THE GENESIS OF THE birdhouse can be traced as far back as the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 1300s. Believing doves protected lovers and swallows guarded homes from fire, these Turkish citizens held their avian cohorts in great esteem and sought to attract and protect them. From the small utilitarian clay retreats crafted later in Europe and simple birch bark retreats made by Native Americans to more ornate creations inspired by the Victorian era, birdhouses have reflected the architecture and aesthetics of the people and culture around them.
Lansing native Sue Burger has taken a fresh tack on this idea of form versus function by infusing it with family tradition and rustic cottage style.
Since 1997, she’s been creating one-of-a-kind decorative birdhouses entirely from salvaged and recycled materials.
“That was long before American Pickers and HGTV,” she notes, “and I could pick up hinges with five coats of paint, wood with character and a bucket of hardware for just a few dollars.”
Burger’s affinity for crafting these unique mini-domiciles was less long-held vision coming to fruition than it was hidden talent uncovered by circumstance. After purchasing a Cape Cod-styled home in the neighborhood where she grew up, limited time and resources permitted home improvements only one project at a time.
“I had lived in my house a good five years before I turned my attention to landscaping,” she reflects.
But Burger’s foray into yard upkeep and design unveiled new artistic joys and talents.
“I was surprised to learn how much I enjoyed gardening — creating the beds, deciding on which plants, thinking about textures and colors and bloom times,” she says.
With Mother Nature as her muse, Burger began melding her environment with her art. “Adding some creative birdhouses to my landscape was a natural progression for me. Rust, peeling wood and patina finishes go hand-in-hand in a garden.”
ALIFELONG MICHIGANDER, Burger’s path to procurer of relics and engineer of bird abodes took its share of curves and bends. With a degree in education from Central Michigan University, she moved to St. Louis, Mich., in 1977 and taught high school art. She delighted in sharing her first love with burgeoning young artists for several years until her full-time position was first cut in half and then out entirely.
“It made me sad,” she says of these failed millage consequences to fine arts programming, “but I faced it with a healthy dose of pragmatism.”
While Burger received offers to teach out of state, she couldn’t abide leaving Michigan or her family. So began an odyssey of returning to college with a graveyard shift at a convenience store, followed by a position at an art supply store where framing morphed into sales. Inevitably, the road led to her current position in purchasing for an office furniture and supply dealer.
But throughout her transition into sales and management, Burger maintained her innate passion for all manners of art, including architecture; she particularly holds admiration for the pride of craftsmanship in older homes.
“The millwork and attention to detail is amazing,” she says.
The artist draws from this professional appreciation on a deeper level as she integrates personal artifacts into her creations: One for her neighbor was crafted from wood and hardware culled from the family’s barn; after Burger’s parents passed, a doorknob, towel holder and other mementoes from their home went into avian houses for other family members.
“I loved incorporating those items with some of my mom’s inexpensive jewelry for panache for my nieces,” she shares.
“I found a fabulous cast iron register grate that became the starting point for a birdhouse I’m working on now.”
— Sue Burger
The recycle facet of her work was not a deliberate mission but has become a positive aspect of her art, one that’s more abundantly shared by salvage pickers spawned by home improvement shows.
“It makes the hunt harder, but it’s an affirmation,” Burger says. “Those shows allow people to see value where they once saw landfill.”
DESPITE HER UNFORESEEN turn in occupation, Burger describes herself as an artist and teacher at heart. As soon as spring begins lightening and brightening her Lansing neighborhood, she flings open the garage door and displaces her car with the essentials of her craft.
“My saws, paintbrushes and birdhouses keep company with my lawnmower, shovels and rakes,” she states.
Neighbors pop in to check out her latest effort as she works with her time-tested tools and corded drill. Plying her trade, she reminisces about her parents.
“Since we lived in the same neighborhood, they would both come and sit in the driveway and watch me work in the garage,” Burger reflects. “They enjoyed sorting through the buckets for the right size screw or pulling some nails out of salvaged wood.”
Family is tied to her art in other ways, as well. Her brother’s hometown of Champaign, Ill. houses a salvage warehouse that tops her list of sources for unconventional materials. Burger patronizes similar businesses in Kalamazoo, Detroit, Chicago and Traverse City, although she has a penchant for grittier establishments. Her current project has its roots in just such a place.
Traveling through Michigan’s U.P., she and a friend came across a junk yard fringed by pretty rugged surroundings.
“As we’re walking through the place, my friend is touching nothing,” Burger says. “I found a fabulous cast iron register grate that became the starting point for a birdhouse I’m working on now.”
The birdhouse emanating from this 1930s’ find reflects how many of her artful abodes come to be. “I always start with something organic, and it grows from there,” she explains, noting this present project, also features a tin ceiling from Kalamazoo and a baluster from Champaign.
Each year, Burger creates from six to 10 birdhouses along with one or two potting benches. While some stay out in the elements, others are preserved indoors for display. One client converted a potting bench into a vanity for her cottage bathroom. The artist personally loves how the outdoors further characterizes her houses; she likes the enhancement of natural aging, the rust and patina.
Besides the homes and gardens of Burgers’ friends and family, her avian artistry can be found at Peachbelt Studio and Gallery in Fennville. She first became connected with Peachbelt owner/artist Dawn Stafford when Stafford saw a birdhouse displayed at the home of a mutual friend. After a hearty bout of prodding, Burger — who credits her gifted cache of artist comrades for her own ongoing creativity — agreed to begin sharing her work at the gallery, a historic former one-room schoolhouse.
Like it, each of her inspired avian domains is unique and special.
But the piece closest to her heart is tied by familial strings.
“My favorite birdhouse,” Burger shares, “is the one my dad hammered some nails into a few months before he passed away. That one will stay in my backyard.”
To learn more about birdhouses by artisan Sue Burger, visit peachbeltstudio.com. Freelance writer Patrice Frantz resides in Holland; photographer Johnny Quirin lives in Grand Haven.