Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Trees and Houses, 1916; Watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, 13-3/8 x 19-1/4 inches; San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James E. Lasry, 1983

Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Trees and Houses, 1916; Watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, 13-3/8 x 19-1/4 inches; San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James E. Lasry, 1983

Inspired by Burchfield: The Poetry of Dr. James Lasry

Monday, December 17, 2012

This is the second of six poems inspired by Burchfield paintings that were written by James E. Lasry, M.D. in La Jolla, California. We are sharing them throughout the exhibition Charles E. Burchfield: In His Own Words, on view November 9, 2012 through March 17, 2013. Dr. Lasry reveals his introduction to Burchfield’s work in statement published below.”

Trees and Houses, 1916

On that coat rack in the corner
Or maybe a nail slammed
Into the window frame hangs
An overcoat, a smock
Dirty with the paint strokes
Of a fevered brain
Reaching for his god
A’times he’d run to the meadow
Throw himself about
Like some crazed dervish
Fall to the ground
See visions
But not today
Just the warmth of place
Of being
Of oneness
Of trees and houses
Chimney smoke in winter
In Salem
Salem, Ohio
Why there’s Mrs. Catherine Deville
And Vernon Lodge next door
Over there, see it there
That’s the Becker place
He knew them all.
The houses that
At night
Were the lodges of his demons
By day
Just houses
And trees
In Salem
Salem, Ohio


About the Author

Charles Burchfield came into my life through my Professor of Medicine, Theodore H. Noehren, MD, a specialist in pulmonology. In the mid- to late 1950s, Burchfield had marked problems with his lungs and came under the care of our Professor of Allergy and Immunology, as well as Dr. Noehren and others. Corticosteroids for the treatment of pulmonary disease were still in the experimental stage at the time. Nevertheless, in 1959, when Burchfield was going through a very bad session, they were able to secure some steroids for treatment after other methods had not been effective.  Burchfield could not walk far, could not do the ordinary activities of living, and, most importantly for him, he could not paint—he was barely able to make his way through the day without assistance. Burchfield was started on steroids with remarkable results and quite quickly was up and about and once again painting. Steroids had enabled Burchfield to continue his work.

What has this to do with my interest in Burchfield as a painter? I had been interested in the relationship between Art and Medicine—as a subject and as therapy—and came into conversations with Dr. Noehren on the subject of the recovery of this remarkable painter and his return to his work. Just seeing a few of Burchfield’s works was enough to get anyone interested in this man’s painting. Reading his biography through his journal entries was also profoundly interesting—his insularity, his emotional approaches to his work, his relationship with, and influence of, nature. And so on. His work appealed to me. When an artist intrigues you, it is because of your knowledge of his work (3 on my scale of 10); but also—for me in particular—it is how you feel about the art emotionally—how it feels in your gut! (7/10).

I was fortunate to be asked to write a cover piece for The Journal of the American Medical Association some years back on a painting by Burchfield (Starlings in the Rain, Wellsville, Ohio, 1920 in JAMA, Vol. 281, No.14, April 14, 1999). I observed how well he depicted the “small towns along the Ohio River southeast of Salem,” which, to use Burchfield’s words, were “places where the bleak poetry of the Mid-west is found, where forms are heavy, simplified, and it is always snowing, raining, sleeting….”

Some years ago my wife Lois and I had a small painting by Mr. B—Trees and Houses—a scene of his neighborhood painted from his bedroom window. Dick Wootten from the Burchfield Homestead Society in Salem, Ohio was kind enough to identify the owners/occupants of all the homes shown. We eventually donated the work to the San Diego Museum of Art, at a time before we knew about the existence of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. We have since proudly served on the museum’s National Advisory Committee.

To the question: Why do I like Burchfield’s work? Go look for yourself. — Jim Lasry