LILIAN BURWELL needs to break out of things. First it was her small row house, where she had her studio. Sam Gilliam told her the space was too boxed-in, and anyway, people didn't leave a painter alone who had her studio at home. So she knocked out some walls. Got so excited just thinking about knocking out walls that she couldn't sleep. Rented a huge studio for $600 in the Hanover Arts Project complex near North Capitol Street.
Then she began looking at her big acrylics with their swirling colors and sensuous flower shapes. She needed to break out of there, too. She took a saw and cut through the frame and literally set the pictures free.
"I'd been reading Rollo May's 'Courage to Create,' " she said, "and it gave me the nerve to chop up my canvases. I'm going to keep pushing on this for a year and see what happens. I expect it'll get very sculptural."
Now she is planning a huge work that will sprawl across six door-sized panels, 7 by 3 feet each, hinged in pairs and sawed off here and there.
"I don't know how it'll turn out. I start with directions, lines of rhythm, and try to follow where it's going. I used to look at a plant and work from that. A plant is always becoming. Never the same. You could make 100 paintings from one plant."
Lately, she has moved away from plants and flowers to images of flight. Last summer on a trip to Africa she spent most of her time searching for an ibis in flight. She hopes her work will always keep changing this way.
"The galleries say to let them know when I get where I'm going, but I never will. I don't have a gallery or an agent, and I'm not a salesman. Some of my work sells, when I'm in a certain phase that people want to buy, but I won't keep repeating it just for the money. I don't make much."
The courage to change, to be open to new directions, has been a theme for Lilian Burwell. Her father was the photographer James Thomas, who left Greensboro, N.C., for Miami in the Depression, where poverty overtook the family. Her mother taught arts and crafts under the Works Progress Administration, and the children would watch her weave and make block prints and invent beautiful dresses for them from old sheets and bits of cloth. The kids pulled orange crates apart, straightened the nails and made toys for themselves.
"We moved to New York, and I went to the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Village, the first progressive school in the country. My parents always believed in first-class education."
Later she attended the Pratt Institute and got a master's degree in 1974 at Catholic University during a sabbatical from teaching in the D.C. system. Along the way she married, had a daughter, separated. She took early retirement from Ellington High in 1980 so she could paint.
"I was tired of getting up at 5 to paint three hours before going off to teach. Because I put all my energy into teaching, too. I started painting seriously in the '60s, when I was an illustrator for the Commerce Department. I was a realist until I worked with Ben Abramowitz for about three years. He'd paint, just paint. It was exhilarating: an infinity of stuff poured out. Now my house is paid for and I basically own myself. I do too many things: I'm a bleeding heart."
She shrugged, smiled. "Just so long as I can keep painting."