“There isn’t a surface in here that I haven’t painted for the sake of that kid,” says Crystal Burney. It’s a hot afternoon in late May, and she’s sitting in what by all means is a lovely kitchen, though Burney says it wasn’t always this way. On the walls are photos of her son, Hatcher, who will be five in just a few weeks. A few days later, Burney, who is a single mom, will turn 42. Beside her son’s photos hangs a painting of a white house in a field, the house where she stayed after moving to Ireland after grad school.
“That painting there,” she says, pointing, “was like the first thing that I did that I said, wow, I think I’m okay at this.”
Burney’s artistic journey started late. She got through grad school studying English literature before she decided to leave behind the life that she had prepared for and focus on her art. She told herself, No more watching kids, no future as an English professor. From then on, everything she did would be related to art.
“And I don’t care if it was scraping lead paint off of doors in Concord,” she says, “like exterior painting, on a crew of 10 people [where] I was the only girl in a team lifting 30-foot ladders; as long as it’s art related.”
Burney gives a lot of credit to serendipity in getting her as far as she’s gotten, but it’s clear that a lot of her success comes from a “say yes” attitude. Since she moved back to the area 11 years ago, she’s worked at about a dozen different places, teaching art classes to different age groups. At one of her busiest points, she was spending 12 hours a day teaching at three different schools. Right after she had her son, she painted a room for a woman who would hold the babe while Burney painted in between breastfeeding breaks. If you want it painted with an artistic flair, even if you can’t pay that much, Burney will work with you.
“I say this constantly: I got no right turning down work,” she says. “You’re helping me keep a roof over my kid’s head. I’ll do it. I’ll paint anything. Whatever you got.”
Burney’s attitude is almost defiantly positive. As an artist, and especially as a self-taught one, she’s used to hearing the word “no.” “No, you’re not qualified” or “No, I won’t pay that much.” Which is why, when she asked the Somerville Arts Council if she could paint a mural on the fountain bed at Trum Field, she was almost taken aback by their positive response.
“What was really fantastic is that, I guess when I started I didn’t think I would get anywhere with it,” says Burney, who gives a lot of credit to Greg Jenkins at the Arts Council for helping her get approval from all the necessary departments. “I just got another email from him telling me, yeah, it’s a go, we’re gonna fund it—which is very strange,” she says. She floated a number with the council, and they approved.
“I was like, really? Why didn’t I say double?” she says with a laugh.
The schedule would be tight. Burney would have to prime the fountain bed before the weekend so that she could set the outline and get community members going. Then for the next three Saturdays, she would invite folks to help her complete the design. Halfway through the first Saturday session, though, only about half the fountain bed had been primed.
“There have been a few delays,” says Burney, still smiling. The Department of Public Works spent a couple of hours pressure washing the sidewalk next to the fountain, which wouldn’t be painted. (After she told the person from the city that his work had been for naught, feeling silly and perhaps a little frustrated, he pressure washed the letters “DPW” into the sidewalk before starting in on the fountain bed.) After she finally got some of the primer down last Friday, she left her painting rod at the park; it was gone by the time she returned on Saturday morning. And to top it all off, an unexpected onslaught of petals from a nearby tree have doubled the work: Before she paints, she must sweep.
The setbacks are time consuming, but while she feels the pressure, she doesn’t give off the faintest hint of stress. A few kids and their parents showed up on Saturday to help paint. With patience, Burney helps guide a younger volunteer’s roller from the paint tray to the pavement. The children, while they might slow Burney down, are part of every step. She watches them roll, and steps in now and then to help go over a spot that needs a little more paint. Then she dips the roller in the tray and hands it back.
“What can you do,” she asks, shrugging, “when people are willing to help you?”
Community members of all ages are invited to help Burney finish the mural this Saturday, June 6 and the following Saturday, June 13.