By Bob Duncan
Photos by Mark Featherly
Noted for his highly detailed realistic busts, John Burke’s biggest contribution to the world of woodcarving is the impact he has had on other carvers. John has been teaching carving for more than 20 years. John pioneered many of the methods used to teach woodcarving and his techniques have influenced many of today’s top carvers.
When John was in his thirties, a friend who carved Harold Enlow-style caricatures gave him a knife and wood, and encouraged him to give carving a shot. John started carving and never looked back.
“I ended up cutting myself more than anything else, but I kept with it and gradually improved. I’m never going to quit woodcarving,” John said. “Woodcarving is something I plan to do until I wake up cold. I intend on doing this in whatever capacity I can for as long as possible.”
John’s carving career really took off after he started carving with mallets and chisels. “Learning to carve with mallets and chisels set something off inside of me,” John said. “I couldn’t stop. Every day I was in the basement carving something—trying to improve.”
Larger tools led to larger carvings. As John’s carving skills improved, people started asking him to share his techniques. “I concentrated on Native American busts,” John said. “I developed a style I could teach that was easy to comprehend.”
“Fairly early on, when people were asking me to show them what I knew, I had to make a decision if I was going to teach or stay on my own and develop my skills.” John added. “I really enjoy working with people and helping other people get better.” Most of John’s class projects center on frontier life: mountain men, gunfighters, and Native Americans. John challenges himself by creating a new project for every class. “I hate repetition,” John said. “So I try to never do the same project twice. That way my students have more of a one-of-a-kind piece.”
“I’m constantly designing new pieces. When I tell a student they need to take a little more off the top, I mean the carving is too shallow,” John explained. “I always tell people that you never know how far you can go with a carving until you ruin it. Woodcarving is a take-away medium; it’s difficult to take too much off. As you go in deeper, you can change the shape of the piece even more. It looks better and better until you run out of wood,” said John.
John also created the Burke Sharpening System, which is one of the most popular power-sharpening systems available. “Everyone was limited to the slow old way of sharpening tools with a stone, which works well, but is difficult to learn to do correctly,” John said. “Some people were grinding their tools on electric grinders and burning their tools. I did a lot of experimenting to determine the minimum process to get tools sharp. I kept it simple and broke it down into three stages: shape, sharpen, and hone. It’s been very successful.”
According to carving instructor and author Mary-Ann Jack-Bleach, John promoted the art of woodcarving without even realizing it. “I think John is the true father of woodcarving in the United States and in some parts of Canada,” Mary-Ann said. “He was the one who started the figure and bust carving classes. His method of teaching has been copied by many of the great teachers he helped develop along the way. You won’t find a more generous man in terms of sharing his incredible wealth of carving and artistic knowledge.”
Author and instructor Jeff Phares attributes his carving career to John. “If it wasn’t for John and Joe Wannamaker, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Jeff said. “A lot of carvers wouldn’t be doing what they are doing now without John. I consider him family. John hired me as an assistant teacher for three years and gave me my own class in 1991. I’ve been teaching ever since.”
According to Desiree Hajny, the 2003 Woodcarving Illustrated Woodcarver of the Year and an emeritus member of the Caricature Carvers of America, John and his wife, Nancy, have worked hard to promote the art of woodcarving. “John introduced me to various tools and helped me learn to maintain my tools,” Desiree said. “Although I’ve never taken a formal class from John, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could from him and Nancy.”
“It’s been a number of years since I visited John’s workshop in rural Nebraska,” Alan Giagnocavo, publisher of Woodcarving Illustrated, said. “It’s the type of place where you can easily lose yourself for a few hours. Non-carvers may find it a bit odd or even scary—reference boxes of animal skulls and bones, air-driven impact wrenches sporting big sharp chisels, twisted stumps and other funky found wood. I guess that’s part of this award—recognition and affirmation from the community of woodcarvers who share the same appreciation for such things.”
John’s dedication to the art of woodcarving shows not only in his teaching, but also in his writing. John is the author of three books: Carving the American Indian, Carving America’s Legends, and Buffalo Dreamers.
Update: John ended his battle with cancer on January 29th, 2010. He is missed by many, and his name remains synonymous with western art.