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Emerson Burkhart
Beloved Columbus artist returns in new biography by Michael D. Hall
Jennifer Hambrick
February 2010 Issue

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Hall's book gives Burkhart's artwork a profile in the context of twentieth-century American art and offers a sense of the artist's personal background, quirks and outright prejudices. Photo © Arthur R. Steddom

The saying goes: You can’t be a prophet in your own town.

Nowhere was this expression more true than in the life and career of Columbus artist Emerson Burkhart (1905-1969). Burkhart’s artwork never received recognition from the national or international artistic elite – a prerequisite for convincing locals anywhere of the value of their local treasures. The national spotlight eluded Burkhart because he held to conservative aesthetic values that put him out of synch with the avant-garde, even as he longed for the fame and immortality the art world typically reserves for innovators.

In short, even though Burkhart couldn’t beat ‘em, he never joined ‘em.

These are the broad outlines of the narrative that Michael D. Hall, Columbus Museum of Art adjunct curator of American folk art, unfolds in his recent book Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself (Scala Publishers, Ltd., 2009). Released on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Burkhart’s death, Hall’s book chronicles the artist’s life from its earliest years on his family’s farm in Kalida, Ohio, through his student years at Ohio Wesleyan University and his troubled personal life and eccentric career in Columbus.

Hall’s work draws heavily on Burkhart’s journals and written accounts of those who knew the artist. The result is a close-up look at a person who never let go of his nostalgia for his rural upbringing and an artist whose backward-looking styles sealed the fate of his posthumous reputation as always behind, not ahead of, the curve.

Hall is not shy about placing Burkhart’s work on the periphery of American art history. His introduction reminds us that even as Burkhart was painting his realistic canvases in relative obscurity, the American Scene painters Clarence Carter, John Rogers Cox, Aaron Bohrod and Bernece Berkman were making names for themselves and their own brand of realism. In New York, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and others were innovating their own school of abstract expressionism, an aesthetic Burkhart famously termed “schizophrenic” but one championed by artists who would come to have a place among the avant-garde.

“Burkhart’s world passionately debated the artistic merits of the ‘isms’ that defined twentieth-century painting: modernism, regionalism, surrealism, and expressionism,” Hall writes. “This book revisits that era and its artistic ferment by focusing on the biography of one painter who never made it into the accepted American art narrative but whose story both humanizes and critiques it.”

One deeply human aspect of Burkhart’s story is that his desire to achieve renown as an artist was so out of synch with how he might have achieved it. As a result, his work is now relegated to the lower echelons of art history. “The most difficult problem confronting a biographer trying to reconstruct the story of a historically ‘overlooked’ artist such as Emerson Burkhart,” Hall writes, “is the dearth of information about ‘second-tier artists’ once their lives and careers fade into the past.”

Hall’s narrative of Burkhart’s life reveals a farmer’s son whose rural upbringing had seeped into his pores and who held to the belief that painting nature would enable an artist to discover truth. This belief led Burkhart to embrace realism, and it was his nostalgic brand of realism that, Hall claims, was problematic for him as he struggled to launch an art career of significance beyond Central Ohio.

The paintings Hall deems Burkhart’s mature work date from the period between 1940 and 1955, when his marriage to Mary Ann Martin Burkhart showed signs of wear, and when he saw the world changing in ways he didn’t like.

“It’s where all of the skills that he had been honing during the formative period all came home,” Hall said in an interview with the Short North Gazette. “It’s where he really found his own stride, he found his own voice . . . His own problems at home had forced him into an introspective view of everything, and that was certainly recorded in those pictures.”

Spiritual Decay, 1948. Courtesy © The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

Hall claims Mary Ann Burkhart brought an over-reliance on alcohol from her dysfunctional family of origin into the marriage, and that Emerson Burkhart’s frequent encounters with prostitutes, of which Mary Ann was evidently aware, did not help matters at home. Perhaps burdened by his increasingly bleak domestic life, Burkhart saw largely the dark side of America’s post-World War II move toward modern mechanization. He watched in indignation as the automobile engine eclipsed the steam locomotive and other old-fangled tools and changed the way Americans thought about industry forever.

Burkhart’s artwork reflects his backward-looking mindset toward modern industrialism in paintings that Hall calls his “great masterpieces.” Spiritual Decay (1948) shows the rusted undercarriage of an old farm tractor. In The Heroes (1954), a requiem for the old-fashioned railroad locomotive, two trains side by side on different tracks at a railroad junction dwarf a lone male figure, head bowed in reverence for the machines around him. Painted four years later, Burkhart’s JIA Dismantled shows a train locomotive in the process of being picked apart amidst the detritus of a junkyard.

“It bothered him to see perfectly good things go to waste,” said Columbus Burkhart collector Geoff Hetrick. “There was absolutely nothing wrong with them, but a number of those engines were actually brought to Columbus during the 1950s and thrown over to the sidings and torched and dismantled for scrap. His question is, Why?”

In 1952, Burkhart had painted a manifesto of his struggles with modernism. In Still Life with Rotten Fruit, three round fruits are rendered unidentifiable by decay. Around the fruit are burned-out wooden matches, cigarette butts and old coins. Burkhart, who made frames for most of his paintings, surrounded this canvas with one he antiqued to look like the painting’s scratched-up background. The decrepitude inside the painting thus extends into the world beyond, and vice versa.

The deaths of Mary Ann Burkhart and Emerson Burkhart’s younger brother, Paul, in 1955 threw the artist into a brief period of despondency, at the end of which his painting style changed dramatically. “The unhappiness that he felt while Mary Ann was alive,” Hall writes, “had already compelled him to paint an entire body of pictures that expressed his feelings on the subjects of death and decay. Her death brought no new anguish to the brush. In fact, his response to the loss of the two people closest to him was to stop painting the dark and melancholy works that had consumed his attention from the late 1940s on and to begin painting the world in a fresh and, for him, an entirely new way.”

The Animal Nature in Man, 1947. Courtesy © Karl Jaeger, Bath, England.

That new way was heavily influenced by post-Impressionism, in which not realistic detail but sensory experiences were recorded on canvas in bold gestures and thick impasto. Burkhart largely set aside his paintbrushes in favor of a palette knife. Sometimes he even squeezed paint straight from the tube onto the canvas.

Burkhart was able to begin painting the world beyond Ohio and the United States as artist-in-residence of the International School of America. The school’s founder and director, Karl Jaeger, the son of a wealthy Columbus industrialist, had become enamored of Burkhart’s work. Jaeger established the school to offer ongoing opportunities for students to learn overseas and invited Burkhart to travel as its artist-in-residence. For ten years Burkhart took annual trips around the world with the school, to destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the West Indies. The international travel that most artists finagle a way to acquire in their tender years Burkhart experienced only in middle age.

Still, Burkhart’s late-life travels were formative in that they gave him all manner of exotic scenery to paint in his new style: In House of the Seven Palms, an angular, almost cubist building stands amidst a paradise of verdant palms. Boats in Istanbul depicts in an impressionistic swirl of colors a row of boats moored to a Turkish dock. In Hong Kong Harbor Burkhart captured the thick humidity of the air with a hazy veil of blues and grays.

As compelling as it may have been for Burkhart to loosen up his painting style so consciously and radically, his new style was, in the 1950s and ‘60s, nonetheless outdated, post-Impressionism having been most in vogue in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Hall writes that, somehow in his later years, “Burkhart seems to have made peace with the issue of modernism that had plagued his ideas on art since his earliest years” and said that “fatigue (and) a certain reckoning with the reality that had become his life” were the mechanisms behind this détente.

“His personal life had cleared itself of all the distractions and all the pain that had upset his psyche in the earlier years,” Hall said. “Most of the things that he had rejected early on, with the exception of geometric abstraction, he sort of embraced.”

Burkhart the Man

Hall’s book gives Burkhart’s artwork a profile in the context of twentieth-century American art and offers a sense of the artist’s personal background, quirks and outright prejudices. Those who knew Burkhart personally – models who sat for portraits he painted, friends who knew intimate details of his life – can fill in some of the details about who he was and what made him tick.

