Nature in the form of flowers and leaves inspired Lilian Thomas Burwell’s paintings and “painted sculpture.” In a video interview she admitted to being an avid gardener and declared: “All of my work is a result of what my life is.”

Burwell was born in Washington, DC, but soon after her family was residing in New York City where she went to the progressive Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village before going to public schools in Harlem. She attended the prestigious High School of Music and Art, 1940–1941, but left before graduating and returned to Washington to earn her diploma from Dunbar High School in 1944. She went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1944 to 1946, and then to the District of Columbia Teachers College (now the University of the District of Columbia) and in 1974 obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts equivalency degree for her many years of teaching. Beginning in 1951 she was employed as a cartographic draughtsman for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and was a teacher at St. Margaret’s School in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, 1955 to 1964. During this time, she encountered David Driskell, an alumnus of Catholic University, and developed a friendship with Sam Gilliam. She then worked for the Department of Commerce, 1964–1967, as a publication and exhibits specialist, and between 1967 and 1974 she was a master art teacher for public schools in the District. In 1975 she received her Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University in consortium with American University, followed by teaching at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, until she retired in 1980.         

Burwell was an active member of her art community; beginning in 1981 she served a three-year term on the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities along with Driskell, Gilliam, and William Christenberry. She was the founding director of The Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery during its one year of existence, 1983. She was a board member of the Arlington (Virginia) Arts Centers from 1984 to 1987 (now the Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington) and a member of the Smithsonian Institution Renwick Alliance from 1989 to 1992. The DC Commission on the Arts gave her the individual artist award for excellence in 1998 and four years later Burwell received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Howard University in Washington alongside Betye Saar and Alvia Wardlaw.  

In 1997 Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia, organized a retrospective of Burrell’s art called From Painting to Painting as Sculpture: The Journey of Lilian Thomas Burwell. In an introductory essay Driskell enthused: “What we see in Burwell’s work is neither traditional nor literally symbolic in an iconic sense; it is transcendental in showing stylistic diversity of earthly beauty and cosmic vision. There is the familiar yet understated elegant taste that we have come to associate with Burwell’s work over a long period of time.” Burwell wrote an extensive essay about “her journey,” revealing autobiographical details along with her personal philosophy. She began “at the point of Abstract Expressionism in the early sixties,” with easel paintings displaying bold brushwork and organic shapes. 

Gradually, Burwell increased the size of her canvases, using brighter colors and shapes that are reminiscent of flowers. Around 1982 her work evolved into three-dimensional pieces: at first shaped canvases, then contoured wood which she cut and covered with canvas, then Plexiglas that she molded in a convection oven. She also created a few immersive installations. “At first I did my planning by making cardboard maquettes which I translated into wood, though now I no longer make models if I can avoid it. I prefer working directly, allowing the materials to follow the path of my inclination. For painting I still prefer that the texture of the canvas serve as counterpoint to the drag of the brush. So I continue to cover the wooden shapes with canvas before they are primed. These works are still very much paintings to me, although they are also sculptural in form. They are still minimalist, still with only a whisper touch of color.”

In addition to her paintings and sculpture, Burwell expressed herself in poetry. A 2008 volume called A Dichotomy of Passion: The Two Masters, consists of her poems—at times referencing the Bible and Langston Hughes—superimposed on reproductions of her paintings. “Here I trace the evolvement of a personal life of spirit through poetry. … The spirit grows even as the body diminishes!”