At home in a spacious grove west of Blue Ridge Road, Julia Burr creates freewheeling sculptured pieces in harmony with the ebb and flow of her surroundings.
What makes her life’s journey unique is that she came to her calling purely by serendipity. Of course, like any pursuit that feels right, there were signs and signals.
“I was a Texas girl,” she said, “born and bred in Texarkana. Always playing, always making things. Tree houses, forts. Total impulse. Just being outside as much as anything else. And putting together contraptions and pretend secret agent stuff with screws and wire and wood that looked like it could do things.”
As a child, she also took a class making collages and pottery. Throughout her childhood, she was creating something that wasn’t there. She recalls being fascinated when the cartoonist on the Woody Woodpecker TV show began a drawing that escaped the boundaries of the frame and came alive. But she had no idea how that process related to her, but she felt that it did.
Later in life, she found herself in Knoxville, Tennessee. She crossed paths with a guidance counselor at the University of Tennessee who happened to mention they offered 300 classes in all kinds of art, such as painting, sculpture, graphic design, pottery and ceramics. Almost simultaneously, she received a phone call from home.
“It was my dad,” she recalled, “saying, since I was up there in that university atmosphere, was there any chance I’d like to go. So I started as an art major, and my undergraduate work changed my life. It was the freedom to make things that didn’t have a function, that what was in my imagination had value. It was huge that I got recognition for what my mind did since I was a kid. Most people in sculpture classes would make something very blocky. I would bring other elements into it and make it more expansive, floating out into the air - breaking out of the box because I never saw the box or even knew I was supposed to stay there.”
She became the first art student at the university to major in sculpture. All told, six people out of an enrollment of 30,000 were selected as having the “Most Professional Promise.” Burr was later told she was the first woman and only art student to have ever been awarded that honor.
“A lot of people in my department were misfits,” she said. “But when you find your voice, you find your place. You find that this is how I communicate.”
Burr went on to receive her master’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts which, as she puts it, is “the granddaddy of conceptual art.”
With the economy booming, she found work in Hollywood at Cinnabar, a renegade prop and set company engaged in special effects. She later did design work for The Hard Rock Café and traveled all over the world. She built a transformer for a Michael Jackson dance piece and created winged sculptures for his Neverland Ranch. Later, when the Cinnabar shop moved to Orlando to work on theme park and film projects, Burr was ready to let go of commercial work to create her own art and home.
How she chose the Swannanoa Valley is another case of serendipity. Back in her Knoxville days, she visited the area on one of her exploratory road trips.
“Something made my heart pound, and I knew I was home,” she said. “All these creeks that meander and hit the rocks, you can see trout swimming and climb the rocks up into the mountains and make more discoveries. It was like when I was a kid - you go see what you can find.”
While in Orlando, she asked her longtime partner to take a trip to find the perfect spot to settle down. Without any guidance, her partner chose the Swannanoa Valley. And they’ve been here ever since.
“Finding things in these acres of ours I think are cool, collecting and using (them) over the years, watching things grow and change and evolve - I’m making the best art I’ve ever made,” Burr said.
You can see her work in the railings at Pack Square in Asheville and at jcburr.com.
Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.