ver time it seemed to take over my life, but honestly I'm not completely sure when I first got involved with Burton History Trees. I think it was something like four years ago that I took a real look at it and decided to dedicate some of my time to it. At that point I was in school and doing some free-lance web-design and development.
My idea was to see if we could come up with a good way of adapting the digital age to what Bruce Burton had been doing since the late 70’s. Bruce had taken decades to develop his style and technique. So it isn’t surprising that even after four years, I have only begun to make a contribution to the art itself with the Blackhawks Tree, and perhaps my small Brasil World Cup Bonzai... but I'm getting way ahead of my self, let's go back to the beginning.
The original hand made family tree of the 80's
The story for me starts with Eric Fine, a good friend from college, who was working in the restaurant and hospitality industry. It was through him that I was able to land various free-lance opportunities as a web-designer and developer. Tonight, however, he had something much more extensive in mind.
It started when Eric and I pulled into Meier's Tavern in the town of Glenview. The trip to the north shore suburbs was a refreshing change from the newer places you find in my neighborhood in the south loop. The interior was a casual greenish gold and had a nice vintage allure to it. Eric ordered us a round of "Dab" beer. That square chunky mug fit nicely in front of me and the gleaming letters of the label sparkled green and bronze like everything else.
At that moment things got even more bizarre, a tan sturdy man with a smile and a large handful of what looked like manilla envelopes, notebooks, bucket-lists, and mead trapper keepers walked in, it was Mr. Bruce Burton.It was then that something occurred to me, what is Dab beer? What was I doing all the way up north in a bar where people like me who live in the south loop and haven’t owned a car in 10 years would never be able to find on their own. At that moment things got even more surreal…a tanned sturdy man with a smile and an armful of what looked like manilla envelopes, notebooks, bucket-lists, and Mead trapper keepers walked in. He turned out to be Mr. Bruce Burton.
Now in order to properly tell the story of Bruce Burton you have to go back to his father William Dobson "Dobbie" Burton. The man was famous as a swim coach for over 40 years in Evanston, and Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. "When he started at ETHS—Evanston Township High School, the school didn't have its own swimming pool, forcing his teams to train at the YMCA until one was built. Nonetheless, the school's team had great success under his tutelage. For 20 years in a row, ETHS finished in the top three of the state swimming championships, winning five first-place trophies during that time. " (The Tribune).
Dobbie Burton the legendary swim coach and Bruce's Father
Bruce lives in Evanston, our studio is Evanston, Bruce coaches swimming at New Trier now, and at the same Country Club as his father, who passed away at 92 several months ago. Dobbie Burton's memorial service was a constant stream of people including kids and parents who knew him as a coach as well as those who had been touched by the man just by knowing him in the community. One said "He was a great coach and a good role model. Next to my family, he was the most influential person in my life". Bruce shares a lot of his father’s qualities. It would not be an overstatement to say that that Bruce is readily recognized not only in Evanston, but all over the city of Chicago. Almost everywhere we go there is somebody who knows him, as a coach, a mentor, or a community member, but Bruce is also known as something else... an artist.
Bruce making edits to the Blackhawks design in our studio in Evanston
During Dobbie's memorial Bruce stood near the center and received all the people with the same casual and relaxed honesty that he was about to greet me with. It was interesting to say the least, we left the counter as we were able to recognize the the bulk of materials Bruce was carrying warranted a booth. We were already pretty relaxed by the atmosphere at the tavern, and those "Dab's" were not hurting. Eric introduced me to Bruce.
It was as if his train of thought had spilled out of our conversations and initial introductions into his folder, lists, and volumes. It was impossible not to notice some of the maddening work that Bruce was imposing on himself. Eric already knew Mr. Burton very well. He was a swimmer at New Trier where Bruce Coached and had always been a fan of the Trees that Bruce gave to his swimmers. The trees stood out in walkways, store-fronts, restrooms, and taverns all around the northern suburbs. They certainly had an almost antique aesthetic to them. It wasn't just the words or the shape, they just somehow seemed to be crafted from a different time. Since they dated back to 1978 there may be some truth to that.
The Trees have always been a bit of a contradiction. It's amazing such a web of information and loose pieces can be formed into such a cohesive story-driven timeline. Bruce himself is, well, a bit of a contradiction . He is a very detail driven guy. When I first met Bruce, he was lugging around almost the entirety of the research he had conducted for the "Family Tree of 90's Rock". It was as if his train of thought had spilled out of our conversations and initial introductions into his folder, lists, and volumes. It was impossible not to notice some of the maddening work that Bruce was imposing on himself. To top that off he has his demanding job coaching year round and he even maintains a booth at the Volo Antique Market. The Antique Market keeps the studio filled with a fluctuating stream of memorabilia, trinkets, collectables, and let's face it junk.
He explained to me how this jumble of texts that sat before me had become what he called "a one page history book." It was a whirlwind of a conversation that covered almost the entire ground of the concept and it's application. It was 30 years boiled down into those chunky pint glasses. He explained to me how he got good at creating logos for modern bands that had none. He described trends that relied less on graphic design and more on radio and on-line distributions. He explained to me how he got good with a razor blade and transparency. He told me about trips to Helix in the west loop for decades, where they would scan in nearly 20 of his 5 feet tall canvases that contained the first 30 years of his art.
Once I knew that I would accept the task of carrying, and assisting in Bruce's legacy, I made a removal of anything not "art related" from the main living-room area a priority. To be completely honest, it still is.Bruce is a talented artist in the traditional sense of course. Like many artists, he likes to immerse himself in all of the things he incorporates into his work. He travels thousands of miles to photograph the many landmarks, stadiums, and institutions that grace his hand-drawn base illustrations. He met with Buddy Guy before he finalized the research for the Blues Tree. His apartment and studio contain in addition to dozens of original tree remnants, some of Bruce's work from days prior to the creation of Burton History Trees. One such sketch, of his ex-wife holding a pair of bar-bells prior to extension, conveys his appreciation for beauty and his ability to capture it and become absorbed by it.
His apartment gives off a sense of chaotic upheaval reminiscent of his lists and volumes of research. It would be fair to state that even more daunting than the initial consultation for a modern process for the creation of the Trees, was the initial task of cleaning and organizing the studio. Once I knew that I would accept the task of assisting in Bruce's legacy, I made removal of anything not "art related" from the main studio a priority. To be completely honest, it is a continual prority since the supply of extraneous items seems to be self-replenishing.. And thanks to an active presence at Volo Antique Market, it may alwayls be like this.. As Bruce puts it simply, "don't be like me".
A timelapse I made while setting up shelves for inventory.
Slowly, and with help, things did begin to take shape. Not just the studio itself, but also our newest venture. Bruce helped map out a blue-print for our first collaborative effort. We would meet in the Evanston Public Library every Saturday and go over the initial progress of the tree. It took a while for me to develop a grid and size relationship for the data that was presented. The first version of the tree had the lowest size values too small to read and the grid layout was faulty and disproportionate. Eventually after about a half dozen trips to Kinkos, highlighted errors, and many cups of coffee, we finally had something, "The Family Tree of the Chicago Blackhawks" had come to life before our eyes.
This was an amazing time. I had not foreseen the actual amount of work that the tree would take to create, let alone what was to come.
To Be Continued...