Last weekend, staff from the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Curatorial and Education departments went to Salem, Ohio, to show our support during the Burchfield Homestead Society’s celebration of Dick Wooten, one of the most passionate enthusiasts of Charles Burchfield and a person who has been highly influential in the preservation of Charles Burchfield’s childhood home. We were excited to take advantage of the trip to Salem to explore the surrounding areas, using the archival resources at our disposal to try and trace some of Burchfield’s footsteps a hundred years later. All of us were thrilled about the opportunity to take a trip to Salem. Between the five of us, we represented the museum well: Tullis Johnson, Curator and Manager of Archives, Scott Propeack, Associate Director and Chief Curator, and me, Heather Gring, Archivist, ventured to Salem on Saturday; Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and our Charles Cary Rumsey Curator and Mary Kozub, Museum Educator and Tour Manager joined us on Sunday and spent Monday exploring the region. We all felt passionately that the Burchfield Penney should celebrate the decades of enthusiastic advocacy Dick Wooten has engaged in to share his love of Burchfield, and we were happy to have the opportunity to make it a reality.
Each of us has different level of intimate knowledge of Charles Burchfield going into this adventure. Nancy is our Charles E. Burchfield expert and has worked closely with Burchfield’s paintings and archival materials for 35 years now. Scott has been at the Burchfield Penney for nearly 15 years, and has worked with Burchfield’s materials in many contexts. Tullis came on as an archival researcher in 2006, but now curates many of our major Burchfield shows such as In His Own Words, Oh My Heavens, and the upcoming show about Burchfield’s botanical drawings—which makes this spring trip highly significant for Tullis’ research process. Mary Kozub has been at the museum since 2008, organizing many of our educational programs and docent training programs. I have been a part of the staff for the least amount of time, only being full time since last May, though I have been connected with the Burchfield Penney since 2006 in various capacities: as a community supporter, volunteer, intern, and summer employee in the Archives.
In my role as the Archivist, working with Burchfield’s journals, correspondence, and sketches, one of the conceptual challenges I face is how time becomes so concentrated when one can access a young man’s writings and an old man’s writings in the same moment. It makes it difficult to give appropriate weight to personal development and change at different points of a person’s life; instead they become an amalgamation of themselves—everything all at once. Even when digitizing Charlie’s journals from 1911, when he was 18 years old, I can’t help but imagine him as the middle aged man whose image is prevalent in the Archives. Travelling to Salem, Ohio, this past weekend changed that conception of Burchfield dramatically for me.
In the week leading up to our adventure, Tullis and I took advantage of the incredible primary-source resources at our disposal in the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives. Charles Burchfield was an archivist’s dream: the majority of his 25,000+ sketches are organized by painting, location, and/or year. Equally as significant are his painting indexes. These indexes were created by Burchfield in the 1950’s, most likely when he was working with John I. H. Baur from the Whitney Museum of American Art on a major retrospective in 1956. The indexes outline each painting he made chronologically, and provide information on where he painted the work, who purchased it, and other relevant information. Though the indexes were made about 20 years after he moved away from Salem, Burchfield recorded the location of many of the nature paintings in Salem with remarkable accuracy, which provided us with necessary starting points to try and be close to his footsteps, 90 years later.
Our first stop was to the Cherry Valley coke ovens in Letonia, Ohio. Coke ovens were used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to refine coal, burning away sulfur and other impurities to create pure carbon, known at the time as coke. The Cherry Valley coke ovens were built in the 1860s and active until the 1920s. The property is now a public park, and Scott, Tullis and I were free to explore the rows of ovens nested into the hillsides. This place represented such a strong juxtaposition between industry and nature; between past and present. Young Burchfield (or Chaz, as he called himself in his youth) would have seen the coke ovens not as we did in 2014, overgrown with greenery and wildflowers and peaceful, but as a series of hotly burning ovens, sulfur and other noxious fumes in the air. For an example of this, see his painting Coke Ovens at Twilight. His 1918 painting, Abandoned Coke Oven is a little more similar to our visual experience, except Chaz was depicting the abandoned coke ovens just a few years after production ceased when the surrounding area was still bleak and exposed. Now, nearly a century later, in our adventures we saw hepaticas blooming and everything was green and bright and lovely. Young Chaz would have loved to paint the Cherry Valley coke ovens today.
From there, we used maps Burchfield drew of Salem, his painting indexes, and Google maps to hike into what Burchfield described as Post’s woods, located at the intersection of Painter Rd. and Egypt Rd. We were looking for a place Burchfield called “Bloodroot Hollow,” though we are not sure if we found the specific location he described, as the topography may have changed in the past century.
Nevertheless, these were the woods he explored in depth; it was a very powerful experience for all three of us as we weaved back and forth across a little creek we found in a ravine. While we didn’t see any bloodroot flowers there, we saw so many spring beauties, wild violets, and even one very rare trillium! Seeing all these wildflowers which are so central in his paintings in their natural environment was very eye-opening. Burchfield depicts these spring flowers as powerful, vibrant plants that become the center focus of his works. But in nature, the actual flowers are quite small and frail. One has to constantly look down and be aware of where one’s footsteps land. This lived-awareness gave me such an appreciation of young Chaz’s sense of wonder and his attention to such small details. Tullis especially was very excited by all of the spring wildflowers we discovered; in preparation for the upcoming exhibition about Burchfield’s botanical drawings, this trip provided first-hand experiences for Tullis with the flowers he will be focusing on.
