Michael Burtch is well known within the Sault and across the wider Canadian art community for his drawings, sculptures and work as a percussionist.
He is also a respected art history teacher and a now-retired Art Gallery of Algoma curator and director.
Now in his 70s, the artist is still creating thought-provoking work.
Burtch is currently looking forward to presenting Black Water, Sunken Cathedral, an exhibition and live performance created in collaboration with fellow Sault artist Annie King in partnership with Fringe North.
The one night event will be held at the Heliene solar panel production plant’s property on Allen’s Side Road at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18 with a reception to follow.
Black Water, Sunken Cathedral will feature the work of Burtch and King in spoken word, movement, sound, water and sculptures.
“It deals with life, death and everything in between and the environment. That’s the black water. It’s sort of a prophecy and a warning, environmentally,” Burtch told SooToday.
The sunken cathedral aspect of the show stems from an ancient legend of a cathedral rising from the water off the French coast on clear mornings, accompanied by the sounds of chanting priests and chiming bells.
The legend was put to music by French composer Claude Debussy in the early 20th century.
Burtch spoke of how the sunken cathedral concept inspired him in the creation of his upcoming show.
“My late wife Linda and I were in China and we took a trip to the Three Gorges Dam. It haunts me to this day because the boat was going over cities. You could see apartment buildings and temples poking their tops above the water levels. You could see all kinds of clothing, shoes and dolls and picture all the lives that had been completely altered by our own insatiable desire for more power. After the dam was built it flooded out villages and cities,” Burtch recalled.
“Floating over those abandoned cities was almost apocalyptic.”
Sounds heavy, but Burtch is no stranger to creating work that causes discussion within the community.
His sculptures of undraped human figures, known collectively as Bodies in Motion and which hang over the John Rhodes Community Centre’s entrance, caused some controversy when they were first unveiled.
Other powerful Burtch sculptures include Compassion, located on Sault Area Hospital’s east side and Breath, erected outside the Ronald A. Irwin Civic Centre but currently in storage as renovation of city hall continues.
Burtch also created the large pleasant-sounding chimes on the Sault’s boardwalk, described in art circles as a sound sculpture.
“One of the reasons I do visual art is because it expresses feelings and emotions that can’t be put into words,” Burtch said.
“I’m drawn to the mystery, the enigma, the power of art to communicate things that we can’t communicate in words. I think that’s true of all art. It does have the power to transform people. It’s a process of discovery.”
Born in Kingston, Burtch moved to the Sault and became the Art Gallery of Algoma’s curator and director in 1981 and also taught art history at Algoma University.
He retired from his role as AGA curator and director in 2008.
He formally studied art at Brandon University, then art history at Queen's University in Kingston.
“We moved around a lot. My father was a United Church minister and he was also in the army,” Burtch said, reflecting on his life and career.
It was also his father who inspired Burtch to become an artist.
“He was also a very gifted calligrapher, illustrator and cartoonist. I personally wasn’t interested in doing anything else other than being an artist. I had the passion.”
Burtch has received several awards for his work, including the City of Sault Ste. Marie’s Medal of Merit in 2017 for being a notable artist, art historian, sculptor, percussionist and curator.
He also received the Ontario Association of Architects and Allied Arts Award for his boardwalk chimes sound sculpture.
As an art historian Burtch has published articles and books on artists such as Ken Danby and Jack Bush.
His research project with Gary and Joanie McGuffin on the Group of Seven, which depicts the natural beauty north of the Sault, led to the 2015 release of a documentary film entitled Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven.
When asked what his favourite creation is, Burtch said “the next one.”
“That’s what drives me, is my next work. That’s really what I believe. I have done work that has touched me greatly and one of them won’t be exhibited for another two or three years. It’s a collaboration with the Children of Shingwauk. It was their vision and to hear their stories and for me to translate them into three-dimensional structural form was really quite an intense, emotional and gratifying experience.”
Annie King, his collaborator on Black Water, Sunken Cathedral, worked with him on that upcoming project both in the studio and onsite at Algoma University.
“It’s one sculpture. It'll be monumental,” Burtch said.
“Art is what gets me up in the morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night.”
“I keep a sketchpad handy. Then I get up in the morning to see if it passes the ‘morning after the night before test,’” he said with a chuckle.
Burtch said it has been a privilege to work with King and many other artists over the years.
“I’ve enjoyed working with the artists, the art gallery staff, the collaborations, the artists I’ve met and worked with. You can’t put a monetary value on that.”
One such collaboration came in the summer of 1986 when a group of Quebec artists visited the Sault and erected installations such as the oversized table and chairs in Clergue Park.
“The exhibitions over the years, the curatorial part of my job was rewarding. And also I’d have to say doing the movie Painted Land. I did a lot of exhibitions when I first moved here and I realized our back yard is Group of Seven territory.”
Reestablishment of the Sault to Hearst passenger rail service to facilitate artistic excursions into Group of Seven country north of the Sault remains a passion for Burtch.
“Absolutely. I think that passenger train is absolutely essential if the province and the city want to create a vibrant cultural corridor,” Burtch said.
“I hope the powers that be begin to see that and realize it. On the one hand they’re trying to promote culture and the Group of Seven and on the other hand they seem to be reluctant to fund it.”
Burtch is currently part of a group preparing a written application to have the Sault to Hearst route designated as a Cultural Corridor.
“I think you have to really, truly have a passion for it,” Burtch said when asked for advice for young people considering a career in art.
“If you’re kind of up in the air about it then you should probably do something else. In my case I took art history which opened the doors to a curatorial career. The broader the education the better, but having an understanding of what art means to you and society is important. Don’t go into it glibly to make money.”
Burtch is clearly excited about the Black Water, Sunken Cathedral exhibition and performance to be held on 12,000 square feet of Heliene’s property in August.
“They’re retrofitting it for us. It was really generous of them to have this kind of space to work in."
“It’s a lot of work for one day but we’ll be doing a film and live streaming the performance and it’ll also be documented in still photography. I’m also involved in theatre so I’m looking at it as one big set design and that happens in theatre. You work on it for a year, it’s on for a few nights and then it’s gone. It’s kind of like theatre. Annie’s taught me a lot on this project. It’s a two-way process and I’m seeing the world through the eyes of a much younger artist,” Burtch said.
Those interested in attending Black Water, Sunken Cathedral are asked to RSVP by email by Aug. 4 or earlier.