The accidental artist, Norman Burke '47

by Cathy Tollefson '83

Norman Burke has lived on the same dead-end road in the southeast corner of Kennewick, Wash., for more than 50 years. “It’s a nice place to live,” he says, though he hopes the empty lot across the street won’t get sold for housing development.

He and wife Elenor Roundtree Burke ’49 moved to the area after both had been teachers in the small logging town of Stevenson, Wash., on the Columbia River. Norman then worked on the construction of several dams in eastern Washington and finally made carpentry his full-time profession, following in his dad’s footsteps.

Woodcarving started as hobby. Later it verged on obsession—carvings overflow several shelves in his home. Ranging in subject from quail courtship to an abstract titled “Arabesque,” the majority of his work carries a wildlife theme.

“I never get tired of looking at them,” he says. Norman has also tested his carving skills on soapstone, and he converted several of his wood pieces to bronze sculptures.

Many of Norman’s carvings are showcased at Kennewick’s You and I Framing and Gallery. A bit puzzled by the attention he’s been getting (the Tri-City Herald profiled him in July), especially at this stage in his life. He says, “If it’s work you like, it’s not really work.”

He doesn’t consider himself an artist. Norman says he sees something in the wood and tries to bring it out. “One thing leads to another—even if you don’t know what it is at the time,” he says.

Since Elenor’s death in 2002, Norman’s dachshund, Dingle, keeps him company, and he spends more time reading than whittling away the hours. His current project: an account of the 10-year French civil war (printed in French). “ Reading is so important—you get a lot for free,” he says, his wit still chisel sharp.