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.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Rose Burkart, the Rose Lady of Dubuque.
Helen Burkart in her studio on Rhomberg Avenue in Dubuque, Iowa. Photos on this page are stills from the film and when clicked upon they enlarge in your browser. Photos on this page are linked to enlargements.
Above is Helen's "Magic Sketch" she uses to assemble her compositions. She used a crayon for the demonstration, but she normally uses just a pointed brush and paint with which she sketches the rose blossoms into her tableaus.

The Europeans painted porcelain in the "Dresden style," a very realistic rendering. American's perferred a softer, more naturalistic style, almost impressionistic in its character. And this is what Helen does best.

Her designs are spontaneous and original. She doesn't trace but sketches with a pointed sable haired brush right on the surface. Her favorite technique leaves her blossom's imcomplete of certain detail. "Let the viewer's eye complete the composition," says Helen. This is classic impressionism.

Each piece is fired multiple times in a kiln. Some of the paint is absorbed by the porcelain each time it's heated. This firing technique creates a durable finish. But the multiple firings and glazes are necessary to build a colorful design because the pigments of the paint are absorbed or burn off during successive firings.

Each piece is fired at temperatures reaching 1600 to 1700 degrees (F), and there is a calculated annealing process which increases and decreases the temperature gradually. This strategy not only prevents breakage of the objects in the kiln, but it is designed to maintain color integrity on the surface of the porcelain. Too hot, the colors turn brown. Too cool, the paint doesn't mature and can flake off.

And there are various degrees of complexity in designs including raised paste, enameling, gilding in 24 karat gold, and penwork in which the artist draws lattice work, fine details, and embellishments. There is the cartouche, in which the artist with pen or brush creates a space for a separate design. All of these applications require successive firings.

The repeated firing and glazing technique also creates an impressionistic quality to the art on the surface of the porcelain. I call it "atmospheric." It's like viewing flowers in early morning sunlight diffused by morning mist.

The object is not to create a highly detailed piece of art but rather a composition of ethereal beauty with brilliant spectral highlights and atmospheric shading... a rich harmony of color.

As an experienced graphic designer and illustrator, myself, I was instantly inspired by Helen's deft brushwork and her strategies for applying color and rendering shapes. Her sense of composition and design is incredible. And she paints everything freehand! "No tracing in my classes," says Helen proudly.

The paints she uses are comprised of pure powder pigment that comes in vials and is mixed by the artist with oil. The paint dries very slowly affording the artist the opportunity to bring out highlights in darker colors using a fine sable brush dipped in spirts or stand oil. She also uses a pure silk cloth or sponge to blend her colors. Helen applies light colors to the surface first, fires the object in the kiln, and that serves as a background for her composition.

It should be noted that Helen discovered her talent relatively late in life... at age 57 while on a trip to Davenport, IA with her sister who was taking a china painting class herself. Helen went along for the ride and was curious. She ended up enrolling in the class and the rest, as they say, is history.

I want to thank Patty and Ben King and Terry and Darryl Mozena for their support and encouragement throughout this project.

Gary Olsen 2008 all rights reserved. All graphics and copy in this Web site are the intellectual property of Gary Olsen and/or his clients' property, used with permission, and cannot be used for any purpose without permission. Address correspondence to olsega@mchsi.com