Glow up: Painter uses illuminating pigments to make transformational art

Dragonflies and unicorns, abstract shapes and mandalas fill the walls inside the studio space.

The carefully crafted works by Michele Burns beam color and creativity underneath the studio’s lights. But flip the switch, and the darkness reveals an entirely new otherworldly kind of artwork.

“People will come into the studio, and I’ll tell them to close their eyes. Then I’ll flip the lights off and close the door, and every single time, they gasp in delight,” she said. “It’s like a magical fairyland.”

Burns specializes in photoluminescent painting, using her own blend of minerals to make works that appear one way in the light, and another way in the darkness. The pigments she uses are 30 times brighter than ceiling stars, glow 10 to 20 hours from exposure to any visible light, and recharge for up to 50 years.

Effectively, her paintings double as functional nightlights.

Throughout the month of August, Burns will be the featured artist at the Southside Art League’s Off Broadway Gallery. She intends to use the exhibition as a way to spotlight the unique qualities of photoluminescent art.

“I hope they come and enjoy the fun aspect of what I make,” she said. “I hope they have a good time.”

Growing up in Elwood, Burns was always interested in the process of making. She would make sculptures out chewing gum, mud and whatever else she could find.

One time in sixth grade, she created an entire cityscape out of scrap paper inside her desk.

“I got in trouble because I wasn’t paying attention,” she said.

Burns went on to study art at Indiana University, Purdue University and Herron School of Art. She decided that art wasn’t the best way for her to make a living, and her focus shifted away from it. Raising three children, she would dabble in different projects when she had time, mostly working with miniatures and jewelry.

But for a long time, she didn’t have much time to dedicate to creating.

Burns’ children are grown now, and her husband, Kurt Kriese, is an artist. His influence and the increased free time allowed her to pursue more adventurous artwork.

An avenue that intrigued her was glow-in-the-dark art.

“I started making mobiles, because really I’m a 3-D artist. And I started making them glow after I discovered glow paint,” she said. “I started glowing up all kinds of things in my house. I decorated shoes and household objects. For a while, I had a glowing toilet.”

Initially, Burns was working with store-bought glow paint that is made with zinc sulfide, giving it luminescent qualities. The glowing effect only lasted about an hour, thought. She was so enthralled she wondered —could she make it brighter?

Experimenting with other compounds and minerals, Burns discovered that she could mix pigments with strontium aluminate and make it exceedingly brilliant.

“This stuff is thrillingly bright,” she said.

After creating glowing mobiles and then a gift for her grand-niece, Burns wondered if other people would be interested in her art. Ever since, she’s been making pieces that appear one way in the light, and are entirely new in the dark.

Though she paints all different subjects, from dinosaurs to dogs to political motifs regarding the country’s inflated defense budget, Burns often returns to the same types of paintings. Mandalas, trees and tessellation (the repetition of a shape over and over) are common.

The photoluminescence adds a layer of difficulty.

“It’s mentally challenging. You have to have something that looks nice in the daytime, but when you’re creating that, you have to think, there’s another composition behind that that appears at night. So I have to keep both in mind,” she said.

Burns and Kriese share a space at in Daily Epiphany Studio inside the Circle City Industrial Complex in Indianapolis.

Kriese has been a longtime member of the Southside Art League, which led Burns to join the group as well. After a callout for artists interested in exhibiting their work, she decided to pursue a show of her own.

“I was sort of hesitant when the day approached — it was a lot of work, and I worried that no one would come. But it’s been exciting,” she said.

Her exhibition will include a variety of the photoluminescent pieces that she’s worked on over recent years. Burns also will have a portable “dark room” where people can take a piece and see how it looks when it glows.

The exhibition will ideally not only expose new people to her artwork, but also bring people to the gallery to discover all kinds of interesting art being made locally.

“I hope they appreciate that there is creativity going on in their community and they want to have something original in their houses,” she said.


Michele Burns exhibition

What: A showcase of photoluminescent artwork that appears one way in the light and glows in the dark.

When: Aug. 3-27

Where: Southside Art League Off Broadway Gallery, 299 E. Broadway St., Greenwood

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

Reception: Burns will host a reception from 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 6 at the gallery. Light refreshments will be served.

First Friday: Burns’ art can also be seen 6 to 9 p.m. on First Fridays, including on Aug. 5, along with that of her husband, Kurt Kriese, at Daily Epiphany Studio, Circle City Industrial Complex South Studio B17, 1125 Brookside Ave., Indianapolis.