book signing
Michael Hall had a well-informed audience for his appearance at the museum, certainly one familiar with his subject. Early on he asked the estimated 50 attendees to raise their hand if they owned a Burkhart. One observer said, "probably 49 of the 50 did so." Hall remarked, "I'm not surprised, given the number of Burkhart paintings hanging around Central Ohio." That got a good laugh from the audience.
(Photo: Geoff Hetrick)

Karl Jaeger's daughter, Karena, attended on behalf of her father who resides in the UK. She posed with Hall before one of Burkhart's best works, The Confused Process of Becoming, a portrait of Roman Johnson.
(Photo: Geoff Hetrick)

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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...

Burkhart Book Well
Worth the 40-Year Wait

By Geoff Hetrick

Columbus has produced its fair share of iconic artists creating important work over the years but none managed to consistently remain in the public eye like Emerson Burkhart. From the 1930’s to 1969, Burkhart was a fixture in capital city newspapers using reporters and editors alike to promote his views on a variety of topics in general and his brand of American Scene realism in particular.

Such a complex individual can be a challenge to chronicle but fellow artist, independent curator, collector of folk art, and noted lecturer on the art and artists of the American Scene, Michael D. Hall, has taken his best shot at this difficult task. In fact, this is the first extensive monologue written which tackles among several queries Burkhart’s rightful place in American art history of this period. The title, ‘Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself�, by Michael D. Hall, Scala Publishers, London, provides a glimpse of what readers can expect to find inside, a treatment based on the writings Burkhart produced in his voluminous journals.

It is surprising to me, as one who understands how visible Burkhart was in Columbus for so many years, and perhaps more than a coincidence, that it has taken nearly 40 years to the day following Burkhart’s death to resurrect his voice in artistic discussion. Back in the day, his larger than life persona attracted the attention and affection of a variety of people from across the community. Included among these were writers and reporters, several of whom promised to produce a book on the life and work of their friend.

Unfortunately for Burkhart, the only tribute published in the short term immediately following his death in 1969 was the production of a two-act play, ‘I, Emerson Burkhart�, penned in 1970 by long time friend and Columbus Dispatch columnist, Doral Chenoweth. Although several manuscripts were written by others, none made it to print.

Burkhart’s primary patron, Karl Jaeger, is the only person who kept the promise to memorialize his friend in book form. Jaeger and his International School of America were the sole beneficiaries of Burkhart’s estate which included a large number of Burkhart’s paintings and perhaps just as important, his journals. Burkhart read and wrote as much as he painted. His library was overflowing with books, many of them annotated with his thoughts and reactions to what he read. The primary window to Burkhart’s beliefs, ideals and general opinions on all things of importance are found in the journals he left behind.

Jaeger and Hall correctly determined the best way to approach this project was not to re-varnish the draft manuscripts produced by others but rather to invest the time needed to painstakingly digest the often jumbled content of Burkhart’s personal writings. The end result is a well written and balanced analysis of Burkhart, his complex relationships, relevance to fellow artists and competing art movements of his time, and his place in the larger neighborhood of the American Scene. To his credit, Hall appropriately includes articles and perspective provided by Ohio writers and photographers who chronicled Burkhart during his career.

Hall’s colorful vocabulary and style avoids the trap of producing an academic study lacking character and readability. He successfully captures the essence of what made Burkhart tick as an artist and self-promoter while sharing with us the defects in his personality and penchant for poor timing that prevented him from gaining the national recognition he so desperately sought.

The manuscript is complimented by rich reproductions of many of Burkhart’s best works. The majority of the pieces presented remain in the collection of Jaeger and the International School, but it appears reasonable efforts were made to track down a fair number of Burkhart’s other important works from museums and private collections.

Jaeger can be proud that he kept his promise to Burkhart while leading to publication a book of uncompromising quality. It’s a remarkable effort and investment by both Hall and Jaeger, especially given the fact Burkhart is still fighting to find his standing in the annals of the American Scene. Where he lands may be somewhat easier to define now that this authoritative work can serve a role as Burkhart’s voice in this conversation.

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