Last year, some of the oil in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields came out of small tubes labeled Cobalt Blue or Cadmium Yellow.
Compelled by a desire to document the oil boom that has transformed vast stretches of a vast state, Joe Burns loaded canvases, paints, brushes, a camera and a few changes of clothes and drove from his home in south Minneapolis to Williston, N.D.
Photographers have followed the oil boom, of course, “but today, we see photos mostly on our phones or tablets,” Burns said. “This subject demands a larger format, and I thought it would be great if an artist could document something like photos do.”
The results are imposing. “Oil Train,” an engine pulling a curving string of rail cars, is more than 6 feet long (and just 19 inches high). “Bruce,” a worker holding a torch, is 4 feet tall. “Pump Valve” is 3 feet square. It may be the best painting of a grimy pump valve you’ve ever seen — and also likely the first.
“I tried to tell a story of working people, blue-collar people, who are making a good wage, but also working 80, 90 hours a week,” Burns said. “It’s the American dream, I guess, but there’s nothing glamorous about it.”
The 26 paintings of “Canvassing the Bakken Oil Fields: Oil on Oil” will be on exhibit in the Star Tribune Building at the Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis for a month.
Burns likens the North Dakota oil boom to the California Gold Rush. “The past and present are colliding before my eyes. … Are they changing it for good or bad is not for me to decide,” he said in his artist’s statement. “I paint with an open mind to the past and the future.”
In his small studio, he stressed again: “I went out there with no political agenda, no sense that this was good or bad or whatever.”
But a straightforward depiction of a directional sign, its lettered “Frac” crisp against the distant bluffs, was the first painting to find a buyer. “Go figure,” he said.
Using paint to tell a story
Burns was inspired by art from the bygone and recent past. He cited the Grohmann Museum in Milwaukee, with its huge art collection depicting human work, and the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis, where monumental canvases illustrate the plight of the worker.
He also looked to local artist Scott Lloyd Anderson’s paintings documenting the reconstruction of the Interstate 35W bridge after it collapsed in 2007.
Fellow artist Jeffrey T. Larson, another realist painter, applauds Burns’ effort to use paint to chronicle the oil fields.
“It’s easy for classically trained artists such as Joe to fall into rehashing classical themes and subjects,” Larson said. “It takes an original vision and confidence to look around at the world today and capture on canvas what they see.”
Burns said he’s a storyteller. “I’m a painter who’s a still-life artist, but I like to work my projects around a project, around a story,” he said. A couple of years ago, he painted a portrait of every person who lives on his block. “That was a story of my neighborhood.”
A friend’s brother in Williston offered him a place to stay during his four visits, and another friend’s connections snagged him unofficial access to six drilling sites to take photos for future reference.
“The guy who led me around said, ‘You can take as many photos as you want, but you weren’t here today.’ ”
Burns also painted on the job sites or overlooking fields of canola — color studies to ensure that what he painted at home was true to North Dakota’s reality. Mostly, he was left alone, although one person stopped to say that he was doing something important. Often, the incessant wind dried his paints so quickly that he had to stop.
Burns said he hopes his paintings lead to sales, and some commissioned works. A full-time artist, he works part-time during the school year as a wrestling coach at Southwest High School in Minneapolis. Embarking upon this project meant painting nothing else for a year, given that each canvas required several weeks of work.
He also made the frames, spraying them with red paint, then black, then finally rubbing them until a bit of the red became visible, “to look like the earth up there,” he said.
Now that the project is done, he recalled with a wry grin the sense of urgency he felt on his first trip to Williston.
“I thought I had to do this quickly before someone else got the same idea,” he said. “But after a while I realized it’s 10 hours up there, there’s no place to stay, and you have no money coming in for a year, so no — no one else was probably going to do this.”