Epilogue Page 1
epi'logue (ep'a-log) n. to say in addition, add: 1 a closing section added to a novel, play, etc., providing further comment, interpretation or information...
"... Emerson advised me on how to live my life..."
Emerson Burkhart spent his birthdays sitting by the fire in my house. He and my father were friends in mischief and schemes. Emerson was fond of my mother’s meat loaf and pound cake. The conversation rose to fever pitch as the night rolled on, Emerson spouting poetry and giving off theories for improving the city of Columbus and the state of art. We often went to Bun’s (Delaware, Ohio) with him too.
The annual Open House at the Burkhart manse was the highlight of our year. We explored every nook and cranny and admired the wild painting and notes on the walls. I was fond of horses as a child and Emerson gave me a horse painting which I still have, among many others. I also treasure a letter he wrote me while I was in Morocco, giving me his galloping advice on how to live life to the fullest. He approved of my wanderlust.
I never thought of Columbus as a small town because Burkhart was in it. I did plot to leave it (Columbus) as soon as I graduated from high school � he pointed the way to broader vistas.
It is never easy to capture Columbus artist Emerson Burkhart on paper.
My father, Ben Hayes, and Tom Thomson, both writers and naturalists, have their individual memoirs of their friend. Doral Chenoweth Jr., has his play, I, Emerson Burkhart, once performed at the Columbus Museum of Art, later in the ballroom at Southern Hotel by an arts group, each time with a Burkhart look-a-like in the title role.
One thing is sure, and this I remember: Emerson’s mind ricocheted from one grandiose idea to the next, his hair tousled, arms gesticulating, his speech peppered with poetry, artists, and philosophers. Burkhart cared not for small ideas or social mores. “What is beauty/� would be a typical topic, a springboard for a discourse over a meal with his friends, or later, with his students.
Burkhart was born in 1905 in Kalida, Ohio, the son of a farmer. His father wanted Emerson to be a lawyer. But when Burkhart enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan, he defied his father and went for the art curriculum. At twenty, Burkhart studied painting with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the Cape Cod School of Art. Hawthorne had studied at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design in New York City. Burkhart did become successful enough to convince his father that he could make a living as a painter.
Burkhart’s favorite painters were Monet, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. He painted dark subjects such as detailed junkyards, cadavers, and discarded locomotives in weed-filled railroad yards. In 1955, his wife Mary Ann, whom he met in Columbus and was an artist’s model, died, and also Burkhart’s brother died. It was then that Burkhart lightened up and began to paint hometown bucolic scenes. He always did portraits and self-portraits, himself as a miser, or laughing, or the artist at the easel. He did a much-admired portrait of Carl Sandburg.
The world becomes Burkhart's studio...
When he was asked by Karl Jaeger of Jaeger Machine Company, also director of the International School of America, to tour the world with the students, Burkhart painted fishermen in the Canary Islands, cows in India, docks in Sweden, antiquities in Athens, St. Peter’s in Rome, Hong Kong harbor, the Pyramids, Tokyo � the sky was the limit.
From the 1950’s Burkhart had an art opening at his house on the same night that the Columbus Art League had their opening at the Columbus Museum of Art, which stemmed from Burkhart being denied entry for being “representational� in the Art League show, one year when it was curated by a New York abstract artist, Max Weber. The crowds thronged to Burkhart’s house. Newspapers gushed. Art was sold. Burkhart’s house on Woodland Avenue had twenty-eight rooms, all huge, filled with large-scale furniture and Oriental rugs he bought at auctions in Broad Street mansions. Burkhart used the dining room as his studio. It had a big north-facing window.
Judge Roy Wildermuth had lived there. He traded it to a real-estate firm for a row of investment houses. A member of the firm was a Burkhart supporter, and arranged for the artist to buy it at a reasonable price during the Depression. In the corner of the studio was a raised platform with a sitter’s chair on it. Framed paintings were stacked everywhere, against walls, on tables. Where there weren’t paintings there were books. Paintings took up every available space on the walls. Some walls were painted on directly. A huge African-looking face with a light switch for an eyeball was always my favorite. When Burkhart needed to make a notation, he often wrote directly on the wall. Burkhart loved to paint on location, and he and another Columbus painter named Roman Johnson would often paint side-by-side. Mr. Johnson was a man who asked Burkhart for instruction � Burkhart befriended him, and the only instruction was to work every day. Johnson became a fine artist.
