For her senior project, Emma Burke ’17 embarked on a journey through her native France on a horse-drawn carriage. Accompanied by her horse, Pacha, Burke visited prehistoric caves, recreated ancient art, and bridged her academic interests in traditional French rural life and art.
Burke grew up in Saint-Germain-de-Belves, a village of only 113 people in the French region of Dordogne. This part of France, where the average age is the oldest in the country, helps make up a stretch of land known as “the diagonal of emptiness,” Burke says. The diagonal extends from the Northeast of France to the Southwest - across the middle of the country - marking places with low population density and an aging demographic.
“There’s not even a university, so all the young people leave,” says Burke. “It’s a really old demographic, which I find very interesting.”
Burke has woven connections between old age, rural life and horses throughout her time at COA. In her first year, she undertook a project examining the effects of animals on human aging and the social relationship between the two. For an independent study as a second-year student, she interviewed elders - ranging in age from 65 to 102 - from her village and nearby towns.
“These were interviews on how things had and hadn’t changed, and perceptions on aging,” she says. “A man talked about how in the 80s, horse-drawn carriages would come with a mobile cinema and screen movies once a year, which led me to think of the meaning of people coming in and leaving these aging villages.”
In pursuit of such meaning, Burke decided as a senior to develop a traveling art practice combined with a horse-drawn carriage journey that would explore rural life in her homeland.
“I haven’t lived there in a while, and it’s a place I want to go back to, so it was a great way to reconnect with the place I’m from,” she says.
The route of the journey was centred around caves with prehistoric paintings in the southern half of the country. The influence of the primitivist art movement on avant-garde artists in the 20th century sparked Burke’s interest in prehistoric caves. On her journey, she visited 11 caves which dated from 35,000 B.C to 10,000 years B.C.
“Being in a cave gives you a very specific feeling; you’re seeing paintings that are just beyond time,” says Burke. “They are pure forms which belong to a time one cannot imagine.”
Although caves were central to her conception of the project, the individuals who hosted Burke on her journey, and the stories they shared, affected her on a more personal and emotional level. Everyday it was necessary for her to find grass, water and fields available for the horse’s consumption; this, she adds, was great as a starting point for conversation.
“It was a great way to meet people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” says Burke. “In life, we tailor our paths to our interests and are always surrounded by people who match us. It becomes harder to meet people with whom you don’t share interests. It was really interesting to do this in France, where the extreme [political] right is rising. I got the chance to talk, and listen, to people who supported the party. One man said he’d voted for them because they were the only ones addressing the issue of deer overpopulation.”
As part of the project’s infusion with art, Burke documented the journey through digital and analog photography - taking portraits of every individual who hosted her - and land-based art inspired by the visits to the caves. She is currently developing photos from the trip in COA’s dark room and ceramics studio and translating her diary into cave-art-inspired pictograms painted on tiles. Burke’s final exhibit will integrate each of these forms of art into a cohesive recounting of her journey and experiences.