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Christopher Burns: Working with Picasso

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Christopher Burns is a senior English major from Winterport, Maine, who has explored many roles during his years at the University of Maine, but he says his current position at the University of Maine Museum of Art is easily the most rewarding. The museum, located in downtown Bangor, boasts a collection of more than 3,800 works of art and offers free admission six days a week.

“If you had asked me a couple years ago if I would have a chance to carry a Picasso in my arms, I would’ve said no,” says the student literary magazine editor and aspiring writer.

What’s your role at the Museum of Art?
I’m a student administrative assistant. One of my primary roles is in guest relations, so as people come in, I greet them, make them feel welcome at the museum and let them know whose work is on display. That means telling them what makes it significant or unique, or telling the story behind it. It’s about helping people understand and make the most of their experience with the art. I also help put together the announcements and whatnot. Everything works collaboratively there — everyone helps with every part of the process — so since I’m an English major and have done a lot of writing and editing, they ask me to look over stuff. It’s great to be able to take part in almost every stage of the museum process.

Do you have the opportunity to work directly with the pieces?
I’ve helped install two shows so far, and there’ll be probably at least two more that I’ll be able to help work on. I remember when I was first asked to work on the process; I asked if I could help, and they said “sure, just put these gloves on and start bringing some paintings in here so we can wrap them up.” I thought, “Uh, am I qualified for this? I mean, I think you need some kind of special education to handle precious art, but okay, let’s do this.”

A couple years ago, I would’ve said there’s probably not a Picasso within a couple hundred miles of here, and it turns out there are several not even twenty miles away.

What do you think while you’re handling such incredible pieces?
That’s sort of an otherworldly experience. Holding a Picasso in your hands and realizing “this is worth probably more than I’ll ever be.” It’s like seeing the Ark of the Covenant or beholding Zeus, and it’s just right there in your hands.

What can you say about the museum’s collection?
There are 3,800 pieces in the permanent collection. It’s really great to have a chance to be around that kind of work. You can make a checklist of fine artists and you’re just going to accumulate a huge list of them all in that one collection. I think letting people know about that helps reinforce the value of the museum. A really unique place, and that’s one reason why I’m so glad to have the opportunity to work there. It’s probably the best northernmost collection in the United States.

How did you come to the museum?
I actually gained access to the Museum of Art through the Maine Edge when I was covering the art and culture beat. I was seeing the programs and shows the museum was putting on and I started getting to know the people there. When August came around, one of the old work studies mentioned the museum would be looking for people to fill in and suggested I should talk to the assistant museum coordinator.

How do you think you’ve benefited from working there?
Having the opportunity to see and work with great art is eye-opening. There is this larger, beautiful world out there, and much of it is right there, just feet away from me while I work. It shows you how much this area has to offer — and how much the university itself really has to offer. It’s one of the best services that the university provides to the state. We try to emphasize that — this is in line with the land grant mission for the university: to serve the citizens of Maine.

Has your time at the museum influenced your plans after graduation?
I’ve been considering trying to make it into newswriting business. I’d like to write about art and culture — to highlight and share these places and events with other people, and make it accessible to people. Art has its own specialized language, and oftentimes people, especially with modern art, look at it and don’t understand it. Being able to write about art and culture for a newspaper, magazine or journal could help contextualize things for people in a way they can understand.

An example would be when I had the opportunity to cover an intermedia MFA show for the Maine Campus. There was a display with a bunch of broken pencils and pens, and someone might wonder how they should understand that. When you really break through it, it’s an act of anthropology where you’re studying a group or culture by the items they throw away. Each pencil could be broken, be never used, or have the eraser chewed away. It all gives you insight into the mind of the person who owned it. Those little details tell you a lot about people.

What brought you to UMaine?
I guess economy and geography worked well. This was more affordable than some of the other options I had, and it’s located near my support networks, so it’s a win-win in that respect. In the past two years, I’ve taken a lot more out of being here than in my first two years. Once I started to find more of the opportunities that would allow me to further myself, I started to realize how much there is to offer here at UMaine.

Did you start finding opportunities through a particular experience or person?
The moment that changed everything for me was in Neville Hall. I happened to be going past one of my professor’s offices, and he called me in and asked me to sit down. Then he said that he had recommended me to be the fiction editor for the English Department’s magazine, The Open Fields. He said I should think about it before saying yes — and I was saying yeah, I’ll think about it, but I already knew I was going to do it. Then from there everything kind of blossomed — one thing led to another thing. The Open Fields brought me to working for the Maine Edge, and I was with them for several months before starting with the museum.

What draws you to writing?
There is more to English than Charles Dickens. I realized there is an industry as well, which is supported by the stalwart soldiers of the English departments across the country. That really got me thinking I had to find other venues for writing, and so I found the Maine Edge. That was my school of hard knocks in news and culture writing.

I consider myself a lifelong learner, so that’s another reason I want to be a writer. You have to commit yourself and learn your subject well if you’re going to write about it with any sort of conviction or authority. If you’re going to write about an art show, you need to know about the artist. If you want to write about new legislation, you have to read the legislation. For everything, you have to know the context it’s coming from, so you have the opportunity to learn about a diverse array of subjects.

What do you enjoy most about UMaine?
I’ve made quite a few good friends in my time here, from students to faculty and people behind the scenes. There’s a really great supporting staff that works endlessly to make it possible for professors to do their jobs and make it possible for students to keep learning. I’ll give a shout-out to the secretaries and administrative assistants who are sending emails, making sure everything’s coming in on time, and making sure you get to where you need to be.

Do you think you’ll stay in Maine after graduation?
I’ve thought about it. I do love the state, for all the good and all the ill. Travis Baker’s play at the Penobscot Theater right now, One Blue Tarp, is a good illustration of the state. There’s always a conflict between the perceptions of a place. There’s a whole history here — you have the unknown river drivers, people who suffered a lot, but also people who made it big here — Joshua Chamberlain, Hannibal Hamlin, and the likes of them. There’s a great literary and art scene. If I can make an honest living for myself, where I feel content with where I am, then yes I’ll stay here. Being within a stone’s throw of Katahdin — it’d be nice to say that’s my backyard.

Do you have any advice to offer students following your footsteps?
Think about what you love. Your first year is a good time to explore to see where you fit in best. After that, it comes to a point where you have to make a choice. Like Hamlet’s dilemma, you can’t stay indecisive forever. You have to pave your own path. There’ll be times of questioning, but you have to do the best you can to keep that in check. You’ll have bad times along with the good times, but eventually, if you keep going, you’ll have earned your way into the world.

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