Burkhart’s portrait of Roman Johnson is a masterpiece. It is on display at the Columbus Museum of Art. Burkhart’s portrait of Roman Johnson’s mother, “The Matriarch,� (1944), is done in grey tones. Mrs. Cora Johnson, who was 87 when she died in 1971, sat for Burkhart forty-four times. The artist was caught by inflation; Mrs. Johnson began sitting for fifty cents a session. She raised it to one dollar before her likeness was sombered totally.
Burkhart often painted with a knife rather than a brush...
Burkhart was also famous for his still life � my father chronicles Burkhart’s painting of a basket of fruit, from freshness to decay; a pan of live purple catfish “bullheads,� lobsters, plucked chickens, a rag doll and a crude wooden mock-up of a toy gun � all were treated to the Burkhart eye. Emerson often painted with a knife rather than a brush.
The artist loved frames � he made most of them himself, antiqued them, matched them to the subject. My father reports he would wait for Burkhart on his porch � Emerson would return from painting in the fields or in a country town, hammer the frames onto the canvases dramatically, sometimes wrap them in brown paper and mail them before the oil paint was dry.
Emerson in his later years would spend his birthdays sitting by the fireplace at my house. He was fond of my mother’s meat loaf, mashed potatoes, fruit Jell-O supreme, and pound cake. The conversation rose to fever pitch as the night rolled on, Emerson expounding on theories for improving the city of Columbus and the state of art and humankind. We often went with him to Bun’s in Delaware, too.
I was fond of horses as a child and I still have a horse painting he gave me, among many others he gave my parents. I also treasure a letter he sent me while I was in Morocco, giving me his galloping advice on how to live life to the fullest. He approved of my wanderlust. I have as well a letter he wrote my father from a Paris caf� on two paper placemats, the penmanship florid.
I never thought of Columbus as a small town because Burkhart was in it. I did plot to leave Columbus as soon as I graduated from high school � he pointed the way to broader vistas.
Tom Thomson scattered Emerson’s ashes over a city reservoir after the artist passed away in 1969. Burkhart wanted to have a little part of himself permeating the Columbus landscape and residents. He lives on in the hearts of all he touched, and his paintings speak in their wild beauty and gentle madness.
(Christine Hayes is an educator, newspaper columnist and researches rare and out-of-print cookbooks. She is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine.)
"...What fun it was to be his 'hostess'..."
Betty Garrett Deeds: As one of the finest Ohio countryside writers. and, simply put, in love with her subject when is was Emerson Burkhart, piled up EB features for the Citizen-Journal and many magazine outlets.
NOTE: In her own words, see her story below: "What Fun It Was To Be His 'Hostess"
Emerson Burkhart had a reputation as quite a womanizer at the time I saw him socially in the 1960's. It is perhaps in vain that I have tried to convince people I was always standing (or sitting) properly during our excursions together. I have since adopted Emerson's philosophy of letting people think what they want, and the more exciting, the better.
Once he asked me to serve as a "hostess" at his yearly Open House. In fact, a photographer from The Christian Science Monitor asked me to pose as if I were one of his subjects. I whispered to Emerson somewhat indignantly, "That man thinks I am your mistress." Emerson grinned with glee: "I know, and don't disappoint me."
Another time we drove to a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home of two socialite friends. When we pulled up, Emerson found they were leaving for a engagement .They said they were sorry, and Emerson replied, "That's awright. Go on ahead. I just wanta show Betty around your house." And so they did. And so did we. When we left there, he drove farther into the country. He was convinced the environment had become overwhelmed with pollution. It hadn't--not yet. It was just the fumes from the exhaust of Emerson's little red sports car.
My favorite moment came when we attended a "Headhunters" soiree at the Athletic Club of Columbus. Emerson's wealthy friends who were given to safaris gathered to serve pickled python and similar delicacies. He had, at their request, donated a painting to be auctioned off for the benefit of The Columbus Zoo. When it was unveiled, it was seen to be--the ass of a sacred cow in India. No one coughed, and the masterpiece garnered a goodly sum.
