Eyewitness: Jean Burks
Jean Burks says her life was about base metals. Then she got a master’s degree in musicology. Now, she spends a lot of her time thinking about quilts.
There is a logical explanation for all this, and it serves to describe one woman’s unique trajectory as a solver of mysteries, a chronicler of history and a shameless collector of stuff.
Burks, a petite 61-year-old, is the senior curator at the Shelburne Museum, a position she has held since 2006. She had joined the staff in 1995 as curator of decorative arts. “I’ve never been in any place so long,” she marvels, noting that she and her husband have lived “all over the country.”
Aside from possessing the omnivorous curiosity of a reference librarian, Burks has had a lifelong fascination with old objects. She credits her parents for the latter; their idea of a good time was nosing around antique and secondhand shops, and their house corralled an ever-changing assortment of vintage wares. Her mother, Burks says, was fond of candlesticks and continued to “trade up” over the years until she acquired the beautiful Irish silver pair she’d coveted. Burks attributes her own focus on metals to the evolving series on the family’s dining-room table.
Despite this intrigue, she studied Renaissance music at Vassar College and then in a graduate program at Cornell University. That is, until reality sank in: “I realized the PhD was going to take eight years, plus there were no jobs,” Burks says with a wry smile. She left school, got married and moved back home to New York City, where a more promising career path finally dawned on her. “I was spending all this time in antique stores and thrift shops,” she says of her eureka moment. “So I went back to school and got a second master’s, at the Parsons School of Design at Cooper-Hewitt.”
This time, her degree was in the history of European decorative arts, and her thesis had to do with, yes, candlesticks. Specifically, Burks researched and wrote about the “seven mysterious people whose names were on all these products” made in 18th-century Birmingham, England — then an epicenter of manufacturing in Europe.
From base metals, which Burks calls “the workhorses of the decorative arts,” her interests expanded, most notably to Shaker furniture. In fact, she became an expert on that distinctive, spare design. Burks and coauthor Timothy D. Rieman penned three authoritative tomes on the subject, beginning with The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture in 1993.
And the quilts? We’re getting there. The succinct description of Burks’ Shelburne Museum job on her résumé leads the way: “Responsible for the acquisition, publication and interpretation of decorative arts collections, to include furniture (2000), glass (1000), ceramics (3500), metals (4000), textiles (1500 quilts, coverlets, rugs, samplers), recreational artifacts (3000 dolls, dollhouses, toys) and tools (2000).” Talk about multitasking.
“The collections here are so large, so deep and still so unmined,” Burks says. “It’s a collection of collections — you never stop learning.”
In fact, Burks began learning about quilts relatively recently — “just in the last five years,” she notes, adding, “I’m really a 3-D person, so it’s funny that I’m in charge of quilts.” She concedes that tightening budgets at the nonprofit museum have led to personnel attrition over the years, so that staff scholars have had to become more versatile. “There are no longer specific curators for different areas,” she says. “Now it’s just Kory [Rogers, associate curator] and me.”
The two of them split up the textile duties: “Kory took rugs; I took quilts,” she says. “It’s a little daunting, because it takes years to get up to speed. But I’m lucky to have this group of local women who come in and work on our quilt collection.” Technically, the “quilt ladies” work for collections management director Jonathan Wilson in cataloguing, but “they have the historic information, have been around and seen a lot,” Burks says appreciatively. “Their lives are quilts, like my life was candlesticks.”
Burks has embraced her textile charges with a characteristic mixture of academic rigor and a collector’s joy of discovery. When she leads a visitor through this season’s exhibition in the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery, her delight is contagious. And no wonder: The remarkable selection of crazy quilts from the Victorian era into the early 20th century is wildly eclectic, each quilt expressive of its maker’s personality and interests, from little paintings to political ribbons, from birds to what then passed for bling.
“You look at those crazy quilts, and there’s nothing the same,” observes Burks. “They’re like each woman’s scrapbook of her life.” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the corseted, confined ladies of the era getting a kick out of breaking the rules of conventional patterns. “I really appreciate the traditional quilt,” Burks says, “but these just resonate with my soul.”
The quilts on display are selections from the Shelburne’s sizable permanent collection. In a barnlike building on the other side of Route 7, the collections department carefully makes its way through the donations and purchases. Not all are vintage; Burks points out that “Mrs. Webb” — museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb — collected not only antique textiles but quilts made by her contemporaries. That practice continues today. “I’m really interested in design,” Burks says. “That’s why I’m so interested in contemporary quilts.” She dons white gloves and lovingly fingers a recent acquisition, the “Poppies” quilt — one of the “top 100 quilts of the 20th century,” she explains. The nearly 3-D work is unquestionably masterful, a stunning display not only of needlework but of a painterly aesthetic. “Quilts have come off the bed and onto the wall,” Burks says approvingly. “They’re art.”
Burks says she can buy one contemporary quilt a year — she’s already got her eye on a piece in the concurrent Alzheimer’s quilt show in the Round Barn. Provenancewise, the newer quilts have one advantage: Their makers are often still alive. As for the older ones, well, they give Burks more opportunities to continue her “self-guided graduate program” at the Shelburne Museum. While she looks to Webb’s enduring standards for guidance, Burks says her curatorial credo is to “look and look and look at a lot of stuff … and then trust your gut.”