Artist finds his niche in a box of crayons

Nude women and nuns marked the early years. Dripping wax characterizes the later era.

Published August 25, 2006

WESLEY CHAPEL - Bill Burtnett's first exploit as an artist didn't go so well. As a boy growing up in a Catholic family in Pennsylvania, he began tracing women in comic books. Without their clothes, of course.

He passed the drawings around to his buddies until his mother found out and promptly sent him to a nearby convent, where the nuns cracked him over the hands with a ruler. They tried to teach him the story of the Garden of Eden. "How do you know it was an apple?" a defiant young Burtnett asked.

The nuns weren't amused. "They went bananas," he said.

Jump to 60 years later, long after Burtnett has retired from a life of restoring antique cars and dealing in real estate. About a year and a half ago, the 69-year-old grandfather got the art bug again and began collecting every kind of medium he could cram into his little studio. He bought watercolor paints and charcoal pens from garage sales and began taking art classes.

He did a portrait of himself in a race car, a painting of hibiscus, a graphite drawing of an old man. It nearly bored him to tears. "Everybody does this stuff," he said.

He did an oil painting of a ladybug. "Someone said, 'Oh, that's just like Andy Warhol.' I couldn't stand it."

Someone likened his mixed-media collage depicting Hurricane Katrina to some other artist's work, which drove Burtnett crazy.

Then came the meltdown.

One day, Burtnett came home to find one of his wife's red candles melted into a grotesque shape and spilled all over its crystal stand. A cinnamon-scented epiphany.

Burtnett went out and bought a bunch of candles and experimented with dripping them over a cookie sheet, which didn't turn out well because the candles were colorless inside. He moved on to crayons. With a small torch, he melted the brilliant colors in splotches and drips, a technique that worked so beautifully on canvas, he went out and bought as many boxes of crayons from dollar stores as he could find.

He noticed that the finished work became brittle and crackly when it dried, so he perfected his art by coating the canvas in resin at the end. It gave his paintings of flowers and long, drippy lines a glassy sheen.

"Gee, it's just gorgeous," Burtnett said. "I'm impressed. I really am."

Others are too, apparently. Some have admired about 25 pieces of his artwork on display on both floors of the Visual Arts building at Ybor City's Hillsborough Community College campus to be shown through Sept. 29, and two of his pieces were selected to hang in Mirta's Gallery CoffeeHouse on Hyde Park Avenue.

Most of his paintings are of flowers: fields of flowers, flowers on strings, black and blue flowers, green and pink flowers. One of his paintings is a vibrant, busy smattering of smashed-together flowers, titled How Love Feels.

One painting, Just Dots, lists a price of $400, and another, More Dots, is going for $900.

He has colorful nonflower paintings, such as a beach scene (The Beach, $1,900) and a large peacock (Guard Bird, $1,600). He uses darker colors in Black Rain and Nuclear Winter.

At Mirta's Gallery, the two large canvases on display are more typical of his style - the kaleidoscopic strings of flowers, the splashy colors. Two budding artists and musicians working there thought they were interesting.

"I love it," said Ashleigh Addison, 23. "I asked him if he was doing anything besides flowers and he said he was working on some sunsets and sunrises, so I'm excited to see that."

"I like that it's so unbecoming," said Rama Jordan, 24, who knew of Burtnett through her art classes at HCC. "An older man painting flowers with crayons. And it works!"

Burtnett, who belongs to the New Tampa-based North Tampa Arts League, hopes to continue perfecting his hot wax technique, which he has never seen or heard of anywhere else. Never one to follow another's style, he has found a new passion to add to his collection of ornate antique chandeliers and lamps, which hang all over his large, two-story stucco home, along with more than a dozen wooden Cherokee masks and some neon beer signs.

He doesn't care if anyone buys his stuff. He doesn't need the money. He simply enjoys making artwork and sharing it with anyone who will look or listen.

A sign hanging with his artwork in the HCC building tells his story: "When I recently began an attempt to become an artist, I found that it was not easy ..."

A large mixed-media piece there, one of his few nonwax ones on display, tells a story that goes further back than that.

Among the scribbles and scraps of paper, one can make out a rubbing of women's and men's restroom signs, recognizable from the man and woman and handicapped symbols. There is a large serpent snaking up the canvas. Between the male and female symbols is a picture of a banana.

The painting is titled Garden of Eden.

Emily Nipps can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com