Mediterranean Harbor Scene
Burkhart will be remembered not only for the quality of his work, but for the indelible impression he left on Central Ohio. He was cantankerous, opinionated, thoughtful and most notably, quotable. He was a favorite of the media and he knew it.
As renewed interest and excitement continues to build around American Scene art and artists, Burkhart will be recognized for the talent that he was. He is already in a number of important museum and private collections across the United States.
In the last years of his life, Burkhart shared with his friends that he had no regrets and planned to reinvent himself yet again. Nobody was really sure what he meant by that statement but it was clear that once the transformation took place, all of Columbus would know about it. Unfortunately, he never got the chance as a fatal stroke felled him in November, 1969.
For years, Burkhart feuded with the leaders of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts. During the course of his life, Burkhart was never offered the opportunity to have his work celebrated there with a one man exhibition. Ironically, his memorial service was held at the Gallery. And just one year after his passing, they held a major retrospective exhibition of his work, a tribute which was long overdue.
Emerson Burkhart - Dismantling JIA 1958
If this weren't enough, Burkhart's ongoing battle with the art establishment was compounded by the premature deaths of both his only brother, Paul, in a farming accident and wife, Mary Ann to cancer, within months of one another in 1955. Emerson was devastated by these losses. In letters to his close friend and fellow artist, Clyde Singer, Burkhart often stated how lonely he was but that he would find a way to become artistically productive and regain his stride. During this so called 'dark' period, he produced many of his best works. Common themes focused on society's gluttonous habits such as sending perfectly good steam locomotives to the cutting torch in favor of those with diesel powered engines. Other similar works included paintings of rotten fruits and vegetables going to waste, dead animals, humans, skulls, dead trees and more.
Like many artists, Burkhart's style and subject matter changed over his career. He was concerned with the human condition and rendered his interpretations of this theme throughout his life. Early on, he celebrated the best aspects of humanity, especially those which led to discoveries and improvements to the quality of life. Among these were his murals in Columbus which promoted the arts such as 'Music, Drama, Dance' at Central High School and his acknowledgement of advances in the sciences, literary achievements and more as expressed in the murals at Stillman Hall at The Ohio State University.
After World War II, Burkhart began to reflect on the changes to society taking place throughout the world and especially in the United States. The industrial revolution was hitting its stride and the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in global change. This was also evident in the art world as realism was pushed out of the limelight and replaced by widespread interest and acclaim for abstract expressionism. Burkhart was no fan of 'dribbles of paint' and sincerely felt that this type of art was the product of artists who simply didn't have the talent to realistically portray the world around them. He would carry this grudge for the rest of his life.
You will find that he was a complex person, with strong Midwest roots. From his earliest days in Kalida, Ohio, it was clear he was destined to become an artist. As a youngster, he was given his first art lessons by a local minister who gave him pointers on drawing. Burkhart's teachers and classmates were also aware of his talent and often recruited him to produce playbills, posters and other artistic announcements for school activities. His brother Paul, shared none of these attributes and was happy to become a farmer, just like his father.
Emerson was constantly pressured to become a doctor or lawyer, but he would have none of it. He was happiest when he found time to draw or paint. In fact, one of the best days in Burkhart's life was the day he excitedly shared with his father a check for $1,000 he received for a painting. This was a substantial sum during the Depression. As Burkhart expected, his father expressed surprise anyone would spend that kind of money for a painting. Additionally, he thought it more of a fluke than confirmation of his son's artistic ability, and said, “If you can show me another check for $1,000, then I'll be impressed.” It is doubtful the senior Burkhart was ever satisfied that Emerson had lived up to his expectations.
Unlike many aspiring artists of the time, Burkhart never followed up his formal art training with a trip to Europe. It was common, almost expected, that after graduation, time would be spent in Paris, Munich, Venice or any of the art capitals of Europe for exposure to the cultures and even more studies at noted European art schools.
Burkhart's instructor, Charles Hawthorne, urged Emerson to return to his roots and paint the truth that was his world growing up, the Midwest. He took this advice to heart and produced a prolific number of paintings and self-portraits over the next 45 years. Although Burkhart never carefully catalogued his life's work, he estimated in a 1964 interview that he had painted more than 4,000 works. By some estimates, he may have produce yet another 1,000 paintings in the last five years of his life.
As you learn more about Emerson...