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The Enduring Artistic Spirit of Emerson Burkhart
by Ben Hayes
September 2006

Emerson Burkhart, artist, did oil paintings of lanes of maple trees budding in spring sun in 1968 in the manner of Claude Monet, French impressionist. As the season warmed, he did landscapes of open Ohio fields – the Monet influence was noticeable.

“Monet was on the right track,” he said as he nailed a painted canvas into a frame. He was always nailing, always hammering. Burkhart would say “Moan-A” to avoid misunderstandings. He hated poor communication. Never mentioned “Manet,” another celebrated painter.

Some “Burkhart watchers” in Columbus, Ohio – both his art and his ways attracted them – saw a Monet influence in his work 10 years earlier. It was in a picture of locomotives in a junking yard.

“The next 10 years,” he said just before his death in 1969, “I’m going to paint the way ‘Moan-A’ did. That’s long enough.” Burkhart had no thought that the end for him could be near.

There had been a previous stroke of slight paralysis, but he recovered, mostly. Just before he was stricken the second time at age 64, Burkhart had taken a station wagon load of paintings from his eastside mansion to Franklin University library where he hung them for an exhibit. He hammered, drove nails, laughed – pleased that his art was getting added exposure.

In the mansion, the kitchen table was weighted with art books, the Monets on top. He studied; he always had. He was going to museums to look at their Monets. And he worked.

One sunny afternoon previously, for example, Burkhart painted four pictures of downtown Columbus street corners.

He wrapped them individually in brown paper (in a butcher shop) before the post office closed and mailed them to a newspaper editor and his three top assistants – to their homes. They got the pictures before the paint had dried.

Had the “Monet Period” of Burkhart reached fullness under Ohio sunlight? Add it to several artistic periods. He was a genius of change.

One contingent of Burkhart fans say something like this: “Just wait, some East Coast museum will buy up his somber portraits and that’ll make Burkhart super famous.” In 1985, they loyally cling to that.

Burkhart would work six months on an oil, or a year. He did The Matriarch in 1944 in gray tones. Mrs. Cora Johnson, who was 87 when she died in 1971, sat for him 44 times. The artist was caught by inflation: Mrs. Johnson began sitting for 50 cents a session. She raised it to one dollar before her likeness was sombered totally.

Burkhart did more men than women in the “Huge Masterpieces.” He put in warts and warbles. Grizzled hair would bristle on a workingman’s forearm. Burkhart liked railroad engineers as subjects.

There came the time of the purple catfish. A pan of live bullheads gave Burkhart’s work juicy curves. He showed technical brilliance by smearing yellow and white in streaks into the purple. He wasn’t painting with brushes; most was done with palette knife.

Walter P. Chrysler Jr. was delighted by the catfish and bought several of those pictures. Also scenes with plucked chickens, with human cadavers, coins and paper money scattered over the hillside.

Other Eastern collectors with ready money went for the locomotives. The Pennsylvania Railroad switched to diesel power at the time. The big and old steam “Hogs” with their melodious chime whistles were parked, nose to tail, on parallel sidings about the panhandle shops on Columbus’s east side. Grass grew between tracks, a fresh contrast to the iron grays and rusts above the static drive wheels of the discards. The artist labored. He put on canvas many, many monumental images before the scrap-iron men ignited their cutting torches. Most of those pictures are gone from Columbus.

Burkhart was not completely Columbus. In some early years, he found a Cincinnati neighborhood compatible. There he did portraits of the neighborhood bookseller, the neighborhood blacksmith. Should you see the portraits, the blacksmith stands before shelved books, the book man beside an anvil. Burkhart made both look quite at home. He could mix the trivial with the sublime. Once he phoned me and said, “There is a restaurant out here that serves the best hominy.” We, he and I, went to dinner there, ordered two side dishes of hominy. He ate both. I still have not tasted that restaurant’s hominy.

In a “Grease Period,” Burkhart painted four discarded auto engines with open crankcases. On the one selected for Ohio State Fair competition, he put the title label on its frame upside down. Whoops, it worked – the picture was hung upside down! Good publicity to the max!

