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Scott Burns: a sketch in character

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Photos by Tamie Meck/Sketches by Scott Burns Scott Burns sketches an eagle at Paonia High School where he works as a custodian.

Since coming to Paonia High School four years ago, Scott Burns has documented school life in sketches. He has dozens of them. He's especially inspired by sports, and depicted Paonia's runs for state football titles in 2014 and 2015. Friday nights he gets a good view of football games as a member of the sideline chain gang. He also paints the artwork on the 50-yard line.

Burns, who is 54, is in his fourth year as a custodian at PHS. "That makes me a senior," he says with a grin.

Burns grew up in Grand Junction and dreamed of life of an artist. "I'm pretty much self-taught," he said.

He recalls those matchbook covers offering art scholarships and inviting the artist wanna-be to submit a simple sketch of a deer or a turtle. "Don't laugh," he said. "I actually sent one of those in when I was a kid. I was like, oh, I nailed this! And they never sent me anything back." He was devastated. "I thought it was pretty damn good," he said.

The 1977 Star Wars movie was perhaps the biggest inspiration of all. But in 1981, at age 18, Burns unexpectedly moved with his family to "Podunk Paonia." It was different then, he said, and was not on his list of places to move. To his surprise, "I fell in love with the place."

The newly-opened West Elk Mine offered good-paying jobs, but he avoided going underground, instead working at The Nightline, the 3.2 "baby bar." Later, he tended bar at Joe's, where he met a Paonia girl named Kitty. She was working there while on break from the University of Northern Colorado, where she studied journalism. They fell in love, married, and moved to Greeley so she could finish school.

Burns got a job, and dabbled in art at Ames Community College. He'd already sold some pieces to private collectors, and was more advanced than the other students. But he also was realizing that art wasn't going to pay the bills. "At the end of the day," he said, "artists are a dime a dozen."

After Kitty graduated they returned to Paonia to raise their family. A kid at heart, Burns was forced to grow up and earn a living. After a decade of avoiding it, he went to work for the mines.

He still dabbled in art, even doing some graphic design work for the mines. But his days as a kid, along with it his creative inspiration, were put on the back burner. "To be quite honest," he said. "I went a lot of years without picking up a pencil."

In 2012, with the mines closing and jobs disappearing, he took the job at PHS. "I could have chased the money," he said, but he'd have to re-locate. "It fit before, but I don't want to do that anymore. That's a hard way to make a living."

With the new job came an unexpected benefit: Inspiration. For the first time in years, he was drawing. He drew students winning state championships, scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs. He captured them dancing on stage in the spring Dessert Theater show, and juggling school, activities, and life. "It's like it just started flowing through me again," he said. "I've drawn more in the last three years of working at this high school than I have in the last 20."

After 22 years in the mines, his work is less intricate and detailed. When he tries to draw like he once could, "My hand goes to sleep." So he takes a "less is more" approach, using simple lines and rudimentary shapes and generally sticking with charcoal. He calls it "Cave Man Art."

Not only is it an outlet for creativity, it's also a way of recognizing the students. He posts his sketches to his Facebook page, which he gives a "G" rating. It's all whimsical or family-related, he said. When they do good, as they often do, "I try and post a little something for them."

When the kids see it, they know exactly what it is.

Last week, to honor the passing of former PHS student and star quarterback, Casey Gillenwater, he painted an eagle and Gillenwater's jersey number 17 on the field. "It's cave man art . . . but it's the thought that counts," he wrote in a Facebook message.

"It's just been a creative outlet for me," says Burns. Sometimes he gives the originals away. "Otherwise they just sit there in the 'ol sketchbook on the kitchen table."

So as not to limit his creativity, he occasionally touches on hot topics like politics, religion or racism, but in a whimsical way. "I refuse to get tied up in the rhetoric," he says. It's fodder for his adult friends, and gives students something to think about without getting too serious.

He also draws a few self-portraits, usually with a little rat in the picture, borrowed from Templeton the Rat from "Charlotte's Web." Templeton is a big kid who tends to over-indulge on the spoils after the crowds have all gone home. "That's kind of my alter ego," he says.

Scott and Kitty have three boys. Nothing in life is more important than family, said Burns, who beams with pride when he talks about them. "I'm so proud of them," he smiles. "I'm a blessed man."

Because the school is just minutes from his home, he now gets to spend more time with his family and is very involved in school life. "There's something special about this school," he said. "We have some good kids; we have some good staff. And I'm proud to be a part of it. And if this helps," he says, "then so be it."

In 2015 he taught the freshman class how to build a better bonfire for homecoming (which happens at the school tonight). It's designed not to collapse and to burn hot and fast, because it is a school night, after all.

"He does everything for the kids," said oldest son Josh, a 2009 graduate in his first year as a teacher and coach at PHS. His youngest son Jesse is a junior at PHS and a three-sport athlete. Middle son Dave, who was born with Down Syndrome, also lives at home.

"It is a challenge when you have a child with a disability," said Burns. But Dave has blessed his life. "If the only thing with Dave in my life is to make me a more humble man, then so be it," he said. Of their three sons, he says, "Dave is, in some ways, the most grounded, because he does have that innocence. He's also kind of bridged the gap in this community." The community loves Dave, he said. "He's a blessing to them."

As for Kitty, they recently celebrated another anniversary. "She is better than I deserve," he said. "We admire and respect her. She's our queen, and everyone knows that the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard."

Burns doesn't see his job as a step down, but as a second chance to do good in life. "I am a blessed man," he said. "So what if I'm pushing a broom. I choose to do this."

That's a lesson he tries to convey to the students every day. "When the kids head out that door, it's a whole different ballgame. They're not all going to go to college," he said. "You need to have a work ethic and you need to be able to survive out there."

Besides, he says, "It's not the job that defines the persons, it's how you do that job. And if I can be an example to these kids just by my work ethic, then so be it."

As he grows older, Burns becomes more, not less, involved in the community. "I think we all have a part to play." It's a cliche, he says, "But it does take a village to raise a child."

Right about then, a student stopped by to ask if Mr. Burns was finally getting recognition for his "awesome artwork."

Burns just smiled. "That's what it's about," he said, pointing to the student as he trotted off toward the classrooms. "That, right there."

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