Sculpture to honor Joe Burk

Elizabeth Doering

Elizabeth Doering's father rowed under former Penn crew coach Joe Burk. Now, Doering is honoring Burk's legacy with a new sculpture.

During the four years she rowed crew at Amherst College, Elizabeth Doering sometimes called her father, Albert, with complaints about the cold temperatures and her aching bones. In response, her father, once a member of Penn’s crew team, regaled his daughter with stories of his own—including one about his beloved coach, who once took off his jacket, in the dead of winter, and dove into the Schuylkill River to prove that if he could swim, the team could row.

That brave man was Joe Burk C’34, Hon. LL.D’88, and Elizabeth Doering is now paying him homage with a sculpture. Doering, a Penn Design lecturer in figure sculpture and 3D design, will dedicate her bronze relief sculpture of the former Penn rowing coach (who was at Penn from 1958 to 1971) in April in front of the Penn Boathouse on Kelly Drive. “It’s rare that you get a chance to do something that is personally meaningful,” says Doering from her studio at 13th and Cherry streets.

Doering, who says her father (EAS’61, L’65) put her in a University Boat Club shell as soon as she was tall enough to sit there, had heard about the legendary Burk for nearly her entire life. “He made a big impression on men. …He set a fine example,” says Doering. “He shaped my father’s sense of right and wrong.”

A recipient of several silver and bronze Navy stars and a championship oarsman who won numerous rowing awards, Burk understood the value of service and self respect and maintained a great sense of humor and mischief, Doering says. She recalls a story, passed down from her father, about the days when Philadelphia was a much tougher city. On a pass down the river one day, the crew members looked down and saw a corpse floating in the water. Doering said Burk calmly told his crew not to worry—they’d pick up the body on the way back to the boathouse.

In the course of her project, Doering spoke with many Penn crew alumni (including her uncle, who also rowed under Burk) and found almost every one corresponded with Burk in one way or another after graduation. As former crew members contributed funding for the project, “they also contributed their personal stories of Joe Burk,” she says.

After receiving the commission for the sculpture, Doering said she visited the Boathouse numerous times to mentally and physically situate herself in the space, looking at memorabilia and photographs of legendary rowing teams. “If you’re doing a public work, you have a responsibility to the location,”she notes.

Doering also referred to photographs to find a typical pose for Burk. From those, she made a machete, or sculptural sketch, then took about 160 pounds of plastlina, a brown clay that doesn’t dry out, and raked and packed it onto a 4-foot-wide, 5-foot-high piece of Styrofoam backing. The result is a very shallow sculpture (called a bas relief) of Burk crouching down, as though he’s on the dock, watching his crew glide through the water of the Schuylkill. Doering plans to give the bronze sculpture a greenish patina finish.

Doering sees her Burk sculpture as consistent with her previous conceptual work about the relationship between a person’s memories and a place. She also greatly appreciates being able to speak to former rowers about their experiences with a transformative coach. “Rowing creates its legacies,” she says. “Joe Burk is a legend.”

Originally published on January 13, 2005