Curated by Tullis Johnson, Alana Ryder and Kevin Williams
Working with Dr. Kevin Williams, director of the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State, the Burchfield Penney Art Center presents Oh My Heavens in the Anthony J. Sisti and John R. Oishei Foundation galleries. This exhibition provides viewers with the opportunity to examine the scientific, historical and spiritual implications of Burchfield’s works. Included are paintings and sketches that feature veneration for the idea of heaven, both in the sky above and here on earth.
Like many before him, Charles E. Burchfield had a deep reverence for the natural world and its sunbursts, haloed moons, eclipses and constellations. Later in life, the mysteries and infinite unknowns of the heavens would be recorded with spiritual devotion and awe. Charles E. Burchfield:Oh My Heavens provides viewers the opportunity to examine the scientific, historical and spiritual implications of the artist’s works.
As early as 1915, Burchfield made observational sketches of the night sky. He was occasionally awake at midnight, 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m., making drawings and notes. Clearly his appreciation and exploration of Earth and its cycles was not limited to what could be seen in sunlight. His celestial drawings and paintings document the liminal points of our days and mark the particularities of seasons. In a dated sketch from 1915, Burchfield showed the Moon, stars and Milky Way above the shaggy silhouettes of trees. Sketches like these are from particular moments. Hundreds of other dated sketches, termed “All-Day Sketches” by the artist, began the same way. The landscape is documented in sequential frames, varying from one day to a week to an entire season.
During his college years at the Cleveland School of Art, Burchfield read about eastern religions, including the text Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists (1914) by Sister Nivedita and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. He was fascinated by the way gods personified natural events and wrote that these ancient mythologies “change the world for me.” After graduation in 1916, he returned to his hometown of Salem, Ohio for a job in the cost department at the W. H. Mullins Company. After work, he frequently rushed to his favorite set of three trees, just a few blocks from his house, and sketched into the evening. The following year would be one of his most prolific, and the year that he painted the first of his great pictures of the heavens at night, Orion and the Moon (1917).