Last night when I was finished with making a sketch of petunias, I remarked to Mother that I was wearied of it, and she wondered why. I said I did not like to draw such things. She asked me what I did like. I said I did not know, fearing to say what was at the bottom of my soul. She chided me then for not knowing what I liked, and then I said I wanted to paint scenes, expecting a storm. She said, “Then you’re going to be an artist?” I said “yes.” She said, “Here I thought you were going to be a designer,” but smiled and kissed me. A mother is always surprising you. You may think she is wonderful but she is always doing something so unexpectedly loving and understanding that she is like nature — ever new.
Charles E. Burchfield
September 6, 1914
Journal Volume 20, Page 11
In the fall of 1912, Charles E. Burchfield left his family home in Salem, Ohio to attend the Cleveland School of Art. His professors and peers quickly recognized his keen design abilities. In a journal entry from August 1913, he wrote “Design was my special field… the design teacher said I was the genius of the class."
Burchfield's early development was influenced by the philosophies of American painter and printmaker Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) who advanced the notion that, instead of simply copying nature, artists should bring fundamental elements such as line, mass, color, or contrast into compositional harmony. Dow believed there was expressive power in pattern and decorative design.
In 1916, Burchfield's talents earned him a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York City. But, disillusioned by the course work and longing for home, Burchfield left the Academy after just one afternoon and returned to Salem. The artist later recounted, “One of the supremely happy moments of my whole life was when, after the days of agony in New York, I stood in the woods and listened to the wind soaring through the treetops. It seemed to me the most wonderful music I ever heard.”
Inspired by this homecoming, 1917 began a period of inventiveness and stylistic experimentation that Burchfield himself referred to as his "Golden Year." Burchfield painted prolifically, including some of his most celebrated works. And, it was during this same year that Burchfield created a lexicon of abstract pictographs which he called "Conventions for Abstract Thought." Each design symbolized a specific emotion and Burchfield used these "Conventions" throughout his career to assign specific meanings to his work.
This unique understanding of pattern and symbol, and the desire for meaningful expression in his work, was evidenced even in the camouflage designs Burchfield created for the Army during World War I. While stationed at Camp Jackson, South Carolina in 1918, he wrote, “It was impossible for me to do straight camouflage. I had to have a poetic idea back of my designs.”
After his time in the Army, Burchfield married and started a family, and the need for employment became a prime motivation. Based on the strength of his early work, Burchfield was hired by the M. H. Birge & Sons Wallpaper Company in Buffalo, New York where he worked through the 1920s. His work was so well received that they eventually put his name in the selvage and promoted him to head designer, but in 1929, at the dawn of the Great Depression, Burchfield quit his job at the wallpaper company and dedicated himself to painting full time.
Although his days as an artist-for-hire were behind him, Burchfield's evolution did not constitute an abandonment of his design sensibilities. Instead, it was a resolution to what he had described in a 1914 journal entry as his "constant dilemma" — the fight to "combine pictorial qualities with conventionalization." Burchfield reconciled design within his painting and emerged a visionary artist.
Charles E. Burchfield: By Design presents pieces from throughout the artist’s career. Student and early professional work inform later drawings and paintings. Rhythmic patterns, bold lines, color, contrast, symbol and intent echo throughout, serving as Burchfield's "highest form of expression" and combining to capture the vitality of the world around him, by design.
Maybe then, it is precisely because Charles E. Burchfield was a designer first that he was able to capture the grandeur of nature in the unique way that he did. Or perhaps, his work simply demonstrates that often the most powerful art is impeccably designed, and the most compelling design is artfully poetic.
Brian Grunert, Designer, White Bicycle
Tullis Johnson, Curator & Manager of Archives, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Kyle Morrissey, Designer, White Bicycle