An interview with Dr. Julia Burns: Defying Small through art
I recently had the privilege of talking with Dr. Julia Burns, a psychiatrist who has helped children, adolescents, and adults for over twenty years. When she is not working with patients, she enjoys painting, blogging, and spending time at the beach. Dr. Burns lives along New Hope Creek in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband, Andy. They have three grown children.
In this interview, Dr. Burns shares insights into Defying Small through her “healing meditations.”
Q. You call yourself a healer/artist. How did you come to see yourself in that way?
A. I stopped working as the Medical Director of a child welfare agency in 1998, and I started writing a couple of months later, and painting a few months after that. I used my artistic work to create a healing space for myself from all the trauma stories I had heard. I also painted for my patients and my friends.
Q. How have you grown artistically over the past sixteen years?
A. I wrote my first poem in the middle of the night. I was working with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and praying for a way to heal others and myself. And I wrote a poem, “I Sing a Song for the Abused Child,” the song no one wants to hear.
I kept writing and writing, and I continue to write. I may meet a person in the airport who tells me their story. I write these stories, and then paint a picture over the story of the trauma they tell me. It can be the moon rising over a lake or a beautiful scene at the ocean or the mountains. I call them “healing meditations.”
If someone has a physical illness like breast cancer—and I happen to be working through that now myself—we might draw their breast on the paper and write affirmations of their healing. Their children might write on it.
One client picked the 23rd Psalm and so we painted the view from her lake house in Canada and wrote the 23rd Psalm lightly over the water. If you’re a couple of inches away, you can see the writing. But if you’re across the room, it just looks like a painting of the lake. And that’s how it’s evolved, and that’s how it continues to grow.
Q. It sounds like you draw a lot of your inspiration from nature. Is that true?
A. Absolutely. All of my art comes from my relationship with other people, people I that love or animals that I love. And also from my relationship with nature. We bought a house on the New Hope Creek in Chapel Hill and I did a series of paintings from my backyard called “New Hope.” I have a place at the beach and I’ve done a lot of paintings of the beach, as well. Those places are meaningful to me.
Q. How do you nurture your creativity?
A. The most important thing for me is to have a lot of time alone—in silence, meditation, and discernment with God. And then to actually make sure that I go into my studio. A friend who helped me learn how to paint told me, “Go into your studio everyday, if it’s only to sharpen your pencils.” And I try to remember that. My studio is in a loft. And I find the inertia comes from just climbing the stairs and getting started. But once I get in there, two or three hours go by and I don’t even know it. And that’s what I love about it. It’s very meditative.
Q. How do you practice gratitude in your life?
A. I do practice gratitude in traditional ways, where you get up and go, “Wow, great shower and cup of coffee! Yahoo! I’m in the top percentage of blessed people on earth!” (laughs)
I was raised by very demanding parents, so it’s easy for me to fall into that. Right now I’m working on affirmations for my upcoming surgery. And one of the affirmations is, “I let go of any harsh judgments and criticisms of myself and others, allowing my heart to soften, knowing that brings healing to myself and others.”
I’d say that’s a constant challenge for me, because in my family we really loved each other, but there were very high expectations. So I have to guard against that as a standard for others. And I really believe that people are in different phases of their journey. And what looks like a baby step for one can be a giant step. We have to suspend judgment. Always.
You can’t be gracious and grateful if you’re critical and harsh. And so that is how I constantly practice gratitude. I’d say I’ve learned even more about that in the last two or three years. I’ve changed the system of therapy I’m working in and that’s been a big leap for me.
Q. Where are you most happy?
A. At the beach.
Q. Tell us about your series “Louise and the Lewis Sisters.”
A. I don’t call them paintings; I call them “The Girls.” And it’s my mother, who was the youngest of seven, and her six sisters. They were very strong women and I had a close relationship with each one. The oldest sister lived to be 100. She started the first library in Pitt County (NC) and was the mayor of Farmville from age 65-73. They all worked and they all raised their families, some of them by themselves. Again, there were high expectations. But they loved me and gave me this wonderful feeling of support, a sense that I was put in the world to make a difference, to make a mark.
Louise was our housekeeper who was with us every day of the week. I absolutely worshipped her and loved her. What I admired most was how loving, calm, and accepting she was, no matter what the situation. My sister was always losing her library book and it was always a catastrophe, a huge whirlwind of crying and angst. We’d be running around the house looking for the book and Louise would say, “Now Jamie, I want you to just think where you were the last time you had that book.” And Jamie would mumble something and Louise would just walk over and pick the book up.
When she died, I wrote a poem about her. I wanted to know who was going to plait my hair and scrub my ribbon red knees, because I was always falling down and she was always picking me up.
Q. You’ve just created a new series of paintings entitled, “What Were They So Mad About?” What compelled you to create this series?
A. The series is based on five artists that used their childhood trauma to catapult their creativity and inspire them to make the world a better place. I got the idea from my assistant, Eileen. Virginia Woolf is my favorite.
I remember years ago when Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, came out. It’s a movie about 24 hours in the life of three women. Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf and it was amazing. I had read the book a few years earlier and I was looking through the bibliography and it mentioned that it drew from her memoirs and her sexual abuse by her brother. I was shocked. I had studied Virginia Woolf in college and I was a psychiatrist and took women’s studies courses and I had never heard that she was sexually abused. I had heard that she was bipolar, schizophrenic, bisexual, borderline—all these diagnoses—but I had never heard about her sexual abuse.
It inspired me to do a painting of her and write a poem, “What Was She So Mad About?” and they’re both featured in the show. I actually sent the portrait to Michael Cunningham and he said he put it over his writing desk to inspire him. That made me really happy.
In addition to Virginia Woolf, we also picked Tyler Perry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Maya Angelou, and Oprah Winfrey. I believe the inspiration also came from Maya Angelou’s death. Each one has a quote from their life about how they’ve used their inner experience to write their stories.
Q. How are you Defying Small in your life right now?
A. There are two things that come to mind. The first is when I was the Medical Director of a child welfare agency. I had learned nothing about child sexual abuse in my training. To become a child psychiatrist, you have to do a four-year residency in adult psychiatry and a two-year fellow in child psychiatry. You would think that I would have had a half-day seminar on child sexual abuse, because 80-90% of children who are institutionalized in childhood are sexually and physically abused.
So when I took that job, first, I didn’t know I was going to see so much of it, and secondly, I didn’t have a clue how to treat it. And boy, was I defying small every day when I got up and went to work. The children told me their stories and I believed them when no one else did. And I learned how to try to help them. And then when I stopped in ’99, I learned how to help myself by telling the world the stories of the children through my art. So that’s the first way that I defied small, and I do that every day for the children I love and take care of.
The way I’m defying small now is that I’ve just finished 24 weeks of chemotherapy and I’m getting ready to have surgery. I’m going to defy my survival statistics by living—and living well—with great health, vitality, strength and courage. So I think that goes back to what I said about my mom and her six sisters: They all defied small and I had great mentors. If for some reason things don’t go the way I want with this cancer, the way my family wants, I’ll still defy small. I know I will. I believe in living like that. It’s something that comes naturally to me.
Julia’s art show “What Was She So Mad About?” is on display at Caffé Driade in Chapel Hill, NC, through October 31, 2014.
You can follow Julia’s blog at juliaburns.org.