James Thurber, the Columbus native whose cartoons and short stories appeared in The New Yorker, commissioned an artist named Emerson Burkhart to paint a portrait of his mother, Mary Thurber, in 1951. She hated it.
Mrs. Thurber’s portrait is one of several works on display in “Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart,” an exhibition calling attention to a talented local artist who tried hard to achieve national recognition. The works are complemented by quotes from letters, personal mementos, notes and books from Burkhart’s library, all from an Ohio History Connection archival collection known as MSS 440. The exhibition is located in the Ohio History Center’s Archives/Library third-floor gallery.
Burkhart (1905-1969) was born in Kalida, Ohio. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1927, he studied with Charles Hawthorne at the Cape Cod School of Art. In 1931, he returned to Ohio to teach art in Columbus.
The decade that followed was a busy one. Burkhart was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project to paint a mural for the auditorium of Central High School in Columbus. The school’s principal thought that the dancing figures that Burkhart included in his work, titled Music, were too provocative for the school’s setting, so the mural was whitewashed in 1938 — a decision that prompted Newsweek to publish an article about censorship. Years later, students at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center restored the mural, and it was installed at the Columbus Convention Center in 2005. In the late 1930s, Burkhart created another mural for Ohio State University’s Stillman Hall. The exhibition includes several original sketches for both murals.
In 1937, he married Mary Ann Martin, a model who posed for Edward Hopper and other artists. Her interest in art inspired her to create ceramic sculptures and sketches of her own. After Mary Ann died in 1955, her husband said, “She not only loved art, she was the best and most wonderful wife an artist could ask for.”
Burkhart painted about 3,000 pieces during his 40-year career, including hundreds of oil portraits that realistically depict central Ohio residents, from wealthy “Bexley society dames” to average people in the Olde Towne East neighborhood surrounding Burkhart’s Woodlawn Avenue home. He recorded how many times someone sat for him with paint strokes on the back of every portrait he painted. Burkhart also painted more than 200 self-portraits. Two of those are included in the exhibit: one from 1947 and the other from 1960.
Burkhart also documented Columbus life in watercolors and block prints. Red Bird Stadium, the original name for the city’s baseball stadium, was the subject of a series of watercolor paintings. Columbus neighborhoods and other subjects provided inspiration for several block prints. To create them, Burkhart would test two different block prints on the same sheet of paper. This let him not only see how the print would look, but also conserve on his supplies.
Burkhart painted his canvases in large, broad strokes, leaving small chunks of uneven paint in his wake. His paint-covered artist’s box, palette and 1950s jacket are a testament to how messy his signature technique was.
In the Spotlight Gallery on the first floor of the Ohio History Center, visitors can participate in some hands-on artistic activities related to the exhibition. Experience the challenges of perspective by drawing objects displayed in a case. Using a mirror and provided paper and colored pencils, create a self-portrait that reflects how you’d like others to see you.
“Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart” continues through May 31, 2015.