Friday, June 24, 2016

Painting in Buffalo and Bar Harbor


I am just returned from two back-to-back painting trips in just a little over two weeks. First I flew to Buffalo, NY on my 7th trip for my being the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. No sooner had I returned to Baltimore than my wife Alice and I flew up to Maine for a week in Bar Harbor. Only last night was I able to unpack my suitcase and lay out the oil paintings I've started on my studio floor. As you can see, I kept busy. The upper right and lower right oils are from Buffalo and the rest are Maine paintings. I will be going back into each oil to finish it back in my studio.

The Burchfield Residency has been an amazing experience and I've written about it many times on this blog over the last period. Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island has been a personally meaningful painting destination for me as Alice and I honeymooned there many years ago and fell in love with the place.

Here's a selection of photos from the Maine trip. I have some pressing painting work to take care of so I'll just post the photos without much commentary. 

Eagle Lake from Cadillac Mt.

Above and below are photos of me set up on Cadillac Mountain to paint.

Mt. Desert Island has wonderful glades of white birches. So delicately beautiful. As you can see I am not exactly suffering on this trip.

Starting to pack up wet oil paintings for the flight home. The weather all week in Maine was perfect for painting. Buffalo provided more of a challenge in that department so I wasn't able to get as much accomplished there. Still, I now have lots of new ideas to work on.

My wife Alice posing in front of Mt. Desert's distinctive little mountains called The Bubbles.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Looking Back / The Burchfield Archives

A selection of the original backing boards on the Charles Burchfield
work that entered BPAC's Permanent Collection

None of us live our lives in isolation, even if we sometimes might want to. We carry with us the influences big and small of everyone we'd known, of everywhere we've lived. It's the same for artists.

As a landscape painter I have worked all over the country, but always in the back of my mind is a palpable memory of the Western New York landscape I grew up in. Charles Burchfield grew up in Northeast Ohio and moved to Buffalo, NY to take a job as a wallpaper designer. Despite becoming a nationally renowned artist he consciously made the decision to stay in Buffalo as the roots he had sunk there nourished his creativity. Naturally this is someone I wanted to know more about.

Over the last year as the Burchfield Penney Art Center's Artist in Residence I've made seven trips to study the legacy of Charles Burchfield. Last week found me once again in Buffalo, NY painting at BPAC and in the fields on the outskirts of Buffalo in an area where Burchfield himself often painted.

Close up of the exhibition stickers on one of the backing boards
that used to be on the museum's framed pieces.

In addition to having the largest collection of Charles Burchfield's work, BPAC has an exhaustive archive of the artist's writings, notes, sketches, doodles and memorabilia. Heather Gring, the museum's Archivist organized some of their holdings into the exhibition Finding Aid: Making Sense of the Charles E. Burchfield Archives (through June 19, 2016).

A giant wall-mounted collage of Burchfield's original backing boards that have been removed from the original frames of works on paper greets you when you enter the exhibiton's first gallery. They have all been replaced by more archival materials to preserve the work. Facing them on the opposite wall are some of the drawings that accompanied the boards in the opening display.

Burchfield's Barracks and Tree, India ink and graphite, 1918
An early drawing he made while in the army.


Gentle Snow Fall,  graphite, 1920

I did a double take when I came across this drawing. In my very first studio art class my Freshman year at Oberlin College I made a drawing of the very same plaster cast of a cat. Perhaps this is something Burchfield worked on when he was a student at the Cleveland School of Art.

Here are the original folio cases Buchfiedl made to hold thematically 
related drawings together. They've been replaced by archival folders.

A close up of one of the Burchfield's in the show.
Spider and Grasshoppers,  1948. Isn't this the 
prettiest spider ever!

A sample of one of Burchfield's wallpaper designs.

The exhibition features a giant photo of a group of the artists that exhibited with Burchfield (back row far right) at the Rehn Gallery in New York. His friend and fellow artist Edward Hopper is in the back row at the far left.

Most photographs of Burchfield show him as seriously 
focused. Here's a family photo taken by his granddaughter 
Peggy Richter Haug where he mugs for the camera. The family 
has just eaten together at a Howard Johnsons. His wife Bertha
is getting into their car.

Easter Morning in the Woods watercolor, 1947 - 1964. Burchfield
returned to this earlier painting and cut it in half. This is the right hand
half of it. He intended to add a complementing section on the left side 
but never got to complete it.

Few artists have left us with as much documentation and commentary on their work as Charles Burchfield. Any artist who has wondered about the fate their life's work once they are gone will find the careful archiving of Burchfield's legacy on display here genuinely heartwarming. This is what we would all hope for. 

I had a planning meeting with Scott Propeack, the museum's Chief Curator, for an upcoming major exhibition of my own paintings at BPAC. It sounds exciting and I will be sharing details as we finalize our dates and plans. I am confident it will be an impressive exhibition.

On this visit to Buffalo I spent most of my time working in oil paint. I used part of the museum's Classroom as a temporary studio.

