'The Alchemy of Dawn' draws inspiration from mountains' magic

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Many are filled with awe when they look at the mountains that surround the Swannanoa Valley. Something as mundane as the sun rising can feel like a work of magic.

That’s a thought worth pondering at the new art installation on the south side of Veterans Park. “The Alchemy of Dawn” is the latest work by Black Mountain sculptor Julia C. Burr. The piece, made possible by an anonymous donor, will be dedicated at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 19.

Burr is no stranger to crafting visually appealing and mentally stimulating art for public consumption. Her work can be found in Pack Square in downtown Asheville and in highly visible areas in Greensboro and Roanoke, Virginia, among other places.

Julia C. Burr and her sculpture "The Alchemy of Dawn," which was installed in March and will be dedicated on April 19.

“The Alchemy of Dawn” is her second public art installation in Black Mountain within a year. “Wild Things,” unveiled last March on the Riverwalk Greenway, was the first.

Both pieces were made possible when a friend of Black Mountain Greenway Commission member Amy Parker wanted to do something to support the trail system.

“The person, who does want to remain anonymous, was a fan of what Black Mountain was doing with its greenway system,” she said. “So she gave a $10,000 grant for the first piece.”

The same donor renewed her offer for a second piece and has committed to matching public donations for a third piece in 2019, according to Parker.

“I was already familiar with Julia’s work,” Parker said. “She has a lot of experience creating great public art; she’s very efficient and understands all of the (municipal) codes.”

Burr's proficiency as a sculptor has developed over a lengthy career. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from University of Tennessee in 1980 before collecting a Masters of Fine Arts degree from California Institute of the Arts two years later. 

"I took that MFA out to the entertainment industry out in Los Angeles," Burr said. "I was out there during the heyday of special effects. I was the only woman doing what I was doing" - designing and fabricating exhibits and props for museums, film and television.

There, Burr worked for Cinnabar, a company founded in 1982 to provide designing and building services for museums, television and movie sets. 

"The founder of the company (Jonathan Katz) was a visionary," she said. "He sort of plucked the best of the best in special effects and prop making."

Burr worked for the company for nearly a decade. 

Julia C. Burr's sculpture "Wild Things" was unveiled on the Riverwalk Greenway on March 17, 2017.

"That experience taught me the importance of staying on budget, making it perfect and having the work done yesterday," she said. "I learned how to be fearless with materials."

Burr spent time in Atlanta before moving to Orlando, where she created permanent installations for Disney, Sea World and Universal Studios. 

"It was a whole different way of thinking than what I did in L.A., where we were designing for commercials that only lasted for a short period of time," she said. "Things (in Orlando) had to be engineered to sustain strong winds. The motto became 'why build when you can overbuild?'"

Burr and her wife of 32 years, Jessica Klarp, were ready for a change. They came to Black Mountain, where Burr focuses on creating fine art and Klarp is the program coordinator for the Black Mountain Center for the Arts. 

The mountain setting has proven to be a rich source for Burr. 

She was thrilled when Black Mountain asked her to create a sculpture for the local greenway system. "Wild Things," which could be described as a metal nest-like structure on an angled steel beam, reflects the natural landscape. A grouping of bright green eggs add a splash of color. 

The setting for "The Alchemy of Dawn" - panoramic views, rolling hills and the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden - contrasts sharply with the heavily wooded spot when "Wild Things" stands. Burr wanted to enhance that dramatic backdrop with a piece that fits the space proportionately and inspires thought. 

"I walk here in this spot with my dogs all the time," she said, standing in the shadow of her latest work. "I have never not been thrilled by the vastness here."

Burr carefully contemplated how to best use the space. Her idea and design took longer than it took to build the metal, glass and concrete structure.The magic of the landscape and the science of nature clashed in her mind, which is reflected in numerous themes in the sculpture. 

"The thing to me about making art is that you think about it before and you think about it afterward, but while you're making it, you just want to be thinking about making it," Burr said. 

The finished product is framed by the scenery - and by thousands of red marbles that, activated by sunlight, radiate color from all angles. 

"We can talk all day about the solstices and all of the things that can be broken down into numbers," Burr said. "But to me, every time the sun comes up, it's magical. It blows my mind that it does it every single day."

It's that feeling that resonated with Burr as she worked on the piece. 

"The more I get to know nature, the more magical it is," she said.