Charles Burchfield and Me by Philip Koch Part I

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

This is the Burchfield Penny Art Center in Buffalo, New York. I visited it last Friday for the second time this year. It's a special place for me for two reasons. It has the largest collection of works by Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893 - 1967) one of the artists who has most influenced me. Secondly it sits literally a few hundred yards from the spot where 48 years ago I decided to become an artist.

Back in high school I had my life all planned out, or so I thought. Following the family pattern I would become an historian or a sociologist. But half way through my first semester at Oberlin College in Ohio I was miserable with my courses in my intended major and felt gloomily confused. I was the proverbial apple waiting to fall.

At my first Thanksgiving break from Oberlin I traveled home on the Greyhound Bus to Rochester, stopping half way to spend the night with my old high school friend Steve at Buffalo State College. Steve and his new girlfriend invited me and the girlfriend's roommate to go drink beer with them at a pub at the edge of campus.

The roommate turned out to be a studio art major. I had never met an art student before and to me that made her a most exotic creature. We talked for several hours about her art classes, her work, and how much she enjoyed what she was doing. Listening to her enthusiasm I felt like a great heavy door was being unlocked and slowly swung open for me. Somehow my beer-fueled intuition told me that night that I should completely change course and dive headfirst into art. On the spot I decided I'd become a painter, one of the best decisions I ever made. Who wouldn't want to go back to a place where things came together for you so incredibly well.

The other reason of course is all the work by the painter Charles Burchfield. Last Friday, Tullis Johnson, one of the museum's Curators and the Manager of its Archives very kindly gave my wife and I a two hour tour of the galleries, storerooms and archives. Here I am in the Burchfield vault at BPAC next to Burchfield's watercolor Early Spring. Why am I grinning ear-to-ear?

There are just some artists which whom one feels a special kinship. I first came to love the painter Edward Hopper for his drama of light and the poetry he found in the commonplace. Later in grad school  the American 19th century landscape painters of the Hudson River School's nature romanticism and glowing deep spaces won in my heart. 

Charles Burchfield by contrast, with his deeply personal visual style was someone who slowly took me by surprise. Gradually I came to see beneath the surface of his style and sense how he had an authentic romance with nature of a sort all his own. In Burchfield, all his forms possesses a living, moving personality. While I wanted to paint in my own style, I set my sights on achieving some of that same underlying spirit.

To be continued tomorrow...