MSU Professor/Artist Balances Art and Life Using "Seven Colours"

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018, 9:48 am
Sarah Spohn

Above: Burley's "Trafalgar Square, London"

Artist Jon Burley’s collection of oil paintings, “Seven Colours,” will be on display at east arbor architecture + gallery (the business uses all lower case letters stylistically) from Feb. 7 to March 23. There will be an Exhibition Opening: Wednesday, February 7, 5:00-8:00pm.

East arbor architecture + gallery is nestled within the Michigan Energy Options building on Grove Street in East Lansing. Curator Amanda Harrell-Seyburn spoke about what sets the space apart.

“We’re unique because we’re an architecture firm who also has a gallery, and that’s not typical,” Harrell-Seyburn said. “We have a passion for the arts, a passion for designing art spaces, and places to view and make art.”

Harrell-Seyburn brings years of expertise in architecture, art history, and curating for galleries in Chicago, London, Detroit, and now East Lansing.

Michigan State University School of Planning, Design, and Construction Landscape professor Jon Burley has had a relationship with art for decades. Until recently, the 62-year-old was never really concerned with having his work displayed in a gallery setting. His strategy was to focus on his academic work, and paint whatever subjects he wanted. He wasn’t worried about selling pieces. Though many people had suggesting showing his paintings, Burley said that was not part of his journey.

After meeting Daniel Bollman and Amanda Harrell-Seyburn of east arbor architecture + gallery, Burley knew East Lansing provided the perfect backdrop for his work to be shown.

“Whether people notice it or not, the East Lansing area is sort of like its own special art world,” Burley said. “People will say Minneapolis is, or some place in New Mexico is. I sort of feel like the central Michigan area is the same kind of little hotbed of all these interesting people doing their own thing. I’m just one teeny weeny little part of all the characters and individuals, and people that have their voices. What’s nice is people like Dan and Amanda, which provide an opportunity to experience those voices.”

East arbor architecture + gallery’s strong focus on solo shows, rather than group collections is one of its distinguishing characteristics, according to Harrell-Seyburn.

Above: Burley's Parthenon Acropolis, Athens

“It’s really fun to work with single artists, because you get to know them really well,” she said. “You get to know the work really well, and you can tell the story of the artist and the work to the public, which is really important, in a way that can get lost in a group show.

She even takes it upon herself to visit the artists in their studios – something she learned from her training in London. Although it’s typically not done by other local curators (and Burley admits, he thought it was a strange request) Harrell-Seyburn says she would never curate an exhibit without a visit to the artist first.

“It gives you a couple of opportunities to see them in their personal space. You also get to see other work that they’ve done. It gives you ideas about future shows. It also just makes my advocating for them richer because I’ve seen them in their context.”

For Burley, art and life is all about balance and duality. Just as Monet travelled to the city of Paris to paint, and retreated back to his home in Giverny, Burley enjoys both the city and country lifestyles.

“I discovered in my life, I need to be in both of those worlds,” Burley said. “If I was only up in the woods, I’d be really unhappy. If I’m only in East Lansing, I’d be really unhappy. It’s just like if I could only do my research papers (and I’ve got around 400 now), I’d be really unhappy. If I could only do my paintings, I would be really unhappy. But if I can do both, I’m happy.”

“Seven Colours” is a body of work inspired by Burley’s travels with his architecture students to European countries, including France, England, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Greece.

Burley’s techniques are reminiscent of the Fauvist artistic movement, in which artists like Matisse used "the unnatural color.” Forty years ago, Burley was at a painting workshop in Minnesota, where artist Hazel Belvo recommended that he mix colors together, rather than using many separate colors in his work. This way, his subjects would appear to be in the same light. Since that time, Burley’s been following that advice and limited his palette of colors to green, blue, yellow, red, white, purple, and magenta.

Above: Burley's Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

“I just discovered long ago, 40 years ago, I liked using the wrong color,” Burley said. “When I see people learning to paint, they literally try to paint what they’re seeing. There will be grey in there, and there’s no life in the painting; it’s drab.”

Harrell-Seyburn enjoys “Seven Colours” because the paintings span decades of travel with students, and features unexpected viewpoints from well-known public places, buildings and plazas. On postcards, statues and architectures look perfect, but in reality, they’re covered with many tourists, onlookers and remain under construction – something Burley leaves in his pieces.

“Most artists would paint the monuments and the building landscape, but they wouldn’t necessarily paint their students, and what their behavior patterns are,” she said.

To Burley, that’s what makes it personal.

“I haven’t seen most of those people since about 1998, that’s 20 years. I miss them all, they’re a great group of people. The only thing I have left is that painting. It’s not for sale, it’s for me to remember.”

Since the City of East Lansing owns the building, the gallery doesn’t rely on art sales to make ends meet, and that is not a requirement for exhibits. For Harrell-Seyburn, the goal of exhibits and events is to increase awareness of the gallery, and to encourage visitors to educate themselves on architecture, energy education, and art – all under one roof.

“Seven Colours” will be on display from Feb. 7 to March 23, 2018. The gallery is open Monday – Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. For more information, contact

East arbor architecture + gallery is located at 405 Grove Street in East Lansing. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info