Popeye and Olive Oil froze to death staring into each other’s eyes on the back of a motel toilet in Bismarck, North Dakota. The goldfish had an unexpected end with a predictable outcome – being flushed to their watery resting place.

“We were upset when mom flushed them down the toilet,” said Richard Burrows, 65, of his young 1958 first grade self and younger brother’s reaction. “She didn’t know if you put a fishbowl by a cold 30-degrees- below-window it will freeze overnight.”

Bismarck, North Dakota, marked the 39th move for the Burrows family. The artist, choreographer, and director of community outreach and engagement for The Historic Trust in Vancouver experienced living all over America thanks to his father working for Gulf Oil. It would be a job taken with the United States FAA that would lead the family to Bismarck that cold February dubbed a “frozen hell” by Burrows’ mother and the Viking style welcome. Young Burrows instinctively knew to follow his heart. Growing up, his education included a wide array of artistic expressions, including piano, choir, visual arts, stage plays, dancing, and choreography. His parents encouraged his interests in drafting and architectural design by the time he was in high school, which in Bismarck, was brimming with 5,000 students and a lot of creative choices.

“For a personal recreation project,” said Burrows, “I decided to form a movement choir in high school with a mixture of 12 to 15 kids.”

With no experience, Burrows dived into music visualization and choreography. And he discovered through this process that he loved to dance. 

“It just sort of struck me that I wanted to know this stuff,” said Burrows. “I would go to the public library in town and read New York City dance magazines sharing all forms of dance. I would look at pictures and imagine myself in the roles.”

It would seem Burrows’ imaginings began to take form. One day, he read an article featuring the Utah Repertory Dance Theatre in residence in New York. “It’s an odd thing,” said Burrows. “They did not have an artistic director, and the dancers ran the company – a sort of 1970’s hippie kind of thing.”

Burrows, now 16, learned that the revolutionary modern dance theatre received a Rockefeller Foundation Grant with the purpose to move or decentralize contemporary dance from New York City. “It was a museum of modern dance classics,” said Burrows. “Dancers had to learn the great works of modern dance across 100 choreographers – everything from cutting edge to theatrical – it was a big deal, and you had to be really versatile.”

Burrows, still with no actual dance training, thought, “I can do this. I can go to school there, and I can get into that company.”

Burrows applied to the University of Utah’s school of dance in secret after his high school graduation. His parents wanted him to become an architect. But he said it didn’t “feel right.” Burrows got accepted by mistake after the school’s computer admitted 150 more students than slots available. The acceptance letter included a two-year scholarship. Burrows’ parents gave their blessing but wouldn’t pay for it. “I had too,” he said. Unfettered, no dance experience, and having never lived alone, Burrows left for Utah.

Upon meeting his new advisor, he learned of the computer mistake, and the University’s intent to vet the best candidates of the chosen surplus.  Groups were created and Burrows was cast in Group C, with “no expectations to succeed.”  After rigorous competition and a hard freshman year of learning and proving his worth as a dancer, Burrows advanced through the groups with a desire to be really good. He moved passed people initially placed in the A Group. With only four available spots, it seemed Burrows had a strong chance. But he wasn’t chosen. This didn’t stop him from moving toward his next experience. He continued to work hard and earn his BFA in Modern Dance.

Moving ahead

Burrows wasted no time taking advantage of a referral to teach in Michigan for the summer at Interlochen Arts Academy, a well-known dance and music theatre. Now 1969, the 20-year-old taught dance as a replacement for an instructor who had fallen ill. He wasn’t permanently hired at summer’s end. True to his visionary form, Burrows put his focus on going to New York City.

Cosmic Fate

In what would seem like magical flow to his life, Burrows received a phone call from his mother in route to New York City informing him that he had gotten a message from the Utah Repertory Dance Theatre. One of the four spots was open and Burrows was in.

Burrows turned his VW bug around and headed straight to Utah. He danced in the company for three years before he was let go due to clashing ideas.

Leaps of faith, evolution, & giving back 

Armed with this experience, Burrows headed to his next adventure thanks to a costumer who referred him to a modern dance and choreographer post with a ballet company in Santa Barbara. He stayed for two years before becoming restless. He was 27.

“If you don’t take risks, it’s not going to be delivered to you,” said Burrows. “So you better go out and make it happen.” 

Burrows continued to grow and make it happen in the arts world by gaining valuable experience and life lessons. He wanted to expand himself as a professional so he started applying to universities to teach. He achieved these goals, including coveted tenure at the University of Ohio after a rigorous six years proving his worth in the art world yet again. Once he earned tenure, however, he promptly resigned. “I was 37 now, and I realized I didn’t want people to decide what my life was going to be about, and I didn’t want to be trapped for the rest of my life without learning new things.”

Reaching further

Burrows moved back to California and began retooling himself. He became the Director of Arts Education at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the United States. Out of 575,000 students, Burrows’ job was to ensure that all students had access to arts and arts education. It took 10 years to create multiple arts programs to achieve these goals. He started with a $6 Million budget and ended with an $80 Million budget. Now, 57, his 40-year arts career and tireless effort to serve kids and arts communities is blazing trails for lasting impacts. When the School District asked 800 people, including Burrows, to take an early retirement to save money, once again, Burrows saw only possibilities: “Now I had to figure out what I can do when I grow up,” he said.

Battery Recharge & Re-launch

He decided to take five years off. At 62, he decided retirement was boring and he needed to go back to work. So he took a post at Newark Public Schools in New Jersey for two years as the Director of Arts Education before deciding the winters were too dreadful. He came back to check the work waters in Vancouver and ended up instead in Seattle at ArtsEd Washington, a nonprofit statewide advocacy organization for visual and performing arts in the public schools.

“My job was to improve access to arts for the school districts all across the state,” said Burrows. With his love for Vancouver and a loft in Seattle, Burrows said he commuted back and forth every weekend. “After about 50 weekends of this, I thought: just go home!”

Embracing Vancouver

CommonGround is modeled after the iconic chautauquas popular in late 19th and early 20th century America.
Photo courtesy thehistorictrust.org

An opportunity presented at the Historic Trust that appealed to Burrows. He went through a long application process before becoming the Director of Community Outreach and Engagement. He has been able to take much initiative in the past 2.5 years in this role to serve and grow partnerships in the Vancouver community that promote the arts and further arts education.

Burrows continues to develop, engage, and believe in communities coming together to celebrate the arts, culture, and heritage alive and thriving in Vancouver. Common Ground, a six-day gathering for curious people in historic Vancouver by the Historic Trust is Burrows’ latest effort to bring art, artists, and the community together. The August 6-11 event is free. Expect history, tours, music, literature events, live opera, dance, figure drawing, photography, printmaking, and much more.

“What is fun about Common Ground is no one has any expectations of what it can be since this is the first time it is happening,” said Arts of Clark County Chair Karen Madsen. “It will be unexpected, and those who participate will find it a new and different event for the dog days of summer – August is a good time to try something different.”

Modeled after the iconic chautauquas popular in the late 19th and early 20th century America. The idea was to bring speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, and craftsmen together for the entertainment, inspiration, and education of the community.

“If you are reaching for something it needs to be further than your ability to reach, said Burrows. “Common Ground is a safe place to take risks, be brave, try something new, and enjoy.”

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