The next day, we went to the Burchfield Homestead house, cared for and maintained by the Burchfield Homestead Society. Two of the founding members, Dick Wooten and Fred Naragon, helped purchase the Burchfield house in the early 1990s, which had been converted into a duplex at some point in time. Over the next few years, Dick was a major player in the recreation of the historic home. Though the walls and flooring are new, the Burchfield Homestead Society has done an amazing job of recreating the environment and structure of the house as it would have been when Charlie lived there with his mother Alice and siblings James, Frances, Louise, Joseph, and Fred. Dick’s is a love of Charles Burchfield built of sweat and intellect, and it is infectious to everyone he meets. It was palpable when he gave us a tour of the house and the displays in every room; his knowledge is deep and built on decades of anecdotes and research. I recorded as much as I could of Dick’s tour of Burchfield’s home, and Tullis and I are working on compiling it into a short video tour.
As we continuously witnessed at the Burchfield Homestead, many of Chaz’s beautiful and iconic early paintings were created within this house on 4th St.: looking out windows at gardens and snow storms, peering inward to find creative inspiration in the end of the bed or in the sight of his mother sitting in the doorway. In the backyard, the Burchfield Homestead Society volunteers rebuilt the grape arbor that used to exist there, and planted spring wildflowers beneath it. Tullis was thrilled when he saw this, as it had been Chaz’s habit to dig up wildflowers and bring them home to plant under the arbor, just like what we saw in 2014. Seeing such detail and care to the recreation of Burchfield’s lived experience was moving to us all, and we spent time talking about the different wildflowers.
Chaz's history is etched into the walls....literally. At some point during the Burchfield family's time in the house, the children drew all over the walls right before they were to be wallpapered. One of the sons, either Joe or Fred, covered the walls in charicatures of each his siblings. But then, as Dick tells it, when Chazparticipated his drawing skills were evident, and its true--its easy to pick out which childlike drawings belonged to the future artist. Which isn't to discredit the creative talent in the other children...I was particularly impressed by Joe Burchfield's design aesthetic, which I had never really learned much about prior to the trip. Joe too was an artist working in commercial design for most of his life, and it was fantastic to see the different ways the brothers interpreted their skills. Another powerful moment was when we realized that the bookcase in the living room held books that had actually belonged to Chaz; many donated by the Burchfield Foundation. Tullis was so excited when he realized they had Burchfield's original copies of some of the texts he is utilizing in his research for the botanical exhibition.
Personally, what struck me most about the homestead were the pictures of young Chaz. Seeing pictures of Burchfield being silly and playful made his youth real and vibrant. He and his friends entertained themselves by creating hilarious scenes and then photographing themselves: scenes of them dancing, jumping, dressing up and acting, looking comically mischievous and so very charming. When I saw those images, young Chaz Burchfield suddenly became very real to me in a way I had never experienced before, though I have spent years surrounded by the products of his life. After being at his childhood home, I feel like I can finally see the inquisitive, expansive youth he was, and feel the energy of the young man who created such powerful and mystical paintings. I feel like I can better appreciate the young man as he existed in a certain point in time, having no idea that he would come to be considered one of the greatest American painters of the 20th century. I like being able to see him in that unaware context.
The day before we went to Salem I was at an archival conference in Rochester, New York. Russell L. Gasero, an archivist and presenter at the conference, said something that resonated deeply with me: “All of my best friends died before I was born.” My first thought was, “Yes! That’s it!” I have felt that sensation for years when it comes to Charlie. At the Charles E. Burchfield Archives, he lives on in his journals, his writings, his correspondence, and his notations on sketches… After years of reading his words, I sometimes feel that I know him much more deeply than some of my living friends. Yet he will never know about me or Tullis or Scott or Nancy or Mary, all of us traipsing through the woods trying to recreate his steps 100 of years ago. Charlie will never know about my tattoo of Dandelion Seed Heads and the Moon. He doesn’t know about the dedication of people like Dick Wooten, who have spent years sharing their passion for Burchfield with visitors and the local community, helping the link between past, present, and future stay strong and viable. Maybe it is better that way….it’s a lot of responsibility to be an individual and an icon. But, since we cannot meet him in life, I am grateful for everything that is done to preserve these historic pieces of him—in his writings, in his childhood home, and in the way we continue to carry him forward, as both human and ideal. I'm grateful to be a small part of preserving his legacy.
In 2017 it will be one hundred years since Charlie’s “Golden Year” of 1917, a few years before he moved to Buffalo from Salem. So long ago, but he feels more real to me now than ever. Sometimes I wish he knew how vibrantly he continues to inspire so many of us every day, how he still brings us moments of solace and inspiration. But since he cannot, I’m grateful for every opportunity I have to delve more deeply into his world thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of so many people whose lives he has impacted. It is because of the dedication of people like Dick Wooten, Nancy Weekly, Tullis Johnson, Scott Propeack, Mary Kozub and so many others that I can feel my one-sided friendship with him become more faceted and complex.
Heather Gring is the Archivist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. In addition to managing the Living Legacy Project, she spends most of her time processing archival collections and trying not to spend all day reading Charles Burchfield's journals.