The Science of Art: A Conversation with Artist Kathy Burk
Yellowstone’s hydrothermal wonders are one of the main reasons it was set aside as the world’s first national park. The park is well-known for its 10,000+ thermal features include hot springs, mud pots, travertine terraces, fumaroles, and the world’s greatest concentration of geysers. Hot springs, in particular, are known for their remarkable colors and they are typically described using such words as vivid, brilliant, vibrant, and bright. These are also some of the words used to describe the kiln glass artwork of Kathy Burk. Kathy designs and creates bowls, platters, dishes, and other glasswork inspired by the colors in the thermal pools of Yellowstone National Park.
As a kid growing up in Salt Lake City, Kathy frequently visited Yellowstone with her family and fell in love with the animals in the park. In 2010, Kathy and her family moved to Bozeman. Helping her kids with their science homework re-ignited her love of Yellowstone, especially its geology. Learning what happens when molten lava touches the earth and how it cracks and fissures made her realize there are many similarities to the fused glass she was playing with as an artist. In 2015, she joined our “Inspired by Yellowstone Artist Series” after a Yellowstone representative saw her work at local shows in Montana.
Kathy comes from an extensive fine art background and she has a BFA in interior design. Her career as a glass artist began when she was practicing interior design commercially and could never find lighting she liked, so she designed a lamp. “When I went to the stained glass store to figure out how to make the lampshade, I was just amazed with all the different colors. I fell in love with all the glass – what it looks like with and without light from behind – and that was the beginning of my career as a glass artist.”
The colors in Yellowstone come from thermophiles—”thermo” for heat, “phile” for lover. Thermophilic bacteria in Yellowstone National Park thrive in temperatures ranging from 30–72°C (86–162°F). An abundance of individual thermophiles together appear as masses of brilliant color. Different types of thermophiles live at different specific temperatures within a hot spring and cannot tolerate much cooler or warmer conditions. Yellowstone’s hot water systems often show distinct gradations of living, vibrant colors where the temperature limit of one group of microbes is reached, only to be replaced by another group.
The colors in Kathy’s artwork comes from minerals also found in Yellowstone. “I play a lot with the reactions between sulfur-bearing and copper-bearing glass.” Starting with a clear piece of glass as a base, Kathy then layers various colors of glass on top. Depending on the hydrothermal feature she is trying to replicate, she may use up to six layers of glass to get the colors correct. Using multiple layers of glass brings out the effect of depth in her work, which makes it seem as if you are gazing down into the pools. She adds silver to create a halo effect and mimic what the calcifications look like around the edge of the pools.
When exposed to heat, a reaction occurs when fusing the sulfur-bearing and copper-bearing glass together. The layers meld into a single flat piece of glass after going into the kiln the first time. That flat sheet of glass is then placed on top of a mold and heated again so it will “slump” and take the shape of the mold.
Part of the fun Kathy has with her glasswork is experimenting with recipes using different layers of different colors to try to get the correct look of the pool she is trying to replicate. “As I get bigger and larger pieces, they may go in to the kiln two or three times to fuse them together to get the effects I want.”
Kathy takes the time to learn from geologists in the park and then infuses that knowledge into her art. In addition, she loves to share that scientific knowledge with admirers of her work. The beauty of using heat and minerals means that each piece Kathy creates is unique. “Each design is different. Each one is handmade, so no two will be alike.” This is because glass heats up at different rates and if it heats up or cools off too fast, it can crack. Very similar to how hot molten lava spills out onto the earth and cracks when it cools off to form fissures in the earth. However, Kathy’s challenges is to replicate the look of those naturally occurring cracks and fissures without her glass actually cracking.
Kathy merges art and science with the goal of giving people a thermal pool they can touch and take home. “When you look at some of these, you’ll see the features in my glass artwork from Yellowstone National Park. It’s a great token to take home and hopefully bring back those wonderful memories you had in the park.”
Kathy’s original artwork—including platters, bowls, plates and more are available online and in our gift stores at Old Faithful Inn and Lake Hotel. Want a peek into Kathy’s process? Check out our Facebook interview with Kathy on location at her home studio.
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Want to experience Yellowstone in depth? See what makes Yellowstone National Park a great place to work for a season or longer!