Artist Richard Burke Jones and his never-ending quest to explore his native Newburyport
The year was 1968.
Inspired after seeing his roommate’s paintings on a dorm wall, Richard Burke Jones took his first art course at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. It was a revelation. This Newburyport High graduate began visiting museums and copying works of the masters. When it was time for him to attend graduate school, he enrolled at Tufts University, which then had a partnership with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
He would soon discover, however, that his most important lessons in creativity would be found outside academia. “I really didn’t learn anything until I started working with some older artists,” Burke says. The people he refers to were associated with The Guild of Boston Artists, founded in the early part of the 20th century to promote representational painting and sculpture. His believes his true education in drawing began when he met and studied with painter Robert Cormier, the guild’s president for many years.
Burke’s early focus was on watercolors. This medium gave him the experience to prepare for the slower process of oil painting. “The wonderful thing about watercolors,” he says, “is you could do a gazillion of them. If you don’t like them, you could throw them away.”
Over the decades, Burke has done many things with his life, but his obsession with painting never waned. He now works as the city clerk for the town of Newburyport. Despite the demands of his position, and devotion to his wife and three daughters, he produces one painting a week, sometimes two. He likes it this way. He once got to the point that he was almost painting full time and realized he didn’t like it. “You get a little dry with the ideas and you find ways to waste time,” Jones says, “whereas if you have limited time, you’re very efficient.”
The demand for his paintings is high. “When I do an oil sketch, I post it and it sells,” he says. He primarily uses his website and Facebook page, but has also sold his work at local galleries and pop-up shops.
Lately he’s been focusing on outdoor scenes, including images of people skating and fishing. In particular, the sights of parents and grandparents spending more time with their families than was possible before COVID-19 proved to be heartwarming in the face of so many difficulties brought on by the pandemic.
In these paintings, he isn’t shy about including details such as graffiti-covered Jersey barriers, which complicate any overly romanticized view of the world around him. “I don’t know how many more paintings I have left in me,” he says. “I’m not going to be remembered as the next Rembrandt or Norman Rockwell, but I’m a witness to things that happened here.” As an example, he shows me a recent painting in which I spot masks on the pedestrians outside Newburyport’s city hall on a vibrant spring day. It seemed the sort of subtle detail common to his paintings and suggestive of whatever hidden drive keeps him at the easel year after year, finding new ways to imagine the place he has always called home.
To see more of his work, visit RichardBurkeJones.com, where you’ll find galleries and an online store that sells tote bags, pillows and greeting cards decorated with images from his paintings.