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Heritage Moments

Heritage Moments: Northeastern Ohio, Western New York, Paradise—The World of Charles Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield, 1941. Photograph by Sally Burchfield (1925-2002). Burchfield Penney Art Center. Courtesy of Charlie Ferris.
The great watercolorist at work amid what he called the "eternal verities” of the Western New York landscape.";

“Get yourself to a vantage point of seclusion and view the world with your eyes alone. Think of the infinite spaces of the skies and the world beneath.” – Charles Burchfield’s Journals

Charles Burchfield, 28, was already an accomplished watercolorist when he moved to Buffalo from Salem, Ohio, in November 1921 to take a job as a designer at the M.H. Birge & Sons wallpaper company. Over the next few years he lived on Whitney Place, Mariner Street and Franklin Street on the city’s West Side, but in 1925 he really found his home. That year, Burchfield moved with his wife and children to a house and studio in the Gardenville section of West Seneca, and there he would live for the rest of his life.

In Gardenville and on excursions elsewhere in the Southtowns and to more rural spots like Gowanda, Zoar Valley and the Boston Hills, Burchfield found the inspiration for his most enduring work: the ecstatic, even hallucinatory nature paintings that brought to vivid life the sights and sounds of the fields, swamps and forests. Along with the haunting landscapes he remembered from his childhood home in Salem, Burchfield returned again and again to verdant Western New York vistas that shimmered with sunshine, wind, snow and scudding cloud; the little houses standing proud, or lonely, amid towering trees and sun-dappled glades; the insects and birds trilling vibrantly in the grass and in the sky.

For several years, he was also fascinated by the black iron of industrial Buffalo and would take the streetcar from Gardenville to the waterfront. There, according to the Burchfield scholar J. Benjamin Townsend, he was consumed by the “romance and mystery” of the harbor, the long, rusting grain ships, the barren railroad tracks and the looming grain elevators, which he likened to prehistoric birds.*

In 1930, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of Burchfield’s work, and he took his place among America’s great contemporary artists – a place he continues to occupy through landmark exhibitions at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo and in museums across the country.

But even after his exhibit at the Modern, Burchfield would stay rooted with home and family in his beloved Gardenville until his death in 1967. And we know just how he felt, because Burchfield kept a beautifully written journal of his experiences, thoughts and feelings on an almost daily basis from age 17 until the end of his life – at 70 volumes and more than 10,000 hand-written pages, perhaps the most detailed and sustained personal account of an artist’s development in the history of Western Art.

“This is my beauty — all the beauty I wish for: the love of this nature around my home,” he wrote in his journal on Sept. 25, 1914.** “They talk of Italian skies. I envy not the Italian. Nor do they envy me. I find no sympathetic beauty in the sky I have not lived under. The Elysian fields are not at the ends of the earth — they are here at my feet.”

And indeed, Burchfield never traveled to Europe, or very far from his favorite places in Western New York and Northeastern Ohio. He had all the beauty he ever needed, right where he was.

*There are many books devoted to Burchfield’s works, but the most complete record of his writings is Charles Burchfield’s Journals, edited by J. Benjamin Townsend (State University of New York Press, 1993).

**The Burchfield Penney Art Center provides excerpts from Burchfield’s journals, accompanied by a Burchfield painting or sketch, every day on the museum’s Facebook page.

Cast (in order of appearance)

Charles Burchfield: Anthony Chase
Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo), Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:

Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein