Portraits of Rural Strength — Iris Burbank ’18

Woman in red jacket painting on a canvas.
Through a series of portraits, Iris Burbank ’18 shows strength in rural communities, but gives a glimpse into her passion for community, love of sustainability, and talent with art.

Like most Oles, Iris Burbank’s studies and work reflect her passions — the environment, art, Asian studies, and community engagement. To an outsider, an intersection between these four areas could be hard to imagine, but to Burbank, it couldn’t make more sense.

Burbank is an environmental studies and studio art double-major at St. Olaf who also participates in Asian studies classes, with six semesters of Japanese language courses under her belt. “I’m really interested in Asian cultures, and I’m so lucky to have been able to go to Japan three times with St. Olaf,” she says. “It’s been extremely rewarding using the language skills and environmental perspective I’ve learned to make lasting friendships with Japanese university students and communicate with grassroots rural leaders and change-makers.” She has been focusing on rural issues for the past two years, through her art and studies at St. Olaf.

Hidden opportunities

WOman standing next to canvas with paint brush in hand.

Outside the classroom and her travels to Japan, Burbank works in the St. Olaf Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) office, a high-impact educational approach that encourages students to learn in community contexts. Often referred to as community-based research, service-learning, community-based learning, and public scholarship, ACE facilitates the development of skills, habits of mind, and relationships that prepare students for future internship, research, civic leadership, and work roles.

Burbank found the opportunity by chance when asking around for student work opportunities. Once started, she quickly noticed something about the community-engagement projects.

“No one was really recording or keeping track of the of all the groups and engagement initiatives around campus,” says Burbank. “One of the things I was in charge of was creating an inventory of all the community partnerships on campus. We discovered that a lot of groups and efforts were going unnoticed.”

By creating this list and learning more about what the campus organizations did, Burbank was able to gain insight and learn about engagement opportunities that previously remained in the shadows.

“I didn’t know there were so many organizations and partnerships happening around St. Olaf,” she says. “My hope is that we can continue to grow our connections because there are many ways Oles can benefit from the community off the Hill in a tangible way, and community partners also gain from collaborating with students who have fresh passion and dedication to develop specialized skills.”

“…there are many ways Oles can benefit from the community off the Hill in a tangible way…”

Don’t forget the art

Burbank also takes care to remember and include her love of the arts and environment with her community engagement work. Last February, she interned with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP). She worked alongside Thomas Hardy ’20 and Assistant Professor of Art Peter Nelson in a partnership with CRWP to curate and publicize international and local environmental films for the Downstream Film Festival, an event that brought artists, environmental topics, and the community stakeholders together.

Perhaps the paragon of Burbank’s intersection of passion and studies is her current Senior Studies Project, a 16-piece series of oil portraits of international grassroots leaders. Her inspiration for this work comes from her reflection on environmental and rural narratives, largely shaped by her time living, farming, cooking, and learning at Asian Rural Institute (ARI) in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.

Paint brushes in a cup with woman painting in backgroundFounded in 1973 by Rev. Dr. Toshihiro Takami, ARI is a local grassroots leader and sustainable agriculture training school that hosts a nine-month training program for established international rural leaders, primarily hailing from developing nations in Africa and Southeast Asia. Burbank’s daily life included cooking breakfast and dinner for 25-80 people, community workshops, organic farming demonstrations, community discussions, worship with global Christians, and tending to crop and vegetable fields, chickens, goats, and fish.

Burbank designed her senior thesis, “Portraits of Rural Strength,” to feature grassroots leaders, subverting the tradition of portraiture being “high art” exclusively for affluent, aristocratic people. Utilizing reference photos self-selected by ARI participants, her project acknowledges the agency of rural people, who are too often reduced to images of poverty, hunger, and “backwardness.” The portraits challenge traditional assumptions that rural leaders are just farmers — they serve as teachers, students, non-governmental organization coordinators, financial experts, and exemplify brilliance, resilience, environmental vision, and community power.

Countless opportunities

Through her engagement and passion, many doors are opening for Burbank. After graduation, she hopes to develop professional experience in international relations, sustainable agriculture, sociology, anthropology, and political ecology, with a goal of becoming a professor. She is currently contemplating a master’s program related to rural sociology, international agriculture, and sustainable development. She is also hoping to keep her love for art fresh through some potential artist-in-residence programs in the United States and Japan.

Woman mixing paints with paint brush in front of canvas.Burbank also wants to bring the lessons she learned from serving in Japan to other parts of the world. “Someday way in the future, I think it would be really awesome to establish a similar international rural leader training school in the U.S. for leaders from Latin America,” she says. “The school’s mission would be centered on principles of creativity, sustainability, the dignity of labor, self-sufficiency, and the innovative use of local resources.”

She’s also working with ARI to plan a continuation of her senior project to return for a summer to teach oil painting to a new class of participants. “My dream would be for the participants to spread my shared passion for creative self-expression back at home after returning from the training program,” she says. “I would love to organize a community showcase of portraits of rural strength, where we would all use our own creativity to tell our stories untold.”

While looking to the future, Burbank thanks her experience at St. Olaf for opening so many opportunities. “I’m very grateful for being able to study at a place where I can learn unconventional academic intersections,” she says. “This was easier to realize with the help of some really encouraging faculty and interdisciplinary programs I participated in, like Environmental Conversations and Asian Conversations.”

“I’m very grateful for being able to study at a place where I can learn unconventional academic intersections.”

Women standing in art study holding painting.