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Handwritten is a place and space for pen and paper. We showcase things in handwriting, but also on handwriting. And so, you'll see dated letters and distant postcards alongside recent studies and typed stories. 

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Let the Mind Rule the Eye • A Conversation with Tullis Johnson about Charles Burchfield

Brett Rawson


SARAH MADGES: How did working on this project inform or change the way you think about handwriting?

TULLIS JOHNSON: Charles E. Burchfield wrote prolifically. He kept a journal for more than fifty years, which by the end of his life totaled more than ten thousand pages. He also wrote notes on his sketches for paintings and on loose sheets of paper that were kept in his studio. The letters he wrote to his friends and colleagues constitute a small fraction of the writing that he did throughout his life, and reveal only a small part of what we can learn by examining his handwriting.

Working on Pen to Paper was interesting for me because it brought Burchfield’s handwriting into a larger context. While some artists took time and care in crafting letters to friends, Burchfield had little concern for the elegance and precision of the written word. On August 19, 1914 he wrote in his journal about his feelings on the subject:

Let the mind rule the writing not the eye! The mind should be so intent upon what it is saying, that it forgets the means of transferring it to paper. The artist does not see his brush. Be sure if what you are saying is worthwhile, someone will decipher your hieroglyphics. I do not mean that a man should adopt a crude handwriting to affect eccentricity. A man’s handwriting should be spontaneous. If we all wrote perfectly, there would be less variance of character. Of what avail is it, if a man perfect his handwriting, and [finds] that he has not perfected what he has to say? His only calling must be that of copyist.
— Charles E. Burchfield, Journals, Vol. 19, pg. 35-36, August 19, 1914

Burchfield was more interested in the content of his work, than on the methods of applying his medium. Reflecting on his experiences teaching, in 1959, he told interviewer John D. Morse at the Archives of American Art, “I couldn’t possibly tell anybody how to paint in watercolor….I told them: ‘Don’t think about the medium. What you’re trying to say is much more important than what you’re saying it with. And if you’re thinking about what you are trying to express, you may use watercolor like nobody else ever used it.”

SARAH: Why do you think these letters are so important, and how did you choose which one to discuss? What were the other fan letter responses like?

TULLIS: The letters written by Burchfield, in the collection of the Archive of American Art, are important because they reveal much about the character of the man at various times in his career. The earliest letter, written to Paul Travis (1891-1975) in 1930, is more a letter to a friend than a response to a fan. Travis was a close friend to Burchfield during and after his time at the Cleveland School of Art, who would later accompany him on sketching trips along with other friends from his time in Cleveland. 

Burchfield’s letters to Lawrence Fleischman (1925-1997) are even more revealing. Correspondences between these two men, in the collection of the Archives of American Art, span between the years of 1954 and 1964. 1954 was the same year that the Archives were founded, by Fleischman and others. In January and February of 1956, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of Burchfield’s work. The letter I chose was written in March of the same year. The friendship that developed over those years, was an important one. Fleischman became an avid collector of Burchfield’s work, and eventually owned more than thirty of his paintings. Fleischman’s Kennedy Galleries would later represent Burchfield’s estate after the artist’s death.

SARAH: Have you always suspected a link between an artist's handwriting and their art? If so, when did you first notice or consider this connection?

TULLIS: On October 8, 1913 Burchfield wrote in his journal:

I often wonder what I am naturalist or artist, for the pursuit of one hinders the other - I seem always to be deciding which it shall be - Of course it must be an artist, for I must live, but I am hoping for a day when I can give myself entirely up to Nature.

Burchfield’s handwriting has always been an important part of the study of his work. In an interview conducted at his home in 1959, John D. Morse inquired about whether the journals might eventually end up at the Archives of American Art. Burchfield declined, suggesting that they would end up with his estate. In 2000, more than ten thousands pages were donated, by the foundation set up in the artist’s name, to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York.

In 2006 an even larger collection of over 25,000 objects from the artist’s studio was donated as well. I took part in the inventory of a large part of that collection. Included are sketches and studies for paintings, but there are also a large number of notes, written in the artists hand on loose sheets of paper. The sketches themselves also include notes on changes that should be made to the final paintings.

Even Burchfield’s doodles contain handwriting, often revealing critical insights into the artist and his work. Some contain simple things, like a score for a card game played with his wife. One doodle includes the title of the book The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson. There has always been a link between Charles Burchfield’s handwriting and his art. He was aware of it early in his life, and scholars that study his work, during and after his lifetime, have been aware of it as well.

SARAH: What do you think we can learn about Charles Burchfield from studying these letters that we couldn't from mere biographical record?

TULLIS: You can learn a lot about an artist by studying their writing, but different kinds of documents can reveal different things. Studio notes and notations on sketches are written as notes to one’s self. Journals and diaries are written with no particular audience in mind. They contain memories and musings on the activities of the day. They also present a great deal of autobiographical information about the writer. Correspondence however, are always written with a particular audience in mind, and each letter reveals something different about the character of the man.

SARAH: You included Burchfield's quote about letting "the mind rule the writing, not the eye" in your essay in Pen to Paper, and again here. What do you think he meant by referring to his writing as "hieroglyphics"? Do you consider handwriting, in the sense that it is a drawn character system, to be visual art?  

TULLIS: Handwriting surely can be visual art, and with certain artists it definitely is. In Charles Burchfield’s case, handwriting is a part of his art. It is most dramatically so with his monogram“CEB” which he used to sign his works starting in the 1920s. Handwriting is also an important part of many of his sketches, although the ideas that are communicated are more important than the handwriting itself. He wrote “Of what avail is it, if a man perfect his handwriting, and [finds] that he has not perfected what he has to say?” For Burchfield himself, handwriting itself was not visual art, but rather a means for communicating ideas. Viewers today however, often find his handwriting to be quite exciting and worthy of examination. In 2013 the Burchfield Penney Art Center commissioned Richard Kegler, co-founder of Buffalo based P22 Type Foundry to create a Burchfield font to honor the artist. Today the font is often used in exhibitions, to highlight many of the dramatic statements that Burchfield made in his journals, sketches or notes.

SARAH: Where do you think we could find qualitatively similar information and insight about an artist and their work today now that people use snail mail for personal correspondence less frequently? Do you think there's a comparable medium or mode of communication in use?

TULLIS: Today the personal letter is quite rare, and the bulk of communication is done by digital means. This being the case, the best place to find qualitatively similar information on an artist and their ambitions is through social media. Many artists use Twitter and Instagram to share their work. In 2012 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center we launched a program on our website called “In His Own Words” where each day an entry from Burchfield’s journals is posted with an image of one of his paintings or drawings. In this way we are using contemporary communication tools to reach thousands and give them access to this otherwise inaccessible information from the past.

Tullis Johnson, curator and manager of archives at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, has organized multiple exhibitions of contemporary and historical significance, including the nationally touring exhibition, Charles Burchfield : Weather Event, which received the Award of Commendation at Museums in Conversation from the Museum Association of New York. Through his writing on Charles Burchfield, he is an emerging Burchfield Scholar. Respected for placing the work of Burchfield into a contemporary context, Johnson’s scholarship continues to break new ground in the understanding of the artist. His exhibition Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield’s Sublime American Landscapes is currently on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York. Johnson received his B.F.A. from the Visual Studies Department at the University at Buffalo earning the Eugene Gaier Award for Excellence in Print Making.