The world has been much duller ever since he died.
Betty Garrett Deeds
The Artistic Spirit of Emerson Burkhart
I have been enamored with the work of Emerson Burkhart ever since my mother, an artist and interior designer, came home one summer day in 1968 with a Burkhart self–portrait ink sketch. She purchased it for $25 at one of Emerson's notorious Open House receptions on Woodland avenue in Columbus. There was something haunting, intriguing, perplexing about that piece. To this day I can't put my finger on it.
Now it rests gently on the mantle over my fireplace, and each evening after work, Emerson greets me with that odd pose and challenges my intellect to figure out what he was all about that particular session in 1950. I doubt it will ever happen.
As a teenager, I actually saw him painting in Delaware County on Hoover Reservoir while I fished in my rickety boat. He was almost like an alien creature with his windblown white hair, paint covered clothes and field easel stuck in large rocks by the Hoover Yacht Club. I never took the time to check out what he was painting. I regret I never did. Just one year later, in 1969, he passed away.
Burkhart loved Delaware County and often mentioned it to friends as one of the prettiest places in the world to paint. He thought so much of the area that he had his ashes scattered in Hoover. That way, according to Burkhart, everyone would have a little of Emerson in them, since the lake serves as a water source for Columbus.
Over the past few years, I have collected a number of Emerson's paintings. I've made it my business to learn everything I can about the man. I've read hundreds of his letters that found their way to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, stalked the local used book stores to find rare volumes from his vast library, and talked to some of his best friends who today are unfortunately, fewer in number.
There is something about his work that 'connected' with me. Certainly, part of it has to do with the fact I've spent my life here in Central Ohio, and many of his scenes are very familiar to me. Beyond that, there's a sense of complexity to much his work, rotten fruit, corpses, dead animals and the like, yet the more pieces you examine, you realize there is humor, anger, and a host of other feelings that resonate from his work. Spend time learning about him and viewing his better paintings and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
Burkhart was prolific. By 1963, he had produced by his own count, more than 4,000 canvases. He may have painted another thousand between then and the time of his death. Some days he had three or four different paintings in progress. Not all were great. In fact I've seen some he should have destroyed, but this is true with any artist. No one can paint 5,000 masterpieces. I've seen 500 to 700 of his paintings, maybe more than anyone since the days of his open house receptions. By my count, maybe 20 are museum quality, but that doesn't diminish the appeal of the others he painted. Some are just better than others.
As you learn more about Emerson, you'll find out he spent much of his last decade travelling around the globe with Karl Jaeger's International School of America. He was the school's artist-in-residence. This gave him the opportunity to paint subjects of all types from exotic ports of call. Although many of these paintings are well executed, they will never be considered his most desirable works simply because the art world will best remember him as a classic 'American Scene' painter.
If you are a budding collector of Burkhart and have a limited budget, these may be the type of pieces you want to start with. At the very least, you will have the opportunity to hang a colorful painting that depicts a pleasant scene or portrait in Burkhart's famous palette knife technique.
I have many artists represented in my collection, but without question, Emerson is the one who makes me smile every day when I leave home and when I return in the evening.
If you have an interest in learning more about Burkhart, I recommend the following:
• Read the book on Burkhart, 'An Ohio Painter's Song of Himself', by Michael Hall, scheduled to be released in October 2009. It's available through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other sources
• Visit the Bunte Gallery at Franklin University in downtown Columbus. They have about fifteen of Emerson's paintings on display
• Take in the Schumacher Gallery at Capital University to view two of Emerson's better works. Make sure you check out the rest of their Ohio artist's collection. For a small college, it's quite impressive.
• View his most famous mural, 'Music, Drama, Dance' fully restored and hanging above the entrance to Battelle Hall at the Convention Center
• A must see is his series of WPA era murals on the fourth floor of Stillman Hall at the Ohio State University. They are accessible during normal university business hours
• One of Burkhart's monumental works, 'The Confused Process of Becoming', a portrait of young Roman Johnson, is owned by the Columbus Museum of Art. Call ahead to determine if it is on display
• Search 'Emerson Burkhart' in microfilm copies of the Columbus Citizen, Columbus Citizen Journal, Columbus Dispatch for a variety of articles written about him.
By Geoff Hetrick
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