“Geography is my muse”: Mural artist Erik Burke taps into the spiritual heart of the Driftless Region, and of Lansing, with “Reverse Effigy” at Main Street Plaza

Before and after ... The two images above show how the building wall bordering the east side of the renovated Main Street Plaza in Lansing has been transformed from its original plain white existence (top photo) to the colorful mural (bottom photo) created by Reno, NV artist Eric Burke, who is pictured at the very bottom of the photo displaying his mural creation. The mural was the final piece of the renovation of that Plaza area undertaken by Main Street Lansing and the City of Lansing. Submitted photos.

Mural artist ... Eric Burke, an internationally-known artist from Reno, NV, was selected to paint the mural at the Main Street Plaza in Lansing. One of three professional artists pursued to create a design for the project, Burke’s design was selected for its connection of Lansing to the local environment and the spiritual character of the Driftless region. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

Presenters’ work depicted in the Plaza mural ... As part of the Friday, August 11 celebration of completion of the Main Street Plaza project in Lansing, remarks and presentations were given by a trio of individuals whose work is represented on the new mural (part of which can be seen in the photo background above) that graces the east side of the newly renovated Plaza. Pictured above, left to right, are Amy Ries, with the Raptor Resource Project; Susan Snow, Superintendent of Effigy Mounds National Monument; and David Kester, with the Raptor Resource Project. The mural includes an image of a peregrine falcon soaring over some of the burial mounds that Effigy Mounds National Monument is most noted for. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

After an extended conversation with artist Erik Burke - whose mural, “Reverse Effigy,” commissioned by Main Street Lansing in 2022, is now the aesthetic centerpiece of the recently completed Main Street Plaza in downtown Lansing, it’s easy for people to feel like they’ve made a new friend. He’s just that kind of guy: Down-to-earth, friendly, funny, interested in the people and places he meets on his travels. And make no mistake: His travels and his artwork go hand-in-hand. “I love traveling - going to new places,” Burke says. “It could be a 20-minute drive and I meet the right person, at the right time - or wrong time, sometimes. Sometimes, the wrong time is the right time.” These are the words of someone who is open to whatever new thing there is to learn, along his way. “There’s just nothing like traveling,” he says. “It’s like being outside yourself and kind of re-discovering yourself and what’s important to you.”

Despite his peripatetic nature, one thing that remains important to Burke is the place he still calls home: Reno, NV. Born there in 1978, he lives there with his family - his wife, Meryl, and their daughter, McCamman, age 8, and son, Houston, age 5. “I tried to move away countless times,” he says. “I just can’t get out of it.” The place of his birth is a land of great contrasts, he says – “Gigantic mountains. Tons of snow. Desert.” When he describes his love of painting, he speaks of it in terms of feeling connected to the earth: “We pull pigments out of the ground. It’s probably part of my DNA; I love the idea that you mix together these minerals and rocks, and make it all look like what you’re looking at …” It’s no wonder that, as he says, “geography is my muse.”

Former Main Street Lansing Board President Bruce Palmborg (to whom Burke pays a bit of playful homage in “Reverse Effigy”) and Lansing artist Fred Easker were looking for “an artist of national reputation” when, after considering several artists’ submissions, they selected Burke to paint the mural that would provide the aesthetic centerpiece for the newly completed Main Street Plaza in downtown Lansing. “Located on the Mississippi River in the far northeast corner of Iowa, Lansing is in a unique geological area named the Driftless,” Easker wrote in the project description offered to potential artists. “The Lansing area is included in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and is home to hundreds of wildlife - deer, turkey, beaver, muskrat, eagles, falcons … Before the earliest European explorers found and used the Mississippi to establish trade routes that evolved into major transportation systems, the river supported indigenous populations for centuries. These early people left behind mounds in the shapes of bears, fish and falcons that remain scattered on the tops of the tree-covered limestone bluffs …”

