Rachel Burgess is a printmaker whose large-scale works on paper combine her interest in landscape with her background in narrative art. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the International Print Center of New York, the South Bend Museum of Art, Monmouth Museum, the University of Connecticut, Susan Eley Fine Art, Addison/Ripley Fine Art, the American University Museum and the Seoul Museum of Art. Burgess received a 2021 Artist Development Program Award from the International Print Center of New York; her work has been supported by residencies at Zea Mays Printmaking and Acadia National Park and has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Drawing Magazine, Introspective Magazine and CMYK. Burgess received a B.A. in Literature from Yale University and an M.F.A. in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts. She lives in New York City.
"I create large-scale works on paper that explore the human need to record and communicate our lives. Drawing on my background in literature and illustration, I edit, abstract and print scenes of New England, where I grew up, and New York City, where I live now: my images, which resemble the pages of a book, or the panels of a screen, give physical form to the process we perform internally when we convert our experiences into stories.
Attracted by the accessible, democratic quality of printmaking and commercial illustration (as opposed to traditional fine art), I use monotype as my primary medium, straddling the divide between popular and elite forms of storytelling. I question how we decide which stories to tell, and what it means to tell stories when we are inherently unreliable narrators.
To make my pieces, I begin by sketching from life, reducing my subjects to basic forms and colors and disregarding extraneous details. I don’t use reference photos because I want to honor my instinctual editing choices – I’m trying to capture my response to a subject, rather than the subject itself. Later, in a print studio, I convert my drawings into monotype – a form of printmaking that yields just one image, similar to an oil painting on paper. Through this process, I lose the initial scene that I spent hours working on but gain a new work on paper, mimicking the way we turn fleeting experiences into lasting narratives. The final product is a mirror image of the original – a metaphor for the fictionalization that occurs when we turn reality into myth. "
Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.
I grew up near Boston, and the earliest visual influence in my life was the scenery of New England. We took a lot of day trips to historic sites and nature reserves, touring salt marshes, stone walls, rocky beaches and saltbox homes. Eventually this led me to look at artists like Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane. Although I now live in New York City, I continue to see the world through the lens of New England’s colors and forms.
My other earliest influence was books. I loved to read, but I was also drawn to illustrated stories – not exactly picture books, but slightly older volumes, such as an illustrated copy of “Little Women”, or Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. When I first started thinking about art as a career, illustration seemed like a natural choice. Over time, I began to gravitate more towards fine art, but I’d be the first to say that the distinction between the two is often blurry.
What kind of work are you currently making?
I’m almost finished with a series of landscapes called “100 Views of the Piscataqua”. It’s exactly what it sounds like – one hundred views of the Piscataqua River between New Hampshire and Maine. Inspired by traditional Japanese print artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai, I depict the river at different times of the day and year. So far, I’ve made about ninety pieces. Working in this serial format has made me question the way we usually approach storytelling. Why are we so quick to seek a definitive version of a story? What can we gain by opening ourselves up to a multitude of perspectives?
I’ve also begun a new series, “Deli Flowers My Husband Bought Me”, based on deli flowers that my husband, an NYPD detective, has brought home over the years. It’s sort of an ode to NYC and essential workers, as well as to the relationships that underpin our lives. If I had to push things further, I’d say there’s a connection between deli flowers and monotypes – in a sense, both are more accessible versions of high-end, luxury goods.
What is a day like in the studio for you?
Usually I work at the Lower East Side Printshop, a communal printmaking studio in Manhattan. I arrive around 8:00 am and eat a huge breakfast that I bring from home. I have two little kids, so this alone time is precious and allows me to mentally prepare for making art. Then I work for 6-7 hours and go home. Monotype is a bit like a performance – you have to be “on” the whole time, and it either works or it doesn’t. When I’m done, I’m physically tired but I also experience a kind of high.
Every few months I go to our home in southern Maine, where I spend time sketching outdoors (or as close to outdoors as the weather allows), using pastel or watercolor to capture fleeting atmospheric moments. I’ve set up a print studio in the basement, which includes a 30” x 60” press and some work tables left by my grandfather, who built boats. It’s been exciting to finally have my own studio space.
What are you looking at right now and/or reading?
I really enjoyed the last two shows I saw in New York. One was a monotype show at David Zwirner called “Unrepeated: Unique Prints from Two Palms”, which showcased monotypes by artists like Cecily Brown and Marina Adams. It’s so rare to see a monotype show – it made my heart sing. The other was “Drawn to Water” at James Cohan, an exhibition of paintings by Byron Kim inspired by his re-reading of the Odyssey, Solaris and Moby Dick. For obvious reasons, both of these shows hit home. My bedtime reading right now is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, which is about the first months of WWI. I usually stick to novels, but this reads almost like a novel and is both poignant and terrifying.
Where can we find more of your work?
My website is rachel-burgess.com and my Instagram is @rachelburgessart. I work with Susan Eley Fine Art (NY), Addison/Ripley Fine Art (Washington, D.C.) and Carrie Coleman Fine Art (VA). This spring I’ll be part of a show at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York, ME that focuses on artist mothers, and in September I'll be in a three-person show opening at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, CT. Currently I’m in a group exhibition called “The Fierce Urgency of Now” at the Janet Turner Print Museum at California State University.