Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on October 5, 2009 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Burchfield Homestead Museum through this phone number:



 

Paint the Town

Charles Burchfield: The Salem Years

by Richard Wootten

 

When Arthur Burchfield, President of the Burchfield Foundation, considered the notion of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, Charles E. Burchfield, he immediately thought of Salem, Ohio, a town of about 13,000 residents, 15 miles southwest of Youngstown.

The choice, perhaps not logical a dozen years ago, has merit today because of the raised consciousness of Salemites that one of America's greatest painters made the town his home during a significant period of his life. Burchfield lived in Salem from the age of four in 1898 to twenty-eight in 1921. To him, 1917 was his "golden year," when a burst of creativity resulted in 400 artworks. From 1922 until his death in 1967, his memories of Salem played a strong role in his art. His love of nature was born during his boyhood jaunts into the woods and fields of Salem. Images of Salem houses appeared in his watercolors into the 1960s. It was a place his psyche would not allow him to forget during the latter part of his life as a resident of the Buffalo, New York, area.

Drawing from Burchfield's journals, his biographer, John Baur, writes of that period:

In June 1916, Burchfield graduated from the Cleveland School and returned to Salem and his job in the cost department at Mullins (a manufacturer of auto parts). For about a year he had been painting his own impressions of nature -- at first in rather harsh, brilliant colors and bold, flat patterns; then, in 1916, with quieter tones, greater subtlety and more poetic feeling, though still in an essentially flat and decorative manner. Now he spent every spare moment sketching in the familiar countryside of his youth and a wave of happiness came over him. "After a long period of gloomand self-hatred, I came home tonight under the half-moon exceeding light of heart, so that I unconsciously whistled. Fireflies "popped like stars" in the marshy valleys, and as he walked he composed strange music to an improvised tale of unhappy lovers. He had no more possessions, he reflected, than the love of nature and life, but then, "the true poet needs no more." For was he not an artist these days, sketching when and where he wished, with the whole world of nature still to be explored? Its bigness overwhelmed him. With youth's unconscious egotism, "life seemed short for the stupendous work I am to accomplish."[1]

By the 1980s there were only a few Salem people left who were old enough to remember Burchfield. Librarians at the Salem Public Library followed his career and maintained a clipping file. Salem High School teacher Edith Goodman, an avid admirer of the artist, made certain that several generations of students knew of him. But the town had yet to recognize or honor him in any tangible way.

Then, in 1984, the Salem Historical Society, realizing that the general public was unaware of the location of Burchfield's boyhood home, asked one of the artist's elderly friends to point it out. The society donated funds to repair the porch of the modest two-story wooden house on East Fourth Street and invited Burchfield's daughter, Catherine Parker, to town to install a plaque on the house. Parker, an artist from Buffalo, was the guest of honor during Salem's annual citywide "Jubilee" summertime celebration. The audience for her talk about her father jammed the local theater. When she showed slides of her father's Salem-era paintings, people in the audience jumped up to announce that the grandfather clock depicted in the slide had belonged to their family. A friendly dialogue followed and a real enthusiasm grew.

That same year, the Burchfield foundation and the Lutheran Film Association produced a documentary film about Charles Burchfield, in which some of Burchfield's old Salem friends reminisced about "Charley" and how "he seemed to be a lot smarter than the rest of us." Footage of Burchfield's old boyhood haunts was included in the hour-long film. The film's commentator was John Baur, then director emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art and author of The Inlander, the definitive Burchfield biography. Baur was shown in the film helping to mount the 1984 Burchfield Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The world premiere of Burchfield's Vision was given at the Salem High School in 1985. Proceeds went into the school's Burchfield Scholarship Fund for promising high school artists who plan to continue their art studies. (In 1922, when Valedictorian Burchfield graduated from Salem High, he was awarded a $120 scholarship, which some of his teachers were hoping he would use to continue his studies in Latin.)

This flurry of Burchfield-mania led to the Salem Historical Society developing a Burchfield Room, which features reproductions of the artist's Salem paintings side-by-side with current photos of the scenes he painted. More than thirty such sites were identified, and several "Burchfield sleuths" are still active in locating painting sites. An approach to art history, site specifics, centers exactly on that kind of comparison. (Notable is a recent book comparing Edward Hopper's painting locales with photos.) The great pleasure in comparing Burchfield's paintings with his chosen sites is in discovering where reality ends and fantasy begins.

In 1987, the Salem Historical Society celebrated a Charles Burchfield Day with an April banquet featuring John Baur as lecturer. Baur was also involved in planning a Burchfield exhibit at the Columbus Art Museum with a curator from that museum, Nannette V. Maciejunes. Sadly, Baur died just twenty days after his Salem appearance; however, Mrs. Maciejunes successfully carried forward the project and introduced into the exhibit ten paintings and drawings that had not been seen in public before. They were owned by Salem area collectors whom she had learned about during her April visit.

In 1991, The Salem News, the local daily newspaper, began a historical tabloid, Yesteryears, which includes stories on Salem's past. Editor Lois Firestone began including photos of early Burchfield paintings whose sites were unknown, and readers were invited to identify the sites. Since many readers are long-time Salem residents, they proved helpful in solving these Burchfield mysteries. Some readers excitedly rushed into the newsroom to confront Ms. Firestone with their answers. Photographers were sent to the site, and in the next Yesteryears edition, the painting and photo where shown together with comments from the discoverer. It became a game.

One intriguing painting, Snow Patterns, from 1920 shows an industrial scene that seemed unfamiliar. A reader named Ed Lesch identified one large building in the painting as the Bliss Company, where he had worked for 36 years. Where was Burchfield's vantage point when he painted it? There didn't seem to be one, until two other residents, Bob Campf and Mike Oana, called the newspaper with the same idea. They surmised Burchfield must have been on the fire escape of the Columbia Street School, which had been torn down in 1953. Campf and Oana had gone to school there and were familiar with the view. A 1952 aerial photo of Salem was found, and a line was drawn from the fire escape to the smoke stack pictured in the painting. By comparing the shapes of the roof lines in the photo and painting, seven buildings in the painting were identified.

Word of Salem's Burchfield sleuthing spread to other American museums. Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum wanted the site of a 1921 Burchfield drawing identified for its large American Drawings and Watercolors exhibition in 1992. After the drawing appeared in Yesteryears, an eighty-seven year old nursing home resident called to say the building in the drawing just "jumped out at him." He identified it as a grocery store on South Broadway in Salem. No old photos were found to verify his claim, but a check of old city directories did show that at that address there had been grocery stores before 1923. The building was razed before 1927. That information was noted in the catalog of the Kansas City exhibition (see American Art Review Vol. 5 No.1, illustrated).

The suggestion by Art Burchfield that his father's 100th birthday observance be in Salem was taken up by members of the new Salem Branch of Youngstown's Butler Institute of American Art, which opened in November, 1991, with its own Burchfield exhibit. Because April 9, Burchfield's birthday, falls on Good Friday this year, it was agreed that the celebration would take place the following weekend, Friday, April 16 and Saturday, April 17. The Burchfield family members who serve on the Burchfield Foundation Board will gather in Salem for the foundation's meeting and the celebration.

The evening will open with an original one-man play in which actor John Dunlap portrays Burchfield. The Salem Community Theater will present it five times during the weekend. The gala opening of the Burchfield exhibition, featuring Salem-era drawings and paintings, will follow the play. During the six-week run of the exhibit, films, gallery talks, and lectures are scheduled. An opening night laser art show is being planned on State Street. Light will bounce from buildings that served as subjects for Burchfield's paintings. Saturday morning walking tours of Burchfield's paintings sites will be led by docents of the Butler Institute.

Arthur Burchfield volunteered to loan the large blue banner that hung outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the 1984 retrospective, but committee members feared there are no buildings in Salem tall enough from which it could hang gracefully. However, ingenious high school art students have designed twenty-one banners, featuring colorful motifs from Burchfield paintings, to hang from light poles downtown.

1 John Baur, Charles Burchfield, (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p.22.



About the Author

Richard Wootten, now retired, spent nearly 40 years writing for a wire service, newspapers and magazines on crime, politics, and federal court trials, plus 17 years as an arts and entertainment writer for the Cleveland Press. He has interviewed John Wayne, Judy Garland, composers Darius Milhaud and Leonard Bernstein, pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Robert Casadesus, plus artists Romare Bearden and Salvador Dali, among others. In 1981 he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his Cleveland Press series on the problems of the visual art scene in Cleveland and initiated a county-wide art festival to address those problems. He was Cleveland correspondent for Life Magazine and People Magazine and authored a biography of sculptor David Hostetler, published by the Ohio University Press. His essays about Burchfield have appeared in catalogues of exhibitions held at the Columbus Museum of Art and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He received a first place award from the Cleveland Press Club and Sigma Delta Chi for an essay on Chinese art in a competition judged by the Los Angeles Press Club, and also received a Man of the Year award in Salem, Ohio, for helping to create Salem's Burchfield Homestead Museum. He has served as executive director of the museum since 1990. A graduate of Ohio State University, where he captained the varsity lacrosse team, he also served as an artillery lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His grown children, Claude and twins Julia and Elizabeth, and their children reside in the Seattle, Washington area. His wife Judith is an English professor at the Kent State University Salem campus.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on October 5, 2009 with permission of author, which was granted to TFAO on August 12, 2009.

This article appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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