Burke’s submission for the mural project, according to a statement he wrote about the mural, is a combination of “familiar and historical pieces of the environment into a new tapestry punctuated by color. Painted from a bird’s eye view, a peregrine falcon soars high above an effigy mound of luminous greens abstracted by softly spray-painted Prairie Shooting Stars, Snowy Goldenrod, Echinacea, Milkweed, and Water Lilies. In the painting, past and present, macro and micro, all merge. Pigments dance like stained glass without edges.” In order to translate the drawing to the side of the building in the creation of the 48-foot by 22-foot mural, Burke says he sketched it onto the wall - “using,” he says, “the windows as little spatial hints that tightened it up, just using the mock-up as a reference. As I got into the lower details of the flower I used a grid, but kind of unconventionally - I put a piece of tape every two feet, to show the intersection of where a grid would be. It’s pretty minimal, but effective - and makes things more fluid and less rigid.”

Kicking off Lansing’s Fish Days festival this year, a public ribbon-cutting celebration and “unveiling” of the new plaza and mural was held Friday, August 11. The celebration featured speakers from both Effigy Mounds National Monument and the Raptor Resource Project. In her presentation during the celebration, Effigy Mounds National Monument Superintendent Susan Snow talked about recent and ongoing projects being undertaken at Effigy Mounds (For more information about these projects, visit www.nps.gov/efmo); and she expressed her admiration for the new mural. “I am happy to be part of such an important community celebration,” she said. “The mural reflects the importance of the history of this area for all of us who continue to live in this area … Th(is) land represents a sacred landscape that preserves these mounds and provides habitat for peregrine falcons, cerulean warblers, bald eagles, rusty patch bumble bee, deer, muskrat, and more. The land of the monument sits within the Neutral Zone which is a reminder of the forced movement of many different tribes from place to place as European and American colonization displaced people from their traditional lands. We are conscious of our responsibility to preserve this landscape for our 19 affiliated tribal nations as well as the general public. The power of this place to shape our consciousness and understanding of the world is not limited to those whose ancestors built these mounds but is something that we all experience. This connection to the land and sense of peace is something that shapes how we interact with the world wherever we are.”

Amy Ries and David Kester, of the Raptor Resource Project, also spoke during the celebration. Ries sent a note to Burke, who was unable to attend the celebration, following the event. “It’s hard for me to express how much the mural meant to Dave and me,” she wrote. “We have been involved in peregrine falcon recovery since meeting Bob Anderson, the man who produced the first peregrine to return and breed mid-continent following the species’ extirpation. He also identified the bird mounds at Effigy Mounds as peregrine falcons, an animal very important to the people who built them, and initiated a series of peregrine falcon releases from Effigy Mounds National Monument that brought the species back to their historic eyries on the cliffs of the Mississippi River. “Twenty-five years after our peregrine falcon releases began, Lansing is a center of peregrine falcon activity in the Driftless, with at least three pairs nesting within or very near to the city. The little but mighty falcon is an extraordinary bird with long-standing historic and cultural ties to the Lansing area. We could not be more thrilled to see it so beautifully painted in the mural.” (For more information about the Raptor Resource Project, visit www.raptorresource.org).

After being informed about the success of the Plaza ribbon-cutting celebration and mural “unveiling,” Burke sent a brief note to the reporter who had interviewed him about his work: “That is such positive news, to hear the mural was received so well!” he wrote. “Thank you for keeping me ‘in the know’ of the event. I wish I could’ve been there.” The travel-loving artist - who, at only 44 years of age, has already been all over the world, from Mexico to Haiti, Ukraine to Herzegovina, creating works of public art  - had moved on by that point, though: Home, first, to family and to the land from which he can’t seem to stay away for long. “There are so many amazing places to see, just in ‘America,’” he says. “But there are so many places in the world to see.”

Erik Burke creates place-specific murals throughout the world. His latest work can be seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Italy, and closer to home in Reno. His work has been published in the book ‘Street Art; The Best Urban Art from Around the World’, The Huffington Post, and the NY Times. He enjoys time with his family and living where there are no mosquitoes. For more information about the artist and his work, visit his website at eriktburke.com.