Too often in Northeast Ohio, we forget the inspirational beauty of our surroundings. Perhaps it’s the length of the winters, or the number of overcast days? Regardless, we forget just how lovely this area can be.
Artists from the present and the past have spent countless hours investigating Ohio landscapes and cities. One of the more accomplished was Charles Burchfield (1893–1967). A wonderfully evocative exhibit of his work from an important time in his life is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
"Charles Burchfield: The Ohio Landscapes, 1915–1920" includes about 30 drawings from the period surrounding what Burchfield described as his “golden year,” 1917. During this time he completed more paintings than ever before, using the local landscape to express and investigate universal emotions and moods.
Burchfield worked in his hometown of Salem and in Cleveland, where he attended the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art. Using watercolors, Burchfield developed a new, more abstract style that defined his art throughout his long career.
The strength of this exhibit lies in the curator’s choice to show Burchfield as he was just starting out. The pieces in the exhibit highlight the artist as he was trying to find his own style, and it does so in a way that is ultimately very relatable. Walking through the gallery, you get a real sense of what he was doing and why, and how he grew and changed over a relatively short time.
Also, it’s quite refreshing to be shown examples of an artist's work that describe the effort that goes into this vocation. It doesn’t show only what he is best known for, thus leaving all the early years of research, exploration and toil to the sands of time.
"Drifting Dandelion Seeds" is watercolor and gouache with pencil on paper, done in May 1916. The piece has a mostly flat green background with dandelion shapes painted in a heavy dark line. The dandelions have the expected white tops, but what is unexpected is the size of the seeds depicted in reference to the plants and how they are shown floating in rows. It looks like a deliberate choice by the artist to overemphasize the floating seeds, to make understanding what they are more difficult but more visually interesting.
There is clear movement in the work, as the subject and landscape are not stagnant or flat, but it doesn’t directly read as anything beyond a quick sketch of something organic in nature, and that’s what makes it so exciting to study.
Two pieces shown side by side are "Setting Sun through the Catalpas (Late August Sunset)," a watercolor with graphite from 1916, and "The Sun through the Trees," a watercolor from 1917. One of the reasons these pieces are shown together is to highlight how the artist evolved from outlining his composition with graphite and then filling it in with watercolor, to working only with watercolor and no graphite.
They also show how the artist's work began to change graphically. The earlier piece, "Setting Sun through the Catalpas," is less gestural and more a direct representation of what he was looking at, with sharp edges to the composition’s subjects. In the later piece, Burchfield is still working graphically but has included wiggly, snake-like lines that reference whatever might be growing on the ground near the base of the tree, and in the sky he has included expressive white lines going horizontally and on sharp angles that highlight the power of the sunlight, while wrapping the work in light and making it almost glow.
Making art is a unique exploration in many ways. Artists are expected to never stop making work, to express until they die or can’t physically do it anymore. What’s exciting about this show is that it explores the way an artist works and how he goes about finding and defining his style. It takes effort and time to become good at anything in life, and this exhibit is a refreshing take on how an important artist from our area began his lifetime of artistic research, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and cities he called home.
Contact Anderson Turner at email@example.com.