On any given day 77 year old Judith Varney Burch might be in Dibrovnic, Siberia, Mexico City, Paris or Croatia, explaining to a group of adults and 8-12 year olds what it means to make art “as the eye of a culture”. No matter the country, the young students join Judith in a workshop to create a personal view of their own culture after seeing a collection of fabric art from one of the most remote parts of the world. The tapestry pieces they make then go back to students in an Inuit village named Baker Lake, located west of Hudson Bay, which Judith Burch has considered her second home for the past 25 years.
A seemingly indefatigable Virginia resident, and the owner of a gallery of Inuit art in Charlottesville, Judith Burch has not slowed down since visiting in the Arctic among Inuit indigenous people two decades ago. Her personal passion is to link this remote Canadian culture and the rest of the world in an experiential and visual way.
She does so by curating exhibitions of Arctic Inuit Art, lecturing about their sculptures, weavings and tapestries and leading fabric workshops with young students. All of which is sponsored by museums throughout the world and the Canadian government.
LECTURING ALL OVER THE WORLD
Judith’s collections, which are permanently housed in Canadian museums, tour other museums from Russia to South America with the support of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian, and the host countries. Invitations seem to arrive daily and Judith is always ready to hop a plane and travel.
Although it might seem surprising that an American woman has become the worldwide spokesperson for an indigenous culture , a combination of interests in the arts (she was a docent at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Winterthur Museum and the Delaware Art Center) and disenfranchised people, Judith says she “always wanted to make a difference for those who had been marginalized in our society.”
She first discovered the beauty and mystery of Inuit art during summers she and her family spent in Nova Scotia. Immediately taken with the unique and powerful imagery in the work, Judith says, “It just spoke to me.”
THEMES OF INUIT ART
“The mysticism and wilderness of the Arctic are common themes in Inuit art,” Judith explains, “as are warm images of relationships set against a cold land.” The images also focus on wildlife, the environment, hunting and fishing, shamanism and mother/child. Many of the artists are women, some of whom have become close friends, Judith says.
With no written tradition, the Inuit use fabric art to convey their stories, beliefs, and traditions.
In her lectures Judith likes to point out the relationship between man and animal as often depicted by transformation figures which evoke the powerful connection of the Inuit to their surroundings. “It’s making the invisible visible,” Judith says.
REMARKABLE WOMEN ARTISTS
She has put together two distinct collections of Inuit “Culture on Cloth,” featuring vibrant and intricately worked wall hangings created with paint and pieces of felt by the women of one of the most sparsely populated and remote regions of the world. Like Judith, they are indeed remarkable. Their recognition and increased respect has in turn inspired younger artists to carry on the traditions of their culture.
Currently a Research Collaborator for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Judith’s journey began with a Canadian government grant which allowed her to spend 7 weeks traveling on her own all over the arctic, then lecturing and judging art exhibitions, meeting with Inuit Arts and crafts Association, hosting Inuit artists in the United States, and eating raw caribou for dinner.