I spent most of my time this week southeast of the city in a rural field in East Aurora. Here's a photo of my work in progress of a split rail fence that I took just before packing up my paints and brushes to head home.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Portfolio of My Chestnut Ridge Park Drawings

Philip Koch painting and drawing at Chestnut 
Ridge Park, May 2015

In May of 2015 I took my first official trip to Buffalo, NY as Burchfield Penney Art Center's Artist in Residence. I asked Scott Propeak and Tullis Johnson, two of BPAC's Curators, where I might go to get some panoramic views of the area. They both suggested Chestnut Ridge Park, an area south of Buffalo that had been a favorite of Charles Burchfield's when he worked on his landscapes. Their suggestion was right on target.

I began at the crest of the hill in the Park that commands a view looking north toward a distant Lake Erie. A whole series of drawings ensued. Though I had grown up in nearby Rochester I had never done serious art in Western New York State before. These repeated views from Chestnut Ridge reflect my delight in finally working from the landscape where I grew up. I just wanted to keep doing drawing after drawing.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie, vine
charcoal, 12 x 9", 2015

I often do pastel drawings back in my studio based on my on site charcoal drawings. The charcoal above led to the two pastels that follow.

Philp Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie Blue, 
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Lake Erie Orange,
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

While making a drawing is considerable faster than my usual medium of oil painting, it's still time consuming. But I like that. It gives you extended opportunities to sense other possibilities out of the corner of your eye. The longer I stay in a place working the more apt I am to discover something else I have to do a new composition about.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Spring Trees,
vine charcoal & white pastel chalk, 12 x 9", 

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Panorama, vine charcoal,
 10 1/2 x 14", 2016

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Forest, vine charcoal, 
13 x 13", 2016

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge May,  vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2015

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Gold Sky, vine charcoal, 9 x 12",

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge: Buffalo Skyline, vine charcoal,
9 x 12", 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Visiting The Masters Exhibition at Somerville Manning Gallery

Charles Burchfield's watercolor August Morn hanging on
the Sommerville Manning Gallery wall yesterday.

One of the ways you know a painting is good is that instead of tiring of it you grow more curious about it over time.

Yesterday we drove up from Baltimore to Greenville, Delaware and visited Sommerville Manning Gallery. Each year they mount an exhibit that's especially worth seeing, American and European Masters . One of pieces they included is the Charles Burchfield watercolor August Morn, 1933-49. By coincidence before I learned the painting was going to be on display at one of my art galleries  I had written a blog post about the painting. The temptation to see it again in the flesh was too strong to resist.

Rebecca Moore from the Gallery and I enjoyed closely going over the painting together. Since becoming the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY I've had the opportunity to examine Burchfield's paintings and drawings first hand. A revelation for me was how often Burchfield loved to go back into his earlier work and develop it further. He painted the central section of the painting in 1933. But revisiting it years later he decided he could take it to a higher level by enlarging it. 

The seam where he joined an additional 4" tall panel of paper at the top of the painting is visible if one looks closely at the large white cloud at the right. What I hadn't realized is he also placed smaller additions at the left, right and bottom as well. The seams where he joined these panels are made almost completely invisible by agitated brushwork in the foliage he's built up around the edges of his enlarged composition. 

Sixteen years after the piece was begun it was completed at a more grand scale. Rebecca and I talked about how Burchfield himself had evolved over these years. The middle section from 1933 was a straightforward view of his next door neighbor's house in Gardenville, NY. Typical of the work he did at that time it's all about solid volumes and establishes clear highlights and cast shadows of the roofs and walls. His later additions focus more densely patterned celebrations of Burchfield's garden. That he can marry these subtly differing styles of painting so well testifies to his remarkable talents.

The American and European Masters show is well worth a visit- it runs through June 4. 

I'm attracted to Burchfield's work because he and I are sort of chewing on the same bone. Two of my paintings at Sommerville Manning Gallery are like the August Morn in the way they take a close up look at the almost surreal patterns of growth that I discovered in tree trunks and branches in my wanderings through the forest.

                                         Philip Koch, Thicket, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2014

My painting Thicket was done from a group of young white birch trees I discovered in Acadia National Park in Maine. They seemed to do a dance together to a rhythm only they could hear. There is an almost painful fresh innocence to groves of young birches like these.

Philip Koch, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 15 x 20", 2014

One of the themes Charles Burchfield often played with is the cycles of life from youth to maturity to old age. In my oil Deep Forest Pool I depicted the second half of this cycle, with mature birch trees bending and clanking their way upwards on the pond's far shore while two fallen birches slowly submerge in the inky dark waters.

Philip Koch, Memorial, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2010

Burchfield in much of his work relied more on memory and fantasy than on direct observation. My painting Memorial is a reverie of the countless times I've lost myself in deep spaces looking out from mountain tops at the earth's expanse. This painting is based on my memories of the islands surrounding Mt. Desert Island in Maine. It was done entirely from memory and shows the scene under the pale light of a full moon.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Mysterious Backgrounds- Wichita Art Museum's Burchfield Hush Before the Storm

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor today on their Facebook page. It's Hush Before the Storm from 1947 that's now in the Wichita Art Museum. What with the cheerful blossoms in the immediate foreground one might at first be tempted to see it as just a pretty picture and move on. But we're talking Burchfield and with him there's usually more going on.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who wants to experience a painting more deeply would be for them to spend more time enjoying the painting's background.

