Just before Covid descended on New York with a surprising ferocity in early 2020, artist Johanna Burke finished installing a large 17.4-foot-long by 8.5-foot-high seashell mosaic on the wall of a client’s Aruba home. “Beautiful” is the simplest and best way to describe the stunning piece. Based on a Jacobean-style embroidery, Burke arranged shells of all shapes, sizes, and colors into a floral motif that takes the tradition of seashell art and transforms it into a piece that is fresh, modern, and whimsical.
“The Gift,” as Burke’s favorite work to date is named, turned out to be just that. Like many in creative fields, Burke was forced to rethink her practice as the pandemic wiped out nearly an entire year of scheduled commissions. But, after the experience of making it, Burke was already beginning to reconsider the type of art she wanted to do, and the values she wanted to define her practice. It was a poignant coincidence: seashells had played a role in the start of her career as a window artist, the work she is best known for today; now, they were inspiring her to begin the next phase of her artistic career.
“I have always wanted to be an artist,” says the California-raised Burke. She remembers being enchanted by window displays from her youngest days, but it wasn’t until she moved to New York City following her graduation with a photography degree from U.C. Santa Cruz that she realized crafting the displays that delighted passersby and drew customers into stores was an actual job. “Until then, I was pretty ignorant that there was design. Like, I knew I was creative, so that meant you’re an artist. I didn’t realize that literally everything around us is designed,” Burke says.
With encouragement from her friends, she began trying her hand at creating displays for a 14th St. thrift store and a Seventh Avenue sex shop, before deciding she was ready to approach Bergdorf Goodman in the late 1990s. Her timing could not have been better. She showed up in the middle of the holiday window crunch when all hands were needed to glue and stitch and patch and construct the dazzling displays.
She worked her way up by being “like a little sponge”—listening to every critique, doing every job that was asked of her, and learning as much as she could. “Window display is beautiful, creative work. But the means to get there involve doing things very quickly and not over-laboring things,” Burke says. “A lot of my training was just learning what was important for people to see. The right way is just what looks good, it’s not necessarily the proper way to do things.”
The first big Bergdorf piece that Burke was able to really own was a seashell mosaic for one of the 2003 holiday windows.“I had very little time to do this and I know I wildly underestimated the labor,” Burke says, but it was a success. “I am still very proud of the wave pattern made from nautilus shells! This color scheme photographed terribly, which was something I never forgot. I was very careful when using browns and keeping things contrasty the next time around.”
During her two decades spent crafting exquisite displays that achieve the desired effect by any means possible, Burke has had the opportunity to work with a coterie of artisans who specialize in different crafts, and she has developed an expertise in working with a “misfit mix of materials.”
Burke says she doesn’t save many props or pieces from her windows work—and who can blame her, she has created a lot of windows—but one piece she did keep embodies the medium’s “whatever it takes” spirit: the porcupine from the series of all white passementerie animals Burke worked on in 2011 for Bergdorf Goodman’s “Breaking the Ice” holiday theme. For the spiky creature, the visible fur was knitted using inexpensive fun fur, but the only way they could achieve the perfect effect was to include a layer of cashmere hidden beneath it. He is bedazzled in jewels ranging from white plastic beads to quartz crystals.
“Nobody in the world is going to know that [the cashmere] is there except for me and the artist who knit it. But that’s what was required to get that look,” Burke says. “I like that democratic approach to materials.”
In 2009, Burke established her own studio from which she continues to work today. But the past year of reflection following the pandemic and “The Gift” has Burke reimagining what type of art she wants to create. She is particularly interested in spending more time on projects that are meaningful, permanent, and sustainable in both their environmental impact and in the working environment they foster for herself and the artisans with whom she collaborates.
“In my heart, the things that have been most successful and that I am most proud of are things that people connect to and that have a sense of wonder. And, usually, there’s also a sense of wonder for the natural world in there,” Burke says.
Throughout her career, she has developed a maximal design aesthetic and an expertise in mosaics, and those two qualities will remain unchanged. At the same time, Burke is interested in taking that aesthetic and applying it to a more focused selection of materials. She particularly wants to continue exploring the possibilities of seashells.
“I feel like I have a lot of unfinished business with the seashells,” Burke says. “People have always really responded to that work well. And I think it’s something that, for me, I kind of see a little opportunity to do some things that haven’t been done before.”
But just because she plans on focusing more of her time on fine art pieces and commissions doesn’t mean Burke has left her window display days behind her. Not only does she plan to continue crafting windows for Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany & Co., but the lessons she’s learned over the past twenty years carry into her art practice today. “I am good at making do with the wrong tools and adapting to what is available,” Burke says. “Often there were no tools at Bergdorf’s but weirdly there would be flatware (probably merchandise from old displays).” To this day, Burke always keeps a butter knife handy.