Make what you like

Ceramics artist Mark Burns has advice for other artists. He knows it works. He has tested it for more than 30 years of making art. 

By Jasmin Stephens ‘20

The Harvard Ceramics Program hosted Mark Burns for the semester’s opening artist-in-residence lecture on Sept. 29. Before the event started, attendees wandered into the Ceramics Studio’s compact central room of grey concrete floors and clean white walls – a vivid contrast to Burns’ brightly colored ceramic art. The room buzzed with friendly conversation and laughing exchanges, and then simmered to a low hum as Burns was introduced.

How was he introduced? As a “legend.” Burns, who taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for more than 25 years and is now at Harvard for the school year, began by jokingly relabeling himself an “antique.”

Mark Burns“I have lived long enough to be homework for some of you guys,” Burns said. “The first thing is: There is no truth to the rumor that I interviewed for my job at the University of Nevada Las Vegas wearing a Superman suit. That aside, I’m going to be 66 in a week or so and I’m just happy to be here talking to you guys.”

Through Burns’ lecture on his evolution and rise to ceramic stardom, he revealed himself as a persevering and humorous soul. He pursued his own – often considered outrageous – views about ceramics, veering toward pop culture, even as colleagues pressured him toward conventions. “Lines were drawn and you had to decide where you were going and I went to the dark side,” said Burns. He overcame additional obstacles in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the industry for being – as he said – “too gay, too artistic.” However, he never failed to find an audience for his works. “The world grew to me,” he said. “I used things in my work that other people, such as the Japanese, noticed and liked as much as I did. It was a relief. It set me free. It gave me permission to do what I wanted.”

After the lecture, I had the chance to ask Burns a few questions.

You said in your artist statement, “Once Considered, those who seek an explanation will hopefully realize any work is an outward physical manifestation of a simple truth.” What simple truth are you talking about?
Make what you like. There are no rules to art. That’s what I loved about ceramics. Apart from being the world’s oldest art form, you have the ability to see things in 3-D. In my projects, a lot of the characters are self-portraits. It is a physical diary.

What do you hope to achieve at Harvard?
Harvard is a fresh start for me. What I hope to achieve at Harvard is to bring a living history to the ceramic students, as well as serve as an active artistic presence. It is my hope that my long years in the field will give impetus to the students to persevere in their efforts as working artists ask they speak their truths. 

What advice do you have for other visual artists?
Follow your bliss. Pretty much anything goes these days. You need to listen to yourself and make your own rules.

The Ceramics Program hosts regular workshops and visiting artist lectures throughout the year. For more information, click here