Saturday, May 21, 2011

`Each Year I Find Something New'

Salsify, the flower that sounds like a verb. Picture spheres of gossamer – that’s salsify gone to seed. At that stage it’s mistaken for dandelion, but salsify is lighter, more elegant, with a hint of Buckminster Fuller design. Known as goatbeard, it’s cousin to the sunflower. In The Drawings of Charles Burchfield (1968), I found a charcoal rendering from 1960 of three salsify flowers gone to seed, with this comment by the artist (who died in 1967, while the book was in production):

“One of a series of drawings which were done because of the fascinating shape of the flowers—somewhat like a pinwheel.”

Shape is to an artist like Burchfield what sound is to a poet like Wallace Stevens – simultaneously fuel and engine. I’ve often written about Burchfield, a fellow native of Northeastern Ohio. His best-known works are strange visionary depictions of natural scenes in which trees vibrate and glow. The drawings – some, études for paintings; others, like the salsify, done out of unembarrassed joy – are humbler and emotionally more somber. I’m unable to find images from the book online, but the salsify drawing is a wonder. The seeds, drawn with charcoal, are delicate as spider web. In fact, they look remarkably like a pen-and-ink drawing from 1949, “Sun and Cobwebs,” which shows a field in late summer when orb weavers are busy.

I favor Burchfield’s small studies of insects and plants – “Hawk Moth and Nicotiana” (1946) and “Queen Anne’s Lace” (1954). Of the latter, the artist writes:

“I never tire of drawing these exquisite flowers. From bud to full bloom, to its final closing into the cup-shaped seed baskets, the flower takes on infinitely varying shapes [that word again]. Each year I find something new.”

I don’t remember another writer noticing the “cup-shaped seed baskets” of the Queen Anne’s lace. They survive into winter and some remain at the top of stems even the following summer beside the next growth of blooms. Burchfield doesn’t mention the “tiny purple blemish” observed by William Carlos Williams. Other Burchfield triumphs include “Crows and Pussy Willows” (1960), “Cecropia Moth Hiding Under Oak Leaves” (1961) and “Three Dandelion Seed Heads” (1961). Of his “Sunflower Head Hanging,” done in Conté crayon in 1960, Burchfield writes:

“One of a group of drawings done for the pure joy of putting down on paper a beloved subject. In a slum section of Buffalo, I found a group of very tall sunflowers, growing in and filling a tiny bit of land in front of a house, and spilling out over a fence.”

Another Burchfield admirer, Guy Davenport, puts it like this in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994):

“His work is so rich that its periods can supply museums with large collections in which he might seem to be only a painter of Ohio small towns, or of mid-American industry, or of woods and forests in all weathers, or of domestic tranquility, or of Creation as the essence of all earthly beauty.”

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