Remembering Charles Burchfield, an artist who preferred to show what he did rather than criticize others

The Glow of Christmas  1952

Ed Cowley, an artist who chaired the University at Albany art department, lived in Altamont until his death in 2014. After fighting in World War II — he served in the 94th Infantry Division under General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge — Cowley studied at the Albright Art School and Buffalo State College.

Ed Cowley Jr. has shared with The Enterprise this reminiscence that his father wrote nearly 40 years ago about his visits with Charles Burchfield, the visionary artist based in western New York. Cowley, like Burchfield, created Christmas scenes for cards. We thought this would make a nice Christmas present for our readers.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

In February of 1978, I visited the Burchfield Center at the State University College at Buffalo. While talking with Edna Lindemann, the founder and director of the center, I happened to mention that in the late ’40s I had visited Charles Burchfield’s studio in Gardenville, New York.

Dr. Lindemann asked if I had kept notes, and of course I hadn't. She then asked if I would write up some of my recollections of talking with Burchfield. Even though it was 30 years ago, the memory is still vivid.

The original purpose in my visiting Burchfield was related to a class assignment having to do with interviewing western New York artists. I wrote to him about a visit and he was most obliging and a date was set.

I arrived one afternoon at the front door and met Mrs. Burchfield who called Charles and we sat down and talked for a while about the art school and about how unique it was that he was able to support his family by the sale of his paintings. He was pleased he didn't have to design wallpaper any longer, but he was also a bit saddened each time he sold a painting.

He said that every time he made a sale it was like losing a bit of himself. We talked about how many paintings he sold a year and the number was 12. The selling price at that time was around a thousand dollars and I can't recall if that was before the gallery commission or not. In any event, the Burchfield home appeared no different from any other in Gardenville except for the fact that it was filled with Burchfield paintings.

The studio was a separate building behind the house and, while it served the purpose, the studio space was more comfortable than artistic or dramatic. It looked like a workshop.

Burchfield had hundreds of paintings stored in shelves and in racks and he started showing some to me.  He enjoyed seeing the paintings as he pulled them out. I’m sure he was thinking about what changes he was going to make or which ones he was going to make bigger or whatever. I was impressed as any art student can understand and I tried to ask questions that would convey the sincerity of my interest.

It was also a pleasant relief to sense that this experience was not a burden to him. We looked at dozens of paintings and stayed in the studio until it got too dark to see.

It was dinnertime for Burchfield (like six o’clock) and I was ready to leave. Before going, I gathered a lot of courage and asked if I could come out again and show him some of my paintings.

The more I think of this now, the bolder I seemed — but, anyhow he said it would be just fine and just to give him a call and we would make arrangements. At that time, I was just beginning to paint and had done only a few oils, all of which were landscapes featuring architecture and particularly old buildings.

One was the foot of Main Street in Buffalo and the whole block of old buildings that stood there. Included in the block was the “Two-bit Club,” an offbeat tavern where, along with some college friends, I spent quite a bit of time. It was a struggle in those days just to put the paint on, but it was exciting in a way and after years of art school studying drawing and design, it was a good feeling to be painting at last.

The next visit with Burchfield was even longer than the first but we did pretty much the same thing. We looked at my paintings in the house and then after awhile he suggested we go out to his studio and look at some more of his work. He didn’t say much about my work which was OK as I sensed that his manner of instruction was sympathetic, and he preferred to show me how he did things rather than wonder at or criticize why I did what I did.

Once again, we spent hours looking at the work he brought out. He would find a painting and put it on the easel and ask me what I thought. It was a bit tense as he obviously wanted a real response rather than a “wow” or other such words of pleasure and surprise that were very much with me.

We talked about how he worked and he showed me the big sable brushes that cost $25 in those days and which he cut with a razor so the end was at an angle rather than flat across. He laughed about this, recounting how he had explained this cut-down treatment of the brushes to the owner of the art store in Buffalo where he had purchased his materials — the owner was horrified.

He showed me how he used the brush cut at an angle. He would make lines or flat washes by rotating the brush in a simple and direct way. The skill was amazing, yet so easy when you saw it.

At one side of the studio, Burchfield had a comfortable chair with some books nearby. I asked about this and he said he didn't really read in the studio except to get his eyes and mind away from the painting he was working on.

If he thought he was too involved and the painting wasn’t going well he would break the concentration by reading until his mind moved to the book — then, suddenly he would put the book down and look right back at the painting with a whole new fresh view.

I asked him about his paintings of the sun and he asked me if I ever looked at the sun. He noted that one is advised not to look at it but he said he looked at the sun whenever he needed to.

“It’s the only way to see it” he said in a logical way that made great sense. Once you know he looked at the sun you can understand his way of painting the sun in a better way. Many of those exploding colors are really there — it’s not just a fantasy.

One painting I remember that I have never seen since was a large watercolor of the Burchfield living room with their Christmas tree all lit up. I always expected to see that painting in one of the Burchfield shows but so far I haven’t found it.

Another of my favorites was the rainy-night painting done in 1929, which I have seen reproduced many times. We talked about that painting and he said he had returned a number of times to that Buffalo street corner before he was satisfied. I believe I saw the “The Milky Way” painting in its early stage, but I’m not positive because I saw so many they all became one great aesthetic episode.

A couple of years later, I was teaching in Ithaca, New York. The Ithaca Art Association was a dynamic group of people who were really excited about art and I suggested to them that we bring Charles Burchfield to Ithaca to serve as a guest critic. They asked me to write and arrange it and I did.

Burchfield came to Ithaca. Morris Bishop, the noted writer and English professor from Cornell, had a few of us as his guests at the Statler for dinner and afterwards came the critique.

Burchfield was so modest and gentle that the presentation was uneventful. He didn’t say anything that people hadn’t heard before, but he was thoughtful and kind and appreciative of the sensibilities of all the artists submitting work for comment.

After the critique, we had a number of friends up to our Aurora Street third-floor apartment for a chance to meet the artist. One of the Cornell art professors was so incensed by Burchfield’s shy manner that I feared he was going to insult our guest. We managed to keep them separate and the evening went well.

The next day, Charles Burchfield returned to Gardenville and, except for one other meeting at an event at Buffalo State in the early ’60s, I never saw him again. I see his art all the time, however, and I appreciate having had the opportunity to know him in such a slight way. Last fall I went to a large exhibition of his work at the Kennedy Galleries in New York, and it was like going back to Gardenville again.


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