Charles Burchfield's Backyard: In Praise of One's Surroundings

Philip Koch, Charles Burchfield's Salem House, oil on panel
12 x 24", 2016

As part of my being the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY, I took a trip to Charles Burchfield's boyhood home in Salem, OH last summer. The home has been restored by volunteers as the Burchfield Homestead and is open for visitors in the warmer months. Burchfield lived on an unassuming residential street in this town southeast of Cleveland from age 5 until he was 28. He moved to Buffalo to take a job as a wallpaper designer and stayed there despite his growing national acclaim. 

The above oil painting was done in my studio back in Baltimore. I based it on the vine charcoal drawing below that I made on location during last summer's trip to Salem. The view is standing in Burchfield's backyard with the low late afternoon sun streaming in from the west. Burchfield did many of his most famous early works looking out the windows of that house, finding unlikely drama in the corners of this seemingly ordinary neighborhood. 

Philip Koch, Burchfield's Salem House, vine charcoaol 
 6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Burchfield had impressive success exhibiting in New York City at the Rehn Gallery (where his friend Edward Hopper also showed). I've always felt a kinship with the way Burchfield chose not go live in New York (he tried it for a month, hated it, and returned home). He found his art was best nourished by staying close to his roots in Northeast Ohio and Western New York State. He made his paintings as a celebration of the surroundings he knew.

I can relate to that. I first started painting as a student at Oberlin College, in a small town in Ohio near Salem and quite similar in feeling. And I grew up in Rochester, just east of Buffalo, in a town reminiscent of the suburban town where Burchfield had his home and studio. 

One afternoon in 1969 sitting at the kitchen table in my student apartment in Oberlin I realized I had been staring for 10 minutes at the long shadows cast by the college's Conservatory of Music across a deserted parking lot. They made exquisite patterns as the shadows played over the crushed gravel.  It was a late afternoon light very much like in my drawing and my oil painting above. Working in watercolor I did my very first landscape painting right then and there. It turned out well, far better that my more "profound" surrealist paintings I had been struggling with recently. It was a modest empty parking lot that helped me turn a corner into becoming a landscape painter.


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