Artist Joe Burns wants to bring people together with his paintings of immigrants

September 28, 2018

Joe Burns is not trying to infuriate anyone with his oil paintings of immigrants.

Theres rhetoric out there that immigrants are terrible people rapists and murderers and I just knew that to be completely false. I love doing portraits and was looking for another project, about a year and four months ago, Burns said. I wanted to put my spin on immigration out there. Every immigrant I know is a hardworking American person who has fought hard to be here and is making a living.

Facing America will be on display on the second floor of Capella Tower in Minneapolis until Oct. 31.

Burns returned to school and began painting full time in 2011. I went to the Atelier, a classical realism school in Minneapolis, for four years, he said. Before that I was a commercial artist, freelancing doing package design, working for smaller companies.

Im a white guy who hasnt seen [much discrimination] so I get a lot from the news. I have not had the struggles some of these people have gone through, but one of the subjects in my show, Victor Sanchez, was a wrestler of mine; I coached wrestling at Southwest High until two years ago. I have seen immigrants come through the high school. Ive seen the problems that theyve had getting into college and everything else.

Growing up in Fairmont, Minn., Burns might have come away from that small-town environment with a few prejudices. But he didnt. It helped that I had a Panamanian friend and a black friend [Mike Biehler and Bob Eppard, with whom he remains close] and good parents. They were both teachers, said Burns. I just like people. If you can hold a conversation and laugh and have fun, Ill enjoy that.

The hatred some hold for those of different races or religions, I cant figure it out, said Burns. On [social media] I got some hate mail, after I was on WCCO-TV. I dont care. Ya know, Im a big boy. I can handle myself. I didnt do [these paintings] to infuriate people but hopefully bring some people together.

Q: Why did you want to make the transition from commercial artist to painter?

A: One was a job and one was a passion. I just wanted to see if

Q: Say no more!

A: [Laughter] Im very lucky my wife [Kris] has a good job. Let me put it that way. [Laughter] Everybodys a struggling artist and Ive got a very good wife who puts up with it.

Q: So you get your health insurance from her?

A: I get my health insurance, I get my clothes, I get my food. [Laughter] I get everything from her. Thats right.

Q: How long does it take to do a portrait?

A: About 40 hours, sometimes 50, 30.

Q: What do you have trouble painting? I am not on your level as a self-taught painter, but hands are impossible for me.

A: Hands? I love hands, but I hate teeth. I cant stand em.

Q: You paint teeth very well, but you prefer subjects who dont smile showing teeth?

A: Thats right. [Laugh]. Mine either look too perfect and the rest of the face doesnt or the rest of the face looks really good and it looks like the person has a mouth guard on or something.

Q: I think I have teeth figured out, but then again as I look at a painting I did of Oprah, Im reminded of something former MIA director Evan Mauer said when he was showing me artwork around his house: They all look better from a distance.

A: Isnt that the truth.

Q: Any trepidation as subjects view their portraits for the first time?

A: As an artist you put yourself out there. Im a little sheepish about going up [to a subject] when they first see their portrait. Some are extremely happy and some you can tell dont know exactly what to think.

Q: What feedback do you get from your wife while painting?

A: Famous comment from my wife, my harshest critic and the person who loves my work the most: Are you done? Ill show her a painting and every time shell say [that]. And its like: Oh, I thought I was but by that statement I guess Im not now.

Q: Congressional candidate Ilhan Omar is the big celebrity in your show?

A: Yeah, I was at a Super Bowl party and talked to someone about what I was working on. The next day, she was onboard. It worked out real easy.

C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9s Buzz. E-mailers, please state a subject.

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