July 2009 Issue
Homage to Home
The Columbus Museum of Art cultivates Charles Burchfield’s creative roots.
For Columbus Museum of Art executive director Nannette Maciejunes, “The Architecture of Painting: Charles Burchfield, 1920” has turned into what she calls, “the little exhibit that could.”
Comprised of 40 watercolors depicting eastern Ohio houses and landscapes, the exhibit is the first to feature small-scale paintings Burchfield created between 1918 and 1920 while living in Salem. As a result, the show has garnered widespread media attention, ranging from a New York Times feature to a review in the alternative New York Press. The Columbus Museum of Art developed the exhibition in partnership with New York City’s DC Moore Gallery, which represents Burchfield’s estate, and the Burchfield Penny Art Center in Buffalo, New York. It debuted earlier this year at the DC Moore Gallery, and will remain in Columbus until Aug. 2, before a stop at the Burchfield Penny.
Born in Ashtabula in 1893, Charles Ephraim Burchfield was raised in Salem by his widowed mother. In their small house on East Fourth Street, the youngster enjoyed a happy childhood, sketching animals and flowers in the hills surrounding the factory town. After graduating from the Cleveland School of Art in 1916, he ventured into the vast unknown of New York City, staying just long enough to find an art dealer before fleeing back to his family in Ohio.
Upon his return, Burchfield began creating copious paintings of the Salem-centered world he knew so well: houses, stores, factories, railroads, farms and forests. In his self-described “golden year” of 1917 alone, he produced more than 200 paintings. For a few months during World War I, Burchfield served with an Army camouflage unit in South Carolina (in a postcard to a neighbor, Burchfield scribbled that he painted a cannon to look like a raspberry bush). After the war, he became interested in regional writers, recognizing in novels such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a literary complement to his place paintings. In 1921, Burchfield left Salem and headed to Buffalo, New York, where a company hired him to design wallpaper. He spent the rest of his life there, raising a family and earning a reputation as a leading American artist.
That same year, the Brooklyn Museum purchased his 1920 work, “February Thaw,” a vivid illustration of three animistic houses, with windows and doorways patterned to suggest eyes and mouths. Curator Maciejunes considers it to be one of the most important watercolors in the Columbus exhibit.
“This is a key painting,” she says, “because it was Burchfield’s first to enter a public collection, and it was at the heart of what he was doing in that early period.”
She adds that, since Cleveland was a modern-art hot spot when Burchfield studied there, the young artist was exposed to Cubism and primitivism, evident in the geometric patterns and simple but bold forms of works such as “Sleet Storm”
and “Spring Twilight.” (In fact, he became so well known in New York for this kind of work that, in 1930, the Museum of Modern Art chose watercolors he produced from 1916 to 1918 for the institution’s first one-man show.)
Although Burchfield would go on to paint other subjects and places, the experiences and impressions of his boyhood supplied the wellspring of inspiration he returned to again and again.
“One of the things I discovered,” says Maciejunes, “is that Burchfield painted his back yard from the time he was young until the day he died.”
Today, Burchfield’s former back yard in Salem remains much the same as it was while he was growing up. “Looking out a window and seeing the things he saw 80 or 90 years ago gives me a chill,” says Richard Wootten, executive director of the Burchfield Homestead Museum. Wootten, a former arts writer for the Cleveland Press, spearheaded the restoration of the Burchfield home in the 1990s, and exhibits inside the modest caramel-colored dwelling now celebrate how the house and its views of Salem influenced the artist.
Since the town largely escaped urban renewal during the 1900s, visitors can look out an upstairs window and see the collage of neighborhood geometry –– triangular gables, square windows, rectangular chimneys — that shaped Burchfield’s perspective. In “Sleet Storm,” Burchfield portrayed a house across the street; 25 years later, he spotlighted a second Fourth Street house — as well as the telephone pole that’s still there — in his 1945 naturescape, “Cherry Blossom Snow.” The watercolor’s ominous storm, Burchfield told Time magazine in 1946, stemmed from “a remembrance of coming home from school at noon and being awed by the sight of such an event.”
While his boyhood home had an extraordinary effect on Burchfield, the Homestead Museum’s displays of family photographs and excerpts from his journals also reveal Burchfield’s affection for the world around him: It’s clear he was no tortured, isolated artist, but rather a likeable fellow who was class valedictorian, sketched the neighborhood kids and proudly posed with his family for a photo on their new front porch. For Burchfield, familiarity did not breed contempt but great creativity, and this intimate observer’s gift was the ability to make the ordinary seem epic.
“Sometimes in the evening,” says Wootten, “I stand on the front porch, look around, and think, ‘Charlie, this is what your Salem was like.’”