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Remembering Emerson
July/August 2012 Issue

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Photo George Volk


Gadfly to Columbus and the world, Emerson Burkhart, in the fashion of Socrates, was not only an artist, he was a philosopher and keen observer of human nature – a remarkable man, truly an American original. He died in 1969, but his memory lingers on in the minds of those who were fortunate enough to have known him. While travelling with the International School of America as artist in residence in the 1960s, he corresponded with his friend Gazette publisher Tom Thomson. The following letter describes the creative spirit that Burkhart considered “worthy of Big Freedom Loving America” and his resolve that we “fight like hell to keep it alive.”

Dear Friend Tom Thomson,

Settled in an apartment, painted 18 canvases thus far. This place, La Palma, Canary Islands, is hot sunshine, mountains and the blue Atlantic. Pretty hard to want for anything more, unless it’s some beautiful señorita, and they are crowded with that species here. Walked up a mountain pass this morning to get a view of the harbor, sun-kissed mountains in the distance, many ships from every country, colorful Spanish buildings, cactus 50 species and same for palm trees – banana plantations a favorite crop. Painted two canvases of this view.

I am in love with a couple of sun-kissed mountains surrounded by blue Atlantic. There is more beauty here than one could paint in a long lifetime.

You and I have talked about how to maintain an enthusiasm for life, for work, for deep, honest, sincere work, not commercial hogwash, TV commercials and advertisements. Paintings, poetry worthy of the Big Freedom Loving America – Poe, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Frost. You see it, the flames die down, the dead ashes without any warmth-giving flames. Love dies down, enthusiasm for almost anything connected with life dies.

Can one maintain a freedom – to grab enthusiastic, ecstatic sparks of life here and there, forever keeping the fire glowing?

Humanity’s love of people, to cause a smile instead of a frown, to generate enthusiasm instead of gloomy despair, to touch everyone with the spark of creativity, for all people have the seed, but so few allow it to be watered, nurtured so it brings forth fruit, or flowers. You maintain a flame and you fight like hell to keep it alive.

Like the boy I met in a Parisian cafe, asked me to buy him a cup of coffee. I said, “I don’t go around buying people coffee. What do you do for a living when you’re not begging?”
“I’m a poet!”

“If you can prove to me the truth of that statement, I’ll buy you all the coffee you can drink and a good dinner too.”

He pulled some soiled papers out of his pocket and started to read poetry. Thomson, it was original and good.

“It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” How many people know this line of poetry? asked the boy. “I too want to write one memorable line.”

Didn’t even care if it were published. We became good friends. He knew Paris like I know Columbus. He enriched my life and I bought him coffee.

Professionalism, Ph.D’s, professors, $1 million dollars for education. You can’t buy enthusiasm, love, and the ability to see beauty wherever your eyes look. It’s in an attitude, an honest reaction that’s your own. Scholarship is not the road to art. Saturated with life, the drama of Franklin County and the Canary Islands is the source of art, and that art shall be communicable and understood by other human beings.

I think I’ll stay here for a couple more months, cheaper living, kind people, maid and apartment for $50 a month, everything furnished, and then I’ll come home by boat. Met some rugged sailors, one strong as an ox said, “I’ve never been in a fight. I just pick up an apple and crush it in my hand, letting the juice and pulp seep through my fingers – nobody fights after that.” A fabulous person.

How’s the magazine coming? Good cheers to you and yours.


© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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