Do you consider yourself an artist? It’s the question every creative, inventive person most dreads. Do I say yes and sound pretentious? Or do I say no and betray my passion? It’s the kind of conundrum that no one likes to address. And Johnny Burgess is no exception.
When I ask the 22-year-old Whistler High grad the question, he hesitates for a long time before answering. “Yes, I think so,” says the darkly handsome young man. He pauses for a moment longer. Searches for just the right words to use. “I’m on the path, that’s for sure. I guess the most appropriate way to put it would be to say I’m an artist pupil. I have one more year to go at school. After that, we’ll see.”
He certainly looks the part. With his scraggly black beard and wild tangle of hair he reminds me of a young Che Guevara. Tight black jeans and a scruffy T-shirt add to the impression. All he needs is a beret to complete the portrait…
But there’s no pretence in his comportment. This is who I am, his body language says. I’m totally comfortable with myself. Are you?
“Look,” he continues, “I’m not into throwing that term around lightly. And I don’t believe that art school is the only place to develop your art. But I’ve learned a lot over the last three years. For me, being a student at Emily Carr (Vancouver’s Institute of Art and Design) has been a very positive experience.”
A painter by inclination, Burgess considers himself a general fine artist now. “I’ve had the opportunity to explore all sorts of different media at school — silk screening, digital stuff, photography. It’s all pretty interesting. The courses, the students, the instructors — I can tell you, it’s way different from what I grew up with…”
He laughs. “It was a bit of a shock for me at first,” he says. “But in a good way. You see, growing up in Whistler hadn’t really prepared me for the social complexity of a place like Emily Carr. There is just so much more diversity here. So much going on. At first I was a little overwhelmed. But then, it was like: ‘Oh well. This is the scene. Might as well get into it.’ And it’s worked out really well for me.”
He says it was only during his last few years at high school (he graduated in 2003) that he realized what he wanted to do in life. “I started doing bad art and got really excited about it,” he says. And laughs again. “Well, I didn’t consider it bad art at the time. Now I look at it and wonder how the heck anybody recognized any talent there…”