A Conversation with Emily Burke

dragonfly (640x591)I met my friend Emily while I was working at the National Museum of Natural History; she was a contractor helping my boss design media for the new Deep Time (read: Dinosaur) exhibit and I was a curatorial assistant and her unofficial security escort. At first, we only really knew each other from our morning walks to and from the lobby, but the more I got to know her and her work, the more I was blown away.

I mean, it’s not every day you get a thank-you present that looks like this:

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Emily toes the line between science, art, and activism in a unique way and I’ve been fooled more than once by her hyper-realistic sculptures. She was game enough to let me ask her a whole lot of questions (my specialty) to give us perspective on both her art and her process:


Which came first, nature or art?

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“Snowy Egret” (2015)

For me, neither art nor nature came before the other. They both developed simultaneously and still influence each other heavily even today. Ever since I was a toddler, my parents always took me on nature hikes and encouraged me to draw. My love for art and nature started early and only picked up speed as I matured. In high school I took as many classes as I could in both science and art, and eventually made the decision to pursue art professionally in college while still taking science courses whenever I could. I always strive for a marriage between the two subjects in my pieces, and try to use my artwork in ways to make scientific topics easily accessible to the viewer.

Is there a particular part of the natural world that you find most inspirational?

Reptilia are absolutely the most inspirational class of animals for me. They often have a bad reputation, and I do whatever I can to expose people to these amazing creatures and make them more comfortable with them. It’s heartbreaking to see so many reptiles killed out of ignorance and fear, and I do wherever I can to educate and help people better appreciate them. I own several reptiles myself and find them absolutely fascinating. They are a never-ending source of inspiration for my art.

What’s your favorite medium to work in and why?

My favorite medium would have to be clay. I find that having a tangible, tactile product at the end of my process is much more rewarding than having a 2D image. Working in clay helps me better understand form and where things lay in space, which carries over surprisingly well when rendering illustrations in two dimensions.

A lot of your work revolves around specific animal welfare issues – what do you hope to accomplish with your art?

Disregarding my commissions, which is artwork I make almost entirely for commercial purposes, I always try to educate the viewer in one way or another through my art. I use my artistic ability to draw people in, and once I’ve got their attention I try to educate them about the natural world. Most of these themes revolve around the conservation, appreciation, and overall welfare of animals.

What made you choose zoochosis as the subject for your senior thesis? (Zoochosis is the term used to describe the repetitive, destructive behaviors often developed by animals in captivity as a result of psychological distress.)

To see Emily’s complete project, click HERE.

It’s because of my personal experiences of human/animal interactions. I personally believe human/animal interactions are a necessity, and can inspire and change an individual for life. Zoos are no doubt inspiring future generations of conservationists and zoologists, but it is important that the welfare of the animals comes first. There are certainly species whose needs can never fully be met by your average zoo, and I am not advocating those species be kept in such conditions, but there are plenty of species that can and do thrive in captivity who can have a positive impact on the public. What I wanted to do with my senior thesis was teach people how to identify signs of severe stress and signs of zoochosis in captive animals, so that they could then report an animal’s behavior and have its living conditions improved. In this way, the animals’ needs will always be met, while people do not lose the valuable experience of seeing these creatures in person.

Is there anything in the works that you’re really excited about? 

I’m currently being commissioned by a paleontologist who wants me to draw scientific illustrations of an extinct species of unidentified mollusk. I am  extremely excited about this particular commission as I’ve always dreamed of drawing a scientific illustration, and am very eager at the prospect of helping bring a new species out into the scientific world.

What’s your favorite way to explore?

My favorite way to explore is through observation. It means the world to me when, during a hike, I see a species of bird I had previously never seen in person before. I learn so much about animals simply by watching them, learning how they move and how their bodies articulate. Careful observation makes all the difference when trying to render an animal in my work, and makes my pieces that much more authentic and believable when trying to reach my viewers. At times it is very difficult to bring through in my work how amazing I think all of these animals are, but I do my best to do them justice and bring through the same sense of beauty I find in them into my artwork.


ball (640x596)For more information about Emily and her work, head on over to either her official website or the Emily Burke Artwork page on Facebook. She is currently accepting commissions. (Sidenote: She also has the cutest crested geckos ever. Just saying.)

All images courtesy of Emily Burke Artwork.

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