moving forward

It’s easy to marvel at the story and accomplishments of longtime local artist Greg Burns. Due to arthrogryposis, a rare disorder that affects the joints and muscles, he creates his art with very limited use of his hands and paints with brushes lodged between his teeth.

Get around that basic human-interest story, however, and you find that his work has a uniqueness all its own.

Burns said he thinks of himself as a reverse-engineering architect with a true enthusiasm for “finding out how these things fit together.”

Fair enough. His work is intricately detailed with something of a dollhouse aesthetic that makes viewing it joyously time-consuming. His paintings of local landmarks are not unlike photographs where not only the focal point is of interest, but also what might be out of focus or on the margins.

The Townley’s piece captured not only a moment in time when the milk bottle hawked a once-standard brand, but also a Classen Boulevard that looks so different than what it does now.

And there does seem to be an ever-so-slight degree of sadness in Burns when he speaks about some of Oklahoma City’s more unique architecture and some of a gradual transformation toward a more modern look.

“These modern glass and steel structures, they’re futuristic and modernistic and we all want to move forward, but still I think that we enjoy our sense of place with these familiar things,” he said. “People have history in those buildings and families, and that’s important. That’s important to the culture.”

However, he was quick to add, “New buildings can be extremely interesting, too. I’m not saying we need to go backwards.”

Regardless of the changes that occur, Burns will be there to document them in his work.

“What’s interesting about Oklahoma City is the human scale of it. It’s not oppressive,” he said. “And I’ve been awakened by this whole thing again and I’m going to start seriously looking around downtown for some new subject matter. Because it’s not blighted anymore. It’s becoming appreciated. A lot of these areas are becoming very sought after. It really is an awakening.”

 
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