Painting History in Their Faces Artist's Portraits Tied to the American Indian Experience

Article excerpt

Thirty-four years ago Dick Burnett got a Christmas gift that kept on giving.

He was 28 when his wife bought him a small set of oil paints. The painting kit sat on a shelf for a good while. Then about 8 o'clock one evening, Burnett took out a 12-by-14-inch canvas and started to sketch.

A lifelong hunter and fisherman, Burnett drew a buck deer. Like a man in a trance, he kept fiddling with that canvas, mixing paints, dabbling here, blending there.

Something seemed to be guiding him. He knew, really knew what to do. Into the wee hours of the morning he dabbled, bringing his deer slowly but surely to life.

"Finally I saw the sun coming through the window," he said. "I thought I had been at it for a few hours, but I'd worked all night. Then I stepped back and looked at the canvas and it was the strangest thing. I said, `Damn, that looks just like a deer!' "

But Burnett was skeptical. Though he'd doodled all his life, he'd never taken an art lesson. Heck, he was an outdoorsman. He'd earned his living as an account representative for a food manufacturer. He was convinced that his first painting was luck. Either that or a big, fat fluke.

"So I took the other small canvas and I sketched and painted a mallard. Same thing: I closed by eyes, opened them and said, `Yep. Looks just like a duck.' And it did."

Other people thought so, too.

Burnett and his wife, Joan, are highly social and love to entertain at home, which gradually became something of a gallery for Burnett's best pieces.

Over the years, friends -- many of them hunting and fishing buddies and their wives -- started to create a buzz about the secret side of Dick Burnett, the good old boy who loved to paint and was darn good at it.

The eyes have it

Burnett felt drawn to paint more and more. He'd slip off to his upstairs studio, often late at night, and wouldn't emerge until some image materialized through a process he still finds vaguely baffling.

Somewhere along the line he realized that canvas didn't suit him. He began to paint on wood covered in a highly textured "mystery medium" he created with the help of son Tommy, 37, also a painter.

"I start from a photograph, and sometimes from that photo, I'll paint a realistic picture. Sometimes it's my own interpretation depending on how I feel about it. Sometimes I'll sketch things out of my mind, but the majority of it is from photographs."

He still paints wildlife. But his first love is creating powerful portraits of American Indians. For some reason, he said, he's compelled to do solitary figures. He always waits until the end to paint the eyes.

"The eyes are everything," he said. "I want people to be able to read these faces, to see the history. And I keep doing singular subjects. I wish I knew why I feel so driven to do this. Then maybe I could move on. But right now, I just feel like I'm not finished."

His paintings also sometimes "feel unfinished," he said. They might look fine to friends and family, but that doesn't matter. There's a wall reserved in his studio (which is generally off limits to others, including family and friends) for an assortment of works that -- as far as he's concerned -- just don't make the grade.

"Oh, they're not done," he said, waving a hand to drop the subject dead. "Not ready at all."

In a way, those paintings are stillborn, he later explained. They need something, some color, some line, some reshaping, something that will give them the spark of life.

Growing up

Burnett grew up in the Brentwood area a little north of downtown when things were still wild enough that 11- or 12-year-old boys could easily find a place to catch fish, shoot a few birds and chase an alligator or two. The neighborhood paperboy was Jake Godbold.

In an odd twist of fate, Godbold was Jacksonville's mayor several decades later when Burnett began his fight with the city to close the Girvin Road landfill. …