In his later years, Burkhart used some of his painted canvases for a curious purpose: as backdrops which he repainted as backgrounds for portraits. Burkhart worked with a number of models over the course of his career, not least of which was Mary Ann Burkhart herself, who also had sat for other artists.

Burkhart came across one of his models quite by chance. One day in 1963, he was traveling up to fish at Hoover Reservoir, one of his favorite spots, and stopped by a sporting goods store to get some bait. Over years of patronage, Burkhart had gotten to know the owner of the store, Dick Paugh, who also wrote a column on outdoors recreation for The Columbus Dispatch. Paugh had devoted one installment of his column to the accomplishments of Patricia Garland (née McCafferty), who as a 14-year-old had bought her first .22-calibre target rifle from him and had won awards for shooting in the National Rifle Association’s junior program, and whose father, Dispatch cultural affairs critic Jim McCafferty, Paugh knew from his work for the paper. Paugh posted a copy of his story about Garland, which also included her photo, on the wall behind his store cash register.

Burkhart noticed Garland’s photo and told Paugh he wanted to paint a portrait of her. Paugh contacted her father, and Garland met Burkhart in the summer of 1963. She was 17. He made quite an impression.

“He looked how I envision an artist,” Garland said. “He had this Einstein fly-away hair and very intense blue eyes.”

Dreams, 1964. Courtesy © Patricia L. Garland

Garland first sat for Burkhart in the spring of 1964 at his Woodland Avenue home.

“(From) the front door there was a parlor to the right and a living room to the left, and he painted in the parlor. He’d only paint between 10 in the morning and two o’clock in the afternoon, when the light was right.”

Garland had worn to her first sitting a dark blue sleeveless dress with a scoop neckline that framed the roundness of her face.

“While he was painting me, he went and got this great big, huge painting and put it behind me. And he said, ‘I’m going to paint you in it, so it looks like you’re there.’”

Garland had no way of knowing that Burkhart was placing her sad-eyed portrait in the middle of a Morrow County oilfield. It was only after Burkhart had made some headway on the portrait that Garland asked if she could see it.

“He said, ‘Sure,’ and then I saw all this stuff in the background (of the portrait) and I turned around and looked at the picture (backdrop) and saw that it was the same oilfield. I didn’t know where he was going with that.”

In the finished painting Garland holds a rose – one she never actually held while sitting for the portrait. Burkhart entitled the portrait Dreams, perhaps in reference to the dream of striking it rich with oil.

“He was obsessed with the gas and oil boom of the ‘60s and frequently painted scenes of the activity surrounding the drills, tanks and derricks,” Hetrick said.

But for Garland, who later received the painting as a gift in 1985, Dreams has deep personal resonance. At the time, Garland was stranded in California after a divorce and single-handedly raising four children. She dreamed of returning to Ohio and socked away what little cash was left over each month into her moving fund.

“My dream was, someday I’m going to own my own house, someday I’m going to have a job that’s stable,” Garland said, “and every time I’d get discouraged, I’d look up at that painting and say, that’s what the dream’s about. That painting kind of gave me inspiration to keep plugging away.”

Progress on each of Burkhart’s portraits of Garland came in fits and starts.

“He’d want to take a break every 15 minutes or so,” Garland said.

Burkhart would invite Garland to join him for a tea break in the kitchen and, once there, would open debate on all kinds of subjects.

“He would come up with the most off-the-wall stuff, it looked like, just to start a fight,” Garland said. “He’d say, ‘Organized religion is just a means of controlling the masses. What do you think about that?’ He had his own kind of way of looking at things that was totally different from anybody I ever heard talk about people and cultures and what was right and what was not. It was like opening a door to a new world. To hear him talk about all the different places he had been and things he had painted … it was fascinating.”

When Garland came back to sit for a second portrait, Burkhart noticed a problem.

“I was sitting for him when I was pregnant, and he said, ‘You come back when you’re not pregnant. Your face is florid,’” Garland said.

In early 1966, Garland posed for a fourth portrait. That was when he told her he had been dissatisfied with how the three previous portraits had turned out.

“He said they weren’t as good as he wanted them to be because he didn’t have the measurements of my face right,” Garland said. “He actually measured my face, how far apart my eyes were and how far apart my forehead was from the tip of my chin. He was trying to get it more exact.”

Ultimately, Burkhart never had the chance. He chastised Garland for wearing a sunburn to what would be her final sitting for him, and when the sunburn went away, Garland again found herself pregnant. A year or two went by, and then it was too late.

“I heard on the news that he had died,” Garland said.

Garland didn’t attend any memorial services for Burkhart because there weren’t any. It had been his wish to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered in the waters at Hoover Reservoir, one of Columbus’ main water supplies.

Burkhart, 1968. Photo (C) Tom Thomson

“He wanted everybody in Columbus to have a little part of him,” said Doral Chenoweth, a friend of Burkhart’s who wrote for a number of Columbus newspapers, including The Columbus Star and The Columbus Dispatch, and filled in as a host on the local radio program The Nita Hutch Show. For all his professional blunders, Burkhart knew he had to cultivate a rapport with those who were in a position to publicize him and developed friendships with many in the media, including Columbus-Citizen-Journal columnist Ben Hayes and Columbus Citizen editor Don Weaver.

Weaver had given Burkhart plenty of press after New York painter and guest juror Max Weber rejected Burkhart’s application to show in the 1956 exhibition of the Columbus Art League. Upon his rejection, Burkhart scheduled his own art opening at his home for the same night as the Art League’s opening. Burkhart’s private art shows became an annual event. Chenoweth attended all of Burkhart’s open houses and says the first one was “chaos.”

“They were shoulder-to-shoulder in that place. They had trouble going upstairs because there were too many people coming down,” Chenoweth said.

Like, Weaver, Chenoweth also knew he had a treasure trove in the off-kilter artist.

“I took a Wollensack reel-to-reel tape recorder out there (to the open house) and let it set for a while. I thought he was a character. I told him ‘I’m going to write a book on you,’” Chenoweth said.

For a while, whenever Burkhart and Chenoweth were together, Chenoweth taped him, collecting the painter’s musings. The tapes lay fallow for years, but when Burkhart died, Chenoweth transcribed sections of them into the script of a one-man play I, Emerson Burkhart. The play’s title goes back to Burkhart’s days as a frequent guest on The Nita Hutch Show.

“He had a habit of saying ‘I, Emerson Burkhart’ and then he would just take over,” Chenoweth said. “He would orate on anything he happened to see out the window there – art, politics, whatever.”

In Chenoweth’s play, Emerson Burkhart’s reported outrageousness is in full bloom: his disdain for abstract modernist artwork, his complicated views about women, his cock-eyed plans for importing ancient statuary and structures from around the globe and displaying them along the Scioto River.

I, Emerson Burkhart was first performed in December 1970, just over a year after Burkhart’s death, in the theater of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, now the Columbus Museum of Art. The Columbus dentist LeRoy Johnson portrayed Burkhart. The props – a wooden paint box, paintings, blank canvases, chairs, a table and even an easel – came from Burkhart’s estate.

I, Emerson Burkhart has been produced a handful of times since its premiere in Columbus, and Chenoweth is planning an informal reading occasioned by the release of Hall’s book. The play and Hall’s scholarly monograph are testaments of the life of a Columbus artist, one who even at the periphery of the American art scene stood tall in his own way. But because Burkhart’s career unfolded at the periphery of the large movements in American art, the story of his life and work, Hall says, enabled him to fill in what standard art histories largely ignore: the work not of the trendsetters and the artists who made it big, but of the majority who labored in the margins.

“The Burkhart story is an American art story,” Hall said. “I wrote this book because Emerson Burkhart has his peculiar and specific side, but the Emerson Burkhart story is played out thousands of times every year across this country, and very few art history books are written sympathetically from the point of view of the whole of an art moment at any time. It’s this dichotomy that I’m trying to describe and interpret in this book. This is a book for all the Burkharts out there.”


"Emerson Burkhart: An Ohio Painter’s Song of Himself” is available at the Columbus Museum of Art bookstore and
Visit to read Doral Chenoweth’s play about Burkhart, including an epilogue by those who loved him.

This page was updated February 11, 2010

© 2010 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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