Painter seeks beauty and strength behind the North Dakota oil boom

Portrait on the oil patch
Joe Burns took 1,500 photographs as he researched in the Bakkan oil field.
Courtesy Joe Burns

For the last two years, Joe Burns has traveled to western North Dakota to sketch and paint the people and places of the oil patch.

The result of those trips is "Canvassing the Bakken Oil Fields," a monthlong show on display in downtown Minneapolis. In the atrium of the city's Capella Tower, Burns' paintings line the walls from the nearby skyway, right across the first floor.

Some canvases are purposely large, bright pictures of big sky country. The 26 paintings capture oil workers in hard hats and oil derricks in farm fields.

Artist Joe Burns
Joe Burns said he wanted to capture life on the oil patch, showing how even as people are making good money, they are working hard.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"I think I'll get more people walking by my show here in one day than probably went through out in Williston the whole month," Burns said with a grin.

After an earlier monthlong exhibit in Williston, N.D., the Minneapolis-based artist's work is being displayed where he conceived of the idea after hearing about the new oil boom.

"You know I'd seen some articles in the paper about the Bakken region and then I got kinda thinking about our history," he said.

Burns thought about the Gold Rush and huge projects like the Hoover Dam, things that changed people lives — and the countryside. He saw the Bakken as a 21st century gold rush.

"I wanted to go out there and be the first one that documented it through painting," he said.

Burns headed for North Dakota as quickly as he could, but soon realized that while there were lots of photographers at work, he had painting pretty much to himself.

"For one thing, it's 10 hours [to get] out there, there's no place to stay," Burns said. "When you get out there people don't want you taking too many pictures. And then you have to work at the project for a whole year without any other income, and maybe even no sales. So I wasn't too worried after that that anyone else was going to jump on this project."

Joe Burns was delighted when the man whose hands he painted turned up for the exhibition in Williston. "He brought his whole family," Burns said.
Courtesy Joe Burns

That's not to say that he lacked subjects. Burns is particularly proud of a long, swooping painting of an oil train parked on a curve, tankers gleaming in the sun.

"This thing was just sitting out there and it seemed to just go on forever," he said. "And I [do] think it's kind of one of my show pieces."

Like the train, the painting seems to go on forever, which for Burns is kind of the point.

"Right now what everyone is seeing is on our phones and little tablets," he said. "And it's a great way of seeing pictures but it limits you on how you are viewing it. ... As vast as this country is out there, I wanted to kinda depict that in my paintings and show as big oil paintings as I could."

He also wanted to tell the human story of the people of the oil patch.

"You know, people are coming from hundreds and thousands of miles away to work, to work at these hard jobs," he said. "They are making good money, sure. But they are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week."

Many of Burns' landscapes feature derricks.
Many of Joe Burns' landscapes feature oil derricks "marking time," as he puts it. He says the pumps may be the new iconic image for North Dakota.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Another favorite of the artist is his painting of a young man staring out into the distance during a brief moment of downtime on an oil rig. Like most of the pictures in the exhibit, it's based on one of the 1,500 photographs Burns took during his visits to the Bakken. He also painted landscapes, fields of canola and an old abandoned school house, each with a derrick pumping away.

"Kind of marking time as it goes up and down," he said. "Sitting in this beautiful field, just this iconic look of maybe the new North Dakota now."

Burns doesn't see his paintings as political. He knows that the oil boom has stirred controversy in the Bakken, but he's tried to steer clear of that.

"I didn't paint any exploding trains, or anything else, so I think it's a show to show the people of North Dakota and the beauty of North Dakota," he said.

Burns is eager to talk about the work. He has set up a temporary studio next to the exhibition in Minneapolis, where he'll paint until it ends on Aug. 8, and encourages people to drop in for a chat.

If you go: Canvassing the Bakken Oil Fields

Oil train
Joe Burns says he loved the scale of this train which he came across as he traveled through the Bakken. He describes the painting as one of his show pieces.
Courtesy Joe Burns

Where: Capella Tower, 225 South 6th St., Minneapolis
When: July 8 through August 8
Artist reception: July 10 from 5-8 p.m.
More information: