Sunday, April 1, 2012

Emerson Burkhart, painter

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 with a Burkhart look-a-like in the title role.

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 he enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan, Emerson defied his father and went for the art curriculum. At twenty, he 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. His favorite painters were Claude 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.

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 and 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 and he traded the home 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. Johnson was a man who asked Burkhart for instruction. Burkhart befriended him and the only instruction was to "work every day." Roman Johnson became a fine artist.

Burkhart’s portrait of Johnson is a masterpiece and 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 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. He 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 the Hayes house. He was fond of my mother’s meat loaf, mashed potatoes, fruit jello 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, 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 that 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 café 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

1 comment:

  1. "I saw this picture in the school library where someone's face was all made up of fruits and vegetables," my son said. "Would be cool to have one of those in my room."
    He and I searched for art about "vegetables" in and immediately found this one,, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, which fits the bill to the nearest pear.