Painting Papa,
Vol. 9, No. 24
June 14-20, 2001
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Painting Papa, 12 Takes on Sporting Man Bill Burton
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12 Takes on Sporting Man Bill Burton
Story by Sandra Martin
Photos by Betsy Kehne

To earn Papa as his honorific, a man has had to roar as a young lion and still, when his mane and beard are gray, lead the pack. The world gave that title to Hemingway. In Chesapeake Country, ‘Papa’ is indisputably sportsman and storyteller Bill Burton who, as this story
begins, is the cynosure of 12 pairs of eagle eyes …

They are keeping time with Mozart. From Burton to canvas, eyes dart. From palette to canvas, hands rise. For 20 minutes, painters and canvas are locked in rapt, rhythmic concentration.The “William Tell Overture” must really get them going.

In this dance of light and color, only Bill Burton is still. Patriarchal and smiling, he is a 21st century Neptune enthroned above them in fishing cap and sneakers. His right hand rests on his faithful graphite rod; in his left, he grips his favorite pipe. In a half-circle around him, his image materializes on a dozen canvases. Once again, Maryland Hall’s Portrait Co-op is at work. Another fish has taken the lure of co-op coordinator and portrait artist Phyllis Avedon, who must supply a new subject every six weeks.

“He has such character,” Avedon says. “Reading his columns in Bay Weekly, I can tell there’s more to him than meets the eye. We’d like to paint him.”

How’s a guy to refuse a line like that?

Hooked, Burton joins the procession of Chesapeake Country notables who have sat for the co-op. Annapolis Mayor Dean Johnson and, earlier, Al Hopkins. Delegate Virginia Clagett. Mama Jama drummer and humanitarian Larry Griffin, founder of We Care. Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Ed Stewart. Maryland Hall director Linnell Bowen and security officer Charles Dashiell. Chesapeake Country’s signature photographer Marion Warren. Eastport Oyster Boy Jeff Holland. Most recently, Marita Carroll, who as a girl integrated Eastport schools.

Sat, literally, and very still. “They can’t wiggle and jiggle and tap their foot,” says Avedon.

Sat from 9:30 Friday morning until noon for five weeks. In eight-minute breaks between each 20-minute sitting, Burton charms his portraitists. He tells them stories, usually fishing stories, sometimes with a barb that hooks the heartstrings.

About 40 years ago, narrates Burton, my friend at the time Reese Layton — an ocean charterboat fisherman specializing in white marlin — and I, in my early days as outdoor editor of the Sunpapers, planned a trip to the Jackspot. Alas, on the morning of the trip the wind was howling, so we scrubbed it.

Today he has brought a Norman Rockwell self-portrait showing the artist peering around his canvas. That, Burton, says, is how he sees them.

“He’s such a neat subject!” his painters agree.

About 9am, the winds died, and we talked about going as we sat on a bench at Josh Bunting’s fishing center. An elderly man heard us, told us he had driven all the way from N ew Jersey to go marlin fishing, and the captain chickened out. He asked if he could join us, and what it would cost.

For their trouble, each subject earns a model’s fee of $6 an hour. And kaleidoscopically, each see him- or herself as others see ’em.

Reese told him $60, he agreed and we set sail. As we neared the Jackspot, I started to rig baits. There were fish signs everywhere. Reese was enthused and hurried me up. I rigged a rod, turned to pass it to the fellow from New Jersey and he was dead, really dead, flat on the deck. Reese was on the flying bridge. “Hey, Reese,” I shouted, “this man’s dead.”

Having conspired in the catching of Burton, Bay Weekly is hooked, too. So at the fourth sitting, photographer Betsy Kehne and editor Sandra Martin tiptoe into the studio to see the painters as they are seeing Burton. Professionals and serious amateurs, a dozen are at work today. While they are catching him, we are catching them. With a catch so big, this is netting - not hook-and-line angling …

Jim Aguilard
“I retired from the CIA in 1990. I’ve been painting ever since,” says Aguilard, of Crownsville, a graphic artist and, by chance, the only man in the room today but Bill Burton.

“I think all graphic artists love to paint, but they don’t have time. They have to retire to take it up.”

When Aguilard paints portraits, he’s after “the character of the person. You study a model — not only when he’s posing but when he’s talking and walking around. You try to see the essence of the person and go for it.
“Burton, he’s got a lot of character.”

Phyllis Avedon

“A true portrait must not only capture an accurate likeness, it must also reveal some vital aspect of personality,” says professional portraitist Avedon, who is a first cousin of renowned celebrity photographer Richard Avedon. It’s she who lures a steady stream of models to Maryland Hall’s second floor studio, where all the big windows face north, for herