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Becoming Burchfield

Note: your last opportunity to see this exhibit free of charge is this Friday! Details below.

Recently a Twitter pal shared a photo of a painting her grade-school daughter made of a flower. It was nicely detailed, like something you might find among the work of a naturalist, and evinced a budding talent. So I asked whether she had taken her daughter to the current exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, which includes work from Burchfield’s school days, when he was beginning to evince a similar talent for depicting the world around him. I was surprised that she not only hadn’t taken her daughter, but wasn’t aware of the exhibit – particularly as she happens to be a professor at Buffalo State, the very institution that hosts the gallery.

If your home or heart houses a budding artistic talent – and I believe this applies to all of us, in one way or another – don’t make this mistake. Charles Burchfield is the most important artist in Buffalo’s history, and was an artist of national stature – most of us know that, and know at least something of his work. But, as I argued in a review of last year’s exhibit celebrating the centennial of Burchfield’s “golden year” of creativity, it is just as important to understand how small-town Ohio boy Charlie Burchfield became Charles Burchfield, artist celebrated regionally and nationally.

The current exhibit, which closes later this month, is simply essential to that understanding. It’s an archival exhibit, curated by Tullis Johnson, who manages the Burchfield-Penney Art Center’s priceless and extensive Burchfield archive. So in addition to notable Burchfield works from the Center’s own collection and on loan from other galleries, are rarely displayed items from the archives that provide invaluable context and insight into the works in the exhibit and Burchfield’s development as an artist and a person.

This also happens to be the first in a series of planned exhibits coinciding with the centennial of Burchfield’s commercial career, when the world began to take note of Artist Charles Burchfield and purchase his work. If you miss them, you’ll have to wait for the bicentennial exhibits. Whether stated or not, this series would seem to be strongly grounded in last year’s “golden year” exhibit, and 2016’s revealing Blistering Vision exhibit, also curated by Tullis, which solidly established Burchfield as an environmentalist and naturalist from an early age.

A Budding Talent

Like his love for nature, Burchfield’s artistic talent was also evident from an early age. The exhibit shows us this clearly with work from his grade school classes, where nature is featured prominently, as it would be all his life. As Blistering Vision revealed, the young Burchfield collected and illustrated specimens, and considered a career as a naturalist. It seems clear that depicting nature was at least one motivation for him to invest in developing his artistic talents early. He also shows an early eye for design, that later would serve him well in nearly a decade of work for Buffalo’s Birge wallpaper company.

Early work, 1907

At the same time, this exhibit shows us another motivator at work: encouragement from adults. In a small community with an economy then based on small-scale industry, mining, and agriculture, it would be no surprise to find boys directed toward those ends. Yet this budding artistic talent seems to have been nurtured by his teachers. As quoted in the exhibit, Burchfield later wrote of his grade-school art teacher, Mr. Weaver,

He always praised my work to me & to the class much to my delight and had a stamp which he printed on work especially good, showing a bird carrying a little card with the words, “Good work.” I still have drawings with this seal of approval on them. He also graded the work, and I can still remember the thrill I got when in the fifth grade I first attained “100.”

The community seems to have embraced his talent, as well. His earliest work is full of scenes captured in and around Salem. Houses of friends, relatives, and neighbors recur – his boyhood home, still extant, has been called “the most painted house in America” – along with, although less frequently, their occupants. While working for a local industry during summers after high school and full-time after college, he often sketched before work, on lunch breaks, and after work, doing the painting later at home. A young Burchfield and his art supplies – impossible to conceal – must have been a common sight in Salem.

A lesson we can learn from this exhibit, then, is that it takes a village to raise an artist, including teachers like Mr. Weaver. Yet it seems to me a shortcoming that the exhibit doesn’t take the final step of delivering that lesson. That criticism is similar to one I made about last fall’s exhibit, as well.

While I’m glad to see how far Buffalo goes to encourage its budding young artists, architects, musicians, and writers, we should never miss the opportunity to do more. Because it documents the youthful development of a great artist, this exhibit is perhaps a missed opportunity to engage young artists and those in a position to nurture their talents. A local youth could have the talent for a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, like Burchfield. And many local youth have the talent to eventually have their work seen at a gallery devoted to regional art, or a smaller gallery or college. An exhibit like this has the potential to fan a glowing ember of talent in a youthful soul, but only if it’s seen, and shared in the right way.

I wondered if the gallery was using the exhibit to host workshops with art teachers? What about field trips to the Burchfield nature center in West Seneca for students to paint nature scenes? The new Albright-Knox exhibit of pioneering black women artists features an accompanying children’s guide with questions and activities to engage young people in the issues raised by the exhibit. Shouldn’t that be a best practice?

Given that he used a bird stamp, perhaps Mr. Weaver had an affinity for nature that he helped nurture in the young Burchfield. In an age of accelerating climate change and worldwide environmental degradation, are we, like Mr. Weaver (perhaps), doing enough to nurture nature in the next generation? Prominently greeting all who visited the Center’s 2016 exhibit Blistering Vision was Burchfield’s statement of commitment to nature. That statement was made in 1914, when he was but eleven years old. Shouldn’t we be using every opportunity at hand to so inspire the commitment of our pre-teens to things much larger than themselves?

Already in my mind I have made the following resolution I will now put down on paper; I hereby dedicate my life and soul to the study and love of nature, with the purpose to bring it before the mass of uninterested public. If I can bring only a few serious-minded people to see how vital nature is, besides looking beautiful, I shall be content.

– Charles Burchfield, 1914

But when I asked Tullis about programs, he told me, “Unfortunately we were not able to do much programming related to the exhibition. We had a few things planned, but they did not take shape.” To be fair, the curators and archivists at the Burchfield are top-notch. Every day, they have the fate of a priceless cultural legacy in their hands. Extensive education and training, and adherence to rigorous standards, are the hallmarks of all those so entrusted. Yet those skills may not make them the best ones to make a teen who grew up in a refugee camp and speaks limited English, or a fifth-grader from a low-income household who has only been to our cultural institutions on school field trips, understand why a young Burchfield’s artistic development a century ago matters to them, now. But our schools do have educators who should be able to help the Center make those connections. Are they not doing so? If not, shouldn’t our major culturals be making sure that happens? Understandably, non-profit institutions never have enough people or funding to do everything they would like to do. But perhaps if the major culturals in the museum district teamed up on shared services, as I suggested in this post about the Scajaquada Expressway corridor, they could jointly support that.

In terms of making connections, it’s great to see the Center partnering with organizations serving our immigrant and refugee communities on this month’s M&T Second Friday at the Center, as we posted about here.

New York, New York

On the surface, it might seem strange that an exhibit called The Ohio Years incorporates materials from outside Ohio. Yet the exhibit is about a period in Burchfield’s life during which he had two very important, maturing experiences away from home. One was his brief service in the Army during WWI, appropriately enough, with the Camouflage Corps. It was a natural fit, with Burchfield adapting dense foliage patterns had had painted in a hollow at home to making military equipment hard to spot from the air. His talent led him to be put in charge of a unit, which he found an awkward fit. On an exhibit tour, Tullis told the story that one day Burchfield instructed his men to disassemble a cannon prior to painting it, but on his return found they had painted the pieces in such a way that they could no longer be reassembled. They had to strip all the paint. The exhibit includes examples of his camouflage work (but no cannon). It also includes work Burchfield painted while stationed in South Carolina.


Those who know Burchfield know of his brief involvement with one of the nation’s premier art schools in New York. Very brief – he left after a single drawing class, never to return. To me, this is an intriguing mystery akin to what happened in the cave in E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India – a literal black hole in his biography. What exactly transpired? What was it about the class? Did the instructor say something that precipitated his decision? Or did the experience simply reinforce a decision Burchfield was already considering?

Tullis, who as the manager of the archive perhaps comes as close as anyone to living in Burchfield’s head, doesn’t find it a mystery. After all, by the time he went to New York, Burchfield had already had four years of art school in Cleveland. He had also, Tullis pointed out, produced work of note. Also, Tullis suspects, the New York school may have had a rigidness in its approach – easy for me to imagine as an analog to the rigid classicism being taught in the architecture schools of the day – that would not have worked for Burchfield. “No one saw the world the way Burchfield did,” Tullis pointed out. Not only that, but as I described in my piece on last year’s exhibit, Burchfield would change the way we see the world. He didn’t need any more art school to equip him for that.

But as the exhibit shows, his six weeks in New York was far from wasted time for the young artist. He captured scenes of the large-scale city, and – most importantly – established relationships with gallerists that would prove crucial to his career and, in some cases, last for decades.

Still, the whole episode leaves me wondering, and wanting more. A century on, is it time to take a closer look at that pivotal moment? A paper, an article, an exhibit on Burchfield in New York could help us imagine what happened that day. Even something like a theatrical production in which a creative, synesthetic, small-town Burchfield, growing confident in his unique artistic vision, jousts with a rigid, old-school, big-city formalist about the nature and meaning of art. Budding playwrights, please take note.

Winesburg, Ohio

In Burchfield’s early life the other Ohio town, aside from his hometown, Salem, that had a profound effect on his development as an artist was Winesburg. Yet Winesburg, Ohio wasn’t an actual place, but a book – an American classic by Sherwood Anderson, one of the best-known writers in the early decades of the twentieth century. Although he later fell into obscurity, the influence of this “writer’s writer” would long outlast him through the work of others he helped inspire, support, and promote. Writers we all know, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, were influenced by Anderson’s story telling with simple words and naked personal and emotional revelation – the opposite of the flowery, elaborate prose and façades that had been a hallmark of Gilded-Age America.

As this exhibit reveals, writing wasn’t the only creative field where Anderson’s influence was felt. According to the exhibit notes,

In May of 1919 a bookseller in Cleveland gave Burchfield a copy of Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio, which had been published in its first edition at the beginning of that month. Burchfield wrote about his reaction to the book saying: “I was both fascinated and repelled by his stories – I wrote to him and received a cordial letter in return – Winesburg cleared the air for me, and I returned to human subjects again.”

An article in Art and Antiques Magazine[LINK: ] has more about the influence of Anderson’s book on Burchfield:

The book, which peers under the banal, isolating rock of small-town life, struck a chord with Burchfield. The artist wrote that he wanted to “show the hardness of human lives and struggles.” He turned his focus to small-town and industrial scenes. He relished painting houses. Burchfield’s realist depictions of houses, which hint at the unknown lives being led inside, are like Anderson’s characters, who conceal their inner thoughts behind a social façade.

The organizer of Burchfield’s first New York exhibit in 1920 wrote in the catalog, “One has to read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to understand the inner growth of the Burchfield boy.” Because of their ruthlessly honest depictions in print and on canvas, both men were wrongly accused of hating the very places in northern Ohio with which they felt deep affinity. It was the Burchfield exhibit in New York that led art critic Henry McBride to write – wrongly – in The Dial of his Salem paintings, “his pictures grew out of his detestation of the place.”

Marjorie Searl, retired chief curator of the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery (with whom I worked on the planning of the Rochester ARTWalk) wrote of the connection in conjunction with the exhibit Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery:

…having floundered in finding appropriate subjects at the beginning of 1919, Burchfield reached a pivotal point after reading the newly published Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, although he preferred the settings over the characters in these stories that conveyed an atmosphere of disillusionment, boredom, and desperation in mid-western America. He considered Anderson to be one of America’s best writers of their generation. The book sent him “back to the human scene” and his paintings took on an analogous look of despondency. A number of national critics recognized the connection between Burchfield and Anderson.

Searl relates that one of those critics, Buffalo’s Carl Bredemeier, wrote that Burchfield painted

…truthfully, directly, brutally, and without apology, as he saw it….What Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters do for us in verse, what Sherwood Anderson did for us in Winesburg, Ohio, and what Sinclair Lewis did in Main Street, Burchfield does with water color. Nature sees to it that we have every generation, our uncompromising realists, clear-eyed, fearless men who tear aside the sham of our lives and show us some of the dross.

Searl adds that “Burchfield took pride in their comparisons, saving in a scrapbook the articles that declared him “the Sherwood Anderson artist.”

(According to Robert Rust, whose involvement in arts and preservation in Buffalo goes back to the 1970s, Bredemeier was the editor and publisher of Buffalo Magazine of Arts, where the Burchfield review appeared. Bredemeier also owned one of Buffalo’s most prominent art galleries in the first half of the 20th century. Copies of the Buffalo Magazine of Arts are hard to come by today – Robert Rust provided the sample image below of an issue, but not the one in which the Burchfield review appeared.)

From small town to Coketown

With their realism, Anderson and Burchfield were documenting a great, but slower change in America that was happening away from the spotlight on the possibility of radical social change riveting much of America between the end of WWI and the election of Harding in 1920. The great urbanist Lewis Mumford, in his classic study The City in History discusses how the rise of the American industrial city into an agglomeration he called – borrowing the name from Dickens – Coketown. In Burchfield’s lifetime, across America cities like Buffalo and Cleveland became soot-enshrouded industrial behemoths at the expense of both rural areas and the smaller industrial communities – like Salem or Winesburg, Ohio – of a generation before. According to Mumford,

Along with this went a thinning out of population and a running down of activities in the back country: the falling off of local mines, quarries, and furnaces, and the diminishing use of highways, canals, small factories, local mills.

Much of Burchfield’s work during his Ohio years documents this running down of places like Salem after the extractive economy had taken what it wanted from them and moved on in search of the ever-bigger: abandoned mines, abandoned houses, abandoned industry, abandoned detritus, abandoned places, abandoned people. Including some of the most important pieces in this exhibit, much of this work is fittingly dark.

During a tour of the exhibit the Curator and Archives Manager Tullis Johnson, pointed out one especially notable work that captures one of these changes in small-town life in process: The Interurban Line, on loan for the exhibit from the Museum of Modern Art. Burchfield painted it the year after reading Anderson’s book, and in some ways it seems as if the painting could have been done for an illustrated edition of that book. In the book’s most explicit passage about the change befalling small towns, one of the principal characters mentions, “…the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses…”.

The Interurban Line

In the painting, the interurban car appears at the end of the street as a kind of dark battering ram, bearing down on an old main street lined with comparatively flimsy buggies. By placing this important Burchfield work in its proper context, including Sherwood Anderson, this exhibit helps us understand it as not merely the capture of an American scene, but why the painter chose this particular scene, and what he is trying to say to the viewer. Like last year’s exhibit on Burchfield’s “golden year” of 1917, this exhibit shows us the artist finding his voice, and speaking with it. A century later, in an America where a resurgently ruthless capitalism caused Coketowns themselves to become abandoned and run down, Burchfield’s voice still speaks to us.

The exhibit uses the rotunda to good effect in showing Burchfield’s depictions of change. Curved walls are not static but dynamic, and an arc implies change. And as Burchfield, like Anderson, depicted change, the work changed him. As quoted above, “Winesburg cleared the air for me, and I returned to human subjects again,” marks the beginning of two decades of compelling depiction of the American scene. Although these works were big sellers, they also caused him to be wrongly pigeon-holed as an American Scene painter.

November Evening

Among his works first included in published collections were paintings displayed in this exhibit: November Evening and New Moon In January. Although both of these works include human figures, depicting them was not a Burchfield strength, and indeed in both we learn much more from taking in the overall scene than from the undetailed figures. Despite what could be perceived as a weakness, those two works were instrumental in making Charles Burchfield a known name in American art. Another lesson there for budding artists: to be a good artist, or even find your artistic voice, you don’t have to master everything.

By visiting the exhibit, you can see these works not just online or reproduced in an art book, but up close and full-sized – the real deal. A strength of this exhibit is that it includes a number of important works made during Burchfield’s early career, all made before he was well known. Some are from the Center’s extensive collection, and some are on loan from other major institutions – including some that Tullis made clear, in his exhibit tour, he was delighted to get. Showing Burchfield’s work is always challenging because watercolor, being especially light-sensitive, can only be exhibited for a few months at a time before going back into storage. So when works of this importance are in town, and out of storage, they are not to be missed.

In the end, ironically, Burchfield himself succumbed to the gravitational pull of big cities. His breakout exhibits were in New York, and the Buffalo to which he moved was an archetypical Coketown. In addition to his transcendent nature paintings, one of Burchfield’s most important bodies of work would capture the scenes of Buffalo at its Coketown peak.

What’s Around the Bend for Burchfield

Toward the end of his exhibit tour, Tullis showed us the painting, The Turn in the Road. Tullis interprets this metaphorically, showing a sense of looming uncertainty about the future for Burchfield in 1918. He had every reason to be concerned: he was about to be drafted. As the gallery’s Head of Collections Nancy Weekly writes that the painting exhibits a “gloomy intensity,” and further,

While utilizing stark contrasts to dramatize lingering fears and irrational emotions established during his youth, he also represented apprehension about military enlistment during the fourth year of World War I. Enormous, unexplained bright white lights shine from a gloomy copse of trees. As if reflecting on his own situation, Burchfield posed a question on the back of this haunting painting: “A lonely house in the woods, sleepy-eyed — dreaming — around the turn in the road lies — what?” As far as he knew, his future had every chance of being cut short by premature death.

The Turn in the Road

I asked Tullis if what appear to be monstrous, staring eyes in the woods are related to one of the seemingly similar “conventions for abstract thought” that Burchfield developed to visually convey feeling and mood in his work. Tullis told me that he sees it as a convention, but that it doesn’t necessarily map to the conventions Burchfield laid out in his “golden year” of 1917. Yet it clearly represents a mood of looming dread and fear.

While we, a century on, know what was around the bend for Burchfield, his work shows us in his own inimitable way the feeling of a young man about to be drawn into a worldwide conflict that had already snuffed out the future of millions of young men of promise not unlike himself.

After art school in Cleveland and New York, and after military service in WWI, Burchfield returned to the only place he’d ever called home. But given the accelerating pace of change in post-WWI America it was perhaps only a matter of time before the young Burchfield left Salem, Ohio behind. Like the promising young writer of Anderson’s book – in some ways a stand-in for the author – about whom the final sentences of Winesburg, Ohio read,

With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.

Burchfield’s future would be like that of a generation of young men who left small-town America to make their way to Coketown in the early decades of the twentieth century – just as a generation in the closing decades of the century would, in turn, leave Coketown. He and a generation of artists would capture that changing American scene.

What’s around the bend at the Burchfield

We also know what is around the bend at the gallery that now bears the name of this young man who survived to fulfill his promise. The curators and archivists continue to walk us, almost in real time, through the unfolding of Burchfield’s career a century ago. Two important exhibits open this year, in April and December.

Suddenly I Awoke: The Dream Journals of Charles E. Burchfield

Genius Loci: Burchfield’s Spirits of Place, 1921 – 1943

M&T Second Friday at the Gallery: The Center is open for free, and this will be the last Second Friday for this exhibit. Also on tap are a number of activities set up with Buffalo’s immigrant and refugee communities in mind. See our post here for more information.

Lead image: Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Winter Solstice, 1920-21; watercolor on paper, 21 1/2 x 35 1/2 inches; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH, Gift of Ferdinand Howald, 1931.

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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