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.