by Gary Olsen
I finally met Helen Burkart. I had admired her work for a long time, and I wondered if I would ever get a chance to meet the person who paints flowers with such talent and a keen eye for composition and design, mere words cannot adequately describe them. Her floral paintings are truly breathtaking.
It's funny how one can live in a small town like Dubuque, Iowa, know of and admire someone without actually ever meeting or seeing them in person. I consider myself quite a social gadfly with loads of friends and acquaintances, but I had never met Helen face to face.
Helen Burkart was the "Rose Lady of Dubuque." She was a practitioner of the art of painting on porcelain. Her studio for the past 30 years has been a little two story building on Rhomberg Avenue in Dubuque, a place I've passed by thousands of times. From this humble building she had conducted classes for students from as far away as Japan.
Helen passed away in November, 2009 at the age of 91. I spoke at her funeral. Her daughter, Patty King, herself an accomplished painter, id carrying on the legacy her mother started, and that's a very good thing. I consider myself extremely luckly to have met Helen and capture her deft brush strokes, her humor, her extraordinary talent when I did.
Most students, though, are, as Helen liked to call them, "local ladies" who are keeping alive the delicate art of painting floral tableaus on everything from simple ceramic tiles to incredibly ornate plates, bowls, vases, and a variety of utilitarian as well as decorative objects.
When I first entered Helen's studio, it was like walking into a Faberge egg. You are surrounded by treasures. Suprisingly, none of it is for sale. It's all examples of Helen's work produced during classes she teaches. In the back of the studio are two large electric kilns for the successive firings that are an essential step in the painting process.
Because I'm a filmmaker and television producer, I'm frequently approached by people with ideas for my next production. Such was the case with one of my friends, Terry Mozena, of Dubuque. She was a long time student of Helen's and she asked me if I would be interested in filming her teacher. Of course I was familiar with Helen's work, so I jumped at the opportunity for a meeting.
So Terry and Helen's daughter, Patty King, arranged for me to meet Helen. Helen is now 90 years old. She is remarkably sharp and she still knows how to (in her words) "swing the brush."
The film I produced is actually instructional. I wanted to capture as much as possible Helen's technique and approach to painting. I asked her if she would just paint a single object, most importantly a rose, which she does so well. She actually painted an entire tableau of roses.
All the while we filmed, she did more than just paint roses. She told stories, painting vivid recollections of her personal history, her art, her students, and her annecdotes were thoroughly delightful.
China painting, as it's more commonly called, became very popular in the US in the late 19th Century. It came to America from Europe. However, American china painting quickly evolved its own style.
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