What caught my eye in this Burchfield was the sky. The crazily active shapes in the trees could have monopolized the painting.  It would have made his idea too simple and we would grasp the composition too quickly. But the artist cleverly invents countering shapes in the sky that answer back to the noisy arches and angles in the trees. 

Very often I think master painters reveal themselves with the touch of their brush. Burchfield artfully lays in these parallel rows of little brushstrokes in his clouds. He makes a point to keep changing their direction as he moves around the sky. You don't know ahead of time which way they're going to move so you keep looking.

For me the slate gray color for the approaching storm clouds is the perfect foil for the warm greens in the front half of the painting. Burchfield wants you to look at his sky so he invests it with a host of little unexpected moves to seduce your eye. 

We'd better keep moving. Judging by the look of that sky it's going pour on us soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Tapping Into the Past

Burchfield Penney Art Center is great about posting a different Charles Burchfield painting on their Facebook page every morning. A recent one is this lush watercolor, August Morn, 1933-49, a view Burchfield painted from his backyard in Gardenville,NY of the backyard of the Arbarella house next door. I love the painting for the way packs in an incredible amount of information and detail. In less able hands it would have been an overcrowded jumble. Yet Burchfield evokes a feeling of an intimate and even cozy space. He organizes it beautifully, with a big role assigned to the prominent and impenetrable row of sunflowers that wall us off from the neighbor's yard.

One of Burchfield's great talents was finding extraordinary possibilites in the close at hand.  

It's always a mystery how some artists manage to orchestrate their forms and their emotions together in a powerful visual duet. I think one reason Burchfield's creativity functioned on such a high level is how seriously he would relive and relish his most vivid memories. 

When I saw August Morn I realized that for Burchfield his neighbor's Gardenville backyard appealed to him because it so clearly reminded him of the views from his own boyhood home.
Here's a photograph I took standing in the back of the home where Burchfield grew up in Salem, OH. That sloping one story addition on the right side house is a dead ringer for the Gardenville, NY house he would paint decades later.

Imagine the thriving garden that was there in Burchfield's day. Maybe you can't go home again, but Burchfield did the next best thing.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Blistering Vision- Burchfield's Coke Ovens

Philip  Koch, Coke Ovens Leetonia, Ohio,  
vine eharcoal, 12 x 9", 2016

This morning I was reading the notice for the upcoming exhibition at Burchfield Penney Art Center, Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield's Sublime American Landscape (on display July 8 through October 23, 2016 in Buffalo, NY). Last summer I had begun a drawing that relates to BPAC's exhibition but never completed it to my satisfaction. 

One of the themes of the show will be to demonstrate how Burchfield blended the tradition of romantic 19th century American nature painting with his own awareness of the growing threat posed by industry. In Burchfield's work are some of the first stirrings of environmental consciousness in 20th century American painting. 

Just a few miles east of where Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio is  Leetonia, home in his day to a major coal mine and a field of open air coke ovens. Beehive-shaped brick enclosures built into banks of earth, these ovens would burn 24 hours a day generating the enormous temperatures needed to produce coke, a fuel necessary to make steel. 

Reading the description of the show, I immediately remembered my trip last summer to Leetonia, Ohio where Burchfield had painted the slightly other-worldly coke ovens. How I'd felt when I was working in Leetonia came back to me full force. I went back into that unfinished drawing. Sometime later it was done.

Philip Koch working on the drawing  above 
of the coke ovens in Leetonia, OH, August, 2015

When I visited the Leetonia ovens I found extensive rows of these brick-lined little caves. Peering into the black holes in the earth you couldn't help but feel the place had an almost surreally intense personality. For Burchfield, whose imagination was so easily stirred, the sight of these ovens flaming away at night made a haunting impression on him. Seeing the gaping mouths of these ovens all these decades later I found myself intrigued but a little unnerved. 

The sublime implies a side of nature that inspires awe or even fear. Burchfield never shied away from any of nature's moods- he took felicitous delight in sunny fields, but also a devilish pleasure in the slightly haunted forest. His art beckons to us to open our eyes more widely and to take in both the beauty and the strangeness of this world.

Charles Burchfield, Coke Ovens at Twilight,  watercolor, 1920

Charles Burchfield, Abandoned Coke Ovens, watercolor,
1918, Wichita Art Museum

As the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this year, I've had an enviable opportunity to get close to one of our greatest painters. Burchfield, a profoundly emotional man, labored to give his experience concrete form. His drawings and paintings take us to a place where we can feel some of what he felt  

As I read about the upcoming Blistering Vision show this morning I recalled the hundreds of discoveries I've made studying his paintings. Honestly it feels like a deep river of energy and knowledge. From that I got the momentum I needed to complete my drawing.