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Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhardt

Sept. 3, 2014 through May 31, 2015
A real artist is one who knows that culture is a way of living. The sum total of what goes on around you during your life is the warehouse of your art. Your feelings of love and hate about this life is what gives your art its vitality.” – Emerson Burkhart

Born on a farm in Union Township near Kalida, Ohio, in 1905, Emerson Burkhart began drawing portraits of friends and family at a young age. After attending Ohio Wesleyan University, Burkhart moved to Provincetown on Cape Cod, where he studied with acclaimed artist Charles Hawthorne.

By 1931, Burkhart had returned to Ohio, moving to Columbus to teach at the Ohio School of Art. He lived in the capital city for the rest of his life. As he established his career, he experimented in a variety of mediums to make money, including block prints, painted ties and portraits.

A Columbus Institution

From his home on Woodland Avenue, Burkhart established himself as a Columbus institution. In 1934, he was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project to paint a mural for the auditorium of Central High School in Columbus. Entitled Music, it featured women in sheer dresses dancing. Deemed too provocative for its setting, Music was whitewashed in 1938. The decision garnered national attention; a Newsweekarticle catapulted Burkhart’s art career. (Restored by high school students at Columbus’s Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center starting in 1999, Music was installed at the Columbus Convention Center in 2005, where you can see it today.)

In 1939, 33-year-old Burkhart married 20-year old Mary Ann Martin. A famous model who posed for acclaimed artists Eugene Speicher and Edward Hopper, she became an artist, too, but never found an audience. Despite a troubled relationship, they were married until her death in 1955.

Painted an Estimated 3,000 Pieces

It’s estimated that Burkhart painted 3,000 pieces during his 40-year career, including more than 200 self-portraits. He viewed himself as “cheaper than a model and always there.” Many of his works were oil portraits of central Ohio residents. He also paid students from Ohio State University $5 to sit and pose for him.

Burkhart noted how many times someone sat for him with paint strokes on the back of every portrait he painted. Sometimes commissioned to paint portraits for wealthy Columbus patrons, he was conflicted between the need to make money and his artistic vision. In a letter to a friend, Burkhart explained, “My portion of the Columbus problem is to put all the creative energy I have into creating what I think and feel about life as I see and feel it here, not decorative color motifs for Bexley society dames’ drawing rooms.” 

An important member of the Columbus art scene, Burkhart regularly taught classes at various community centers and colleges and participated in an annual art show held by the Columbus Art League. After a disagreement with the league, he became known for hosting a rival show at his home on nights when the league’s yearly show opened. 

An advocate for his African American neighbors, Burkhart painted portraits of African Americans and scenes of the everyday life of African Americans in his neighborhood. In 1941, Burkhart met a young African American artist, Roman Johnson (1917–2005), and became his mentor. Johnson went on to become a noted artist in his own right. 

When approached by neighbors and asked to sign an agreement never to sell his house to an African American, Burkhart proclaimed, “Never will I sign such a paper, though I think democracy is the greatest form of government, with all its faults, thus far conceived by man. It’s up to us to improve democracy.”

In the later part of his career, Burkhart became an artist in residence for the International School of America, taking students around the world and teaching art. Burkhart continued to paint until his death on Nov. 12, 1969.

Planning Your Visit

See Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart on exhibit at the Ohio History Center in Columbus Sept. 3, 2014, through May 31, 2015, Ohio History Center museum admission is $10; $9/age 60+; $5/ages 6-12; and Free/age 5 and under. Ohio History Connection members enjoy free admission. The Ohio History Center museum is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday Noon-5 p.m. For more information, call 800.686.6124.

Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart is made possible in part by a grant from The Gordon Chandler Memorial Fund of The Columbus Foundation.

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