My "Time Travel " with Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch working in his Baltimore studio on his painting
Evergreen, 40 x 60 inches, that will be included in Burchfield
Penney Art Center's exhibition of his work April 13 - July 29, 2018

I wrote the following about the remarkable experience I had in the two years I served as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2015-17. Right now I am bus preparing for that museum's exhibition of my paintings and drawings from the Residency- it's set to open April 13 and run through July 29, 2018. 

Time Travel in the Burchfield Archives

We all think we know who we are. Sometimes an unexpected event shows us how wide of the mark our thinking has been. So it was with my experience the last two years being the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It provided a close encounter with the work of another painter, Charles Burchfield. Burchfield, a fellow landscape painter, was an artist with a powerful imagination that had taken him into a distinctively personal style.

My first though when the Center invited me to serve as an Artist in Residence was pretty modest. It would be a chance to do a lot of painting near where I’d grown up in Rochester, something I’d always wanted to do. And I figured I’d pick up a few new ideas about color from looking at his paintings. That was pretty much it.

Burchfield’s style of painting was sufficiently different from than mine that I wasn’t worried that I’d be seduced into just working in his footsteps. I was right about that. What I didn’t anticipate were more indirect influences. How looking at his working methods and arc of his career would send me back in time to reorient how I see myself as an artist.

Let me explain.

In addition to having the largest collection of Charles Burchfield's paintings, the Burchfield Penney has the Burchfield Archives, an exhaustive collection of the artist's writings, notes, serious drawings, quick sketches, doodles and memorabilia. When I first began vising BPAC as the Artist in Residence I was invited to come to the Archives and study some drawings Burchfield produced. I had no idea what I would find there. More than for most artists, making drawings has always been a central part of my own painting. I was amazed to discover just how pivotal a role drawing played in Burchfield’s creativity. The Archives contained an overwhelming number - over 20,000 drawings alone.

Living, having emotions and being able to respond to the world around us are remarkable, and all too temporary, things. We would be fools not to open our eyes and drink in the look and feel of being alive on this planet. Going through Burchfield’s drawings one begins to realize that Burchfield had a deep and profound sense of this.

There’s an almost astonishing level of wonder and celebration found in the archival boxes containing his drawings- sometimes he would make the most elegantly detailed studies of the twists and turns of an individual leaf. Some were so delicately detailed that I thought they could have been drawn by Leonardo DaVinci. Other times he would be searching for the best way to convey a new idea and churned out drawing after drawing trying out subtle changes in his composition. The level of energy on display revealed a no-holds-barred, passion for his subjects. I couldn’t help but leave these visits to the Archives inspired.

The other surprise was how seriously Burchfield took his efforts. He seemed to save everything. They had been lovingly cared for in a far more organized way than I’d ever considered for my own artwork.

I resolved to start my own long-delayed project to catalogue my own work, scanning a huge pile of old 35mm slides of my earlier paintings and recording information about them. Undertaking my new archiving project forced me to go back through hundreds of images of paintings and drawings I had done three and even four decades before. While I hadn’t totally forgotten any of these earlier works I had unconsciously edged them to a far back burner on my mental stove.

Early in my career I primarily worked outdoors painting with oil paint. But in the last 15 years I’d largely abandoned that in favor of painting in my studio from black and white drawings. When I first came to Buffalo for my Residency I was convinced this was to be my studio method permanently.

Yet starting my new archiving project I was surprised how much I enjoyed looking at my early work that I done directly outdoors. They were far more exciting than I had remembered them. This set me to thinking.

I knew Burchfield himself had undergone major shifts in his paintings. His early years in Ohio saw vividly colored and slightly fantastical imagery. Moving to Buffalo his paintings became more somber and straightforward. Yet later in his life he made a serious re-evaluation, dipping his brush again into the deeper well of his highly charged imagination. The brighter colors and bold fantasy returned. Burchfield seemed to have reached back in time and recaptured much of the mystery and magic of his early paintings.

It struck me that if Burchfield in full maturity could re-evaluate his methods and make serious changes, so could I. Maybe I could do some travel back in time too.

My experience in the Burchfield Archives was like a fresh gust of wind filling my sails, encouraging me and challenging me to change my own course. I’m now working outdoors in oils again. The fields I am finding there, having lain fallow for years, seem newly refreshed and fertile.

Philip Koch, January, 2018


  1. Thank you for sharing your emotional and intellectual creative experience. I find your essay very inspiring.


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