Columbus had a professional man, a famous one intimates called “Electric Whiskers.” His face was dynamic. His wife had Burkhart do a portrait. She paid for it, then promptly hid it. “It scares me,” she said. “I can’t look at it.” And too much reality caused Burkhart to miss a sale in the posing of another famous Ohioan. That man’s nose was enormous. Burkhart was accurate. The commissioning organization bought an alternate portrait by an artist who had been a Burkhart pupil.

A period for sports struck Burkhart. He and his easel were seen in stadiums. He did the game, not the athlete, in big sweeping scenes. Golf, to him, was a landscape. At the baseball stadium, he wore fresh cabbage leaves inside his cap to protect him from sunstroke. That “secret formula” came from Mary Ann, his wife, who was from the German section of Columbus.

Burkhart painted Indian cabins on Manitoulin Island, fishermen in the Canary Islands, black cows in India, docks in Sweden, antiquities in Athens, St. Peter’s in Rome, Hong Kong harbor, the pyramids. He got around in later years. Also, Tokyo’s Ginza.

Portraits included the cook of the Broad-Nel Grill (on Alum Creek), Carl Sandburg, prairie poet. Also self-portraits. He said that he was his cheapest and handiest model, and claimed to keep precise count on Burkharts-by-Burkhart. But I have heard him give total as 173, another day as 227.

About the mansion, he found a rag doll and a crude wood mock-up of a gun. He painted them daily. On a canvas the objects stand apart, facing in. I saw another picture with the objects together, in crossed position. And on. Luckily the baskets of fruit arrived about then.

The No. 1 produce wholesaler of Central Ohio gave Burkhart a basket of fresh fruit. It was for a favor Burkhart had done for the man. The fruit probably was the most tempting, luscious basket ever assembled, but Burkhart did not touch it. Day after day, he painted its portrait. The oils range for peak ripeness down to decay, utter decay. Was he thinking of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man?

Burkhart was born in 1905 on a farm near Toledo and often talked of smelling the countryside. Ohio smelled, he said, like Ohio.

He attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, nursing one passion, oil painting. There’s a story about his behavior in a class for wallpaper design. “I finally had to send him upstairs to oil painting,” said the professor.

It was a Burkhart habit in Columbus to make fun of watercolors and the artists who did them. But, after Burkhart’s death, his executors found some excellent Burkhart watercolors stored in the mansion.

Burkhart also had a collection of Carl Springer landscapes, he said – but refused to show them – “in the attic,” he said. Scandinavian Springer painted snow scenes. He befriended the young Burkhart when Burkhart arrived in Columbus.

And snow remained the one thing, perhaps, that Burkhart would not paint. “White paint” (curling his lip), “that’s for Scandinavians.” He also was disdainful of Paul Gauguin’s pink sand.

Materialism, one of a series of self-portraits by Emerson Burkhart.

After college, Burkhart went to Provincetown on Cape Cod where he studied with Charles Hawthorne. He liked Hawthorne’s pictures. He also admired the works of Robert Henri and Columbus-born George Bellows. And Albert Pinkham Ryder was an early influence. There is a kinship between Edward Hopper and Burkhart. When in New York, the Columbus man would be in Hopper’s studio for long chats.

Burkhart learned all he could about Bellows. At every chance, he interviewed Bellows’ widow, Emma. A memory cherished: Springer, in 1906, watched Bellows paint the portrait of his father, Columbus architect, in a library court south studio. Burkhart was forever quoting Springer’s account of it. Bellows, of course, is classified as a New York artist. And speaking of Ohio artists, Burkhart tended to hold down Cincinnati’s Frank Duveneck. He wanted to say, it seemed, that Charles Burchfield, born in Salem, Ohio, was a notch above. Could be.

Two Books: Burkhart gave my daughter an Albert Pinkham Ryder art book. He had acquired it while in Cincinnati and he re-covered it with brown paper, brushing gold, red and black scrolls on the paper. Also, for a full year, Burkhart had my copy of Bellows’ biography, by Morgan, and how he annotated it! The name Max Weber, the New York abstract artist, appears in it a few times. Burkhart always scribbled an obscene word beside. (Reason below.)

In the tranquil years, Burkhart was a member of the Columbus Art League, as was everyone. Its annual show was a Biggie. Burkhart entered, got cited at times for achievement. Then, one spring Weber was coaxed out here to select the entries. It was the whirlwind – Weber barred the representational. Wow! Burkhart, out of the show, was incensed. Other “realists” took it calmly, perhaps tried a little cubism in the next few months. Burkhart vowed to run Columbus Art League out of business!

Usually in May, the Art League would hold show. Same day, beginning 6 p.m., Burkhart would hold an open house in his big Woodland Avenue structure. That went on forever. Every open house at Burkhart’s was thronged. Newspapers gushed. Art was sold! Displayed on all walls, including bathroom walls and some ceilings were framed oil paintings. All by Burkhart. No Carl Springers. No Art League members.

One year Burkhart had been so productive, he had to park his cars outside. The five-car garage was hung with Burkharts. And those sold, too. I recall watching Emerson sell a little oil for five dollars – but prices did Weber their way up.

The mansion: 28 rooms, dark red-brick on a corner, a big house in a slew of big houses north of Franklin Park. Judge Roy Wildermuth had lived there; he traded it to a real estate firm for an investment row. A member of the firm was a culture supporter and arranged for Burkhart to acquire it at a reasonable cost. That was in the Depression. Big, square place, rooms huge. Burkhart bought bedroom furniture of large scale at auctions in Broad Street mansions being abandoned by bankers relocating to Bexley. He used the dining room for a studio. It had a big north window. A raised platform for a sitter’s chair. Framed oils were stacked against the wall.

That business above about snow is not quite true. He would, and did, paint snow if it could be seen from a window of the house. One snowed-in February, cabin fever got him (in a mansion!). He painted white scenes from the mansion windows. They sold well. Other days, he would look in the mirror and paint himself.

He was wild about supplies. Tubes of color, canvases, frames (always had one ready), then he would start on the canvas. He located a Cincinnati frame company with rich gold frames, scalloped, juicy curves. Bought a slew, tried a gold frame on just about everything. I recall sitting on the porch waiting for him one summer after 6 p.m. He brought in three landscapes from the Gahanna area. Had to put them in frames before we went to dinner. He nailed, he pulled bent ones, hammered back others. He was eager to see how they looked framed. The big Burkhart in my living room (34 x 40 inches) shows two houses in the village of Blacklick, and it’s been in five frames since he gave it to me. When he died, it was in one of the Cincinnati gold frames, and the frame was so gorgeous it made my house look cheap.

Winter Landscape, 1944.

Murals: negligible today. Cincy Burkhart did Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals. For instance, in Central High School, on the Ohio State University campus. Certainly big deals then! But today? Shrug. Their style is derivative and unrelated to anything we know now about Burkhart.

He ate dinner here on his last 10 birthdays. He would select the menu in advance – meat loaf, mashed potatoes, fruit jello (no hominy). It took him five minutes to eat, then we sat at the fireplace all night long and talked. We repeated ourselves through the years – stimulus, response, you say that, I say this, consistent.

An unstated rule was “work every day.” When traveling, he would do the scene from his hotel window as soon as the day dawned. (He brought home nice fountains from Rome.) Energetic and spirited, he was. He had his own sort of brio, and impatience was part of it. In Columbus, as soon as a building or a place became “Hot” in the news, immediately Burkhart would be seen there sketching it in oil or charcoal. In that sense, he was the city’s public artist. And he would be willing to sell his product.

Wildlife, to a degree, became part of his life. One summer, he painted scenes at Lake Madison. He deemed that lake had good fish population, so he brought a rod and tackle. He became a skilled caster, although oil paint smeared the rod’s cork handle.

During a Gahanna period, Burkhart carried English walnuts to feed to gray squirrels infesting the suburb. Several scenes painted there have squirrel tracks in now-hardened oils, for he allowed squirrels to race up and down the easel.

I heard him remark that he liked fish and squirrels. Not to eat, but to mingle with. Sort of a fellowship had been established.

Ben Hayes was longtime columnist for The Columbus Citizen-Journal. He died in 1989.

©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.