Elizabeth Bunsen describes her art as an “ongoing conversation.”
Burlington City Arts must agree, since this year the 63-year-old Charlotte resident received the Barbara Smail Award given to mid-career artists who, among other criteria, are “expanding their creative experience.”
The award was particularly moving for Bunsen since she displayed Smail’s work at Passepartout, the gallery she used to own in Winooski.
Born in Biloxi, Miss., Bunsen grew up in the small town of Lodgepole, Neb.
One of her earliest memories is coloring with her grandmother while they watched the soap opera “The Edge of Night” on television.
Her father used to send her out with a wagon full of the family’s surplus squash and pumpkins to give away to some of Lodgepole’s 400-something residents, and many would give her a little money in return. That gave the enterprising young girl an idea, and soon she was peddling her artwork as she pulled her wagon around town.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Bunsen joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to the Ivory Coast. When she returned to the states, she got a scholarship to Ohio University where she then got her master’s of fine arts in painting and printing.
In 1986 she was invited to teach at Castleton State College. She subsequently moved to the Burlington area, where she both operated a Winooski gallery and a teaching studio on Pine Street in Burlington.
In 1992, after marrying David Wilson, the owner of Sterling Hardwoods, the couple moved into his family’s summer home in Charlotte. Bunsen set up a studio in a separate lake house on the premises.
Although Bunsen is trained as a painter, when she started working at her Charlotte studio she began to move away from portraiture and acrylics and now considers herself a fiber artist.
“For the past six years I’ve been working with paper, string, wool and silk,” she said. “When I moved my studio to Charlotte I became very interested in nature and I discovered natural dyes and pigments.”
These days, Bunsen is trying to expand her palette. “Lately I’m looking for peach, salmon and pink for mostly political reasons,” she said. “I’m interested in working with pink because it represents tenderness and self-care. However, I have a love-hate relationship with pink because it’s associated with plastic and Barbie.”
For one aspect of her work, Bunsen incorporates natural dyes, stitching, textile and collage, creating unique hand-made books. “I’ve journaled all my life,” she said “and then I started journaling about my studio home and then my books became kind of an intimate, small-scale studio.” Although Bunsen has made hundreds of these books, each has a distinct feel and often she opts to keep, rather than sell them.
Bunsen has a blog where she writes about what she calls her morning practice.
“I get up in the morning, put on my glasses, have coffee, go to a work table and see what grabs my eye and [I] mess around,” she said. “I like to do it right out of a dream state. It’s how I kick off my creative flow.”
Bunsen has a presence on Facebook and Pinterest but she was thrilled when she received the Barbara Smail Award because of its sense of place.
“I have a wonderful cybercommunity,” she said. “But it’s great to have a physical community as well. Getting the award is exciting but it’s also a challenge. I’m actually a little overwhelmed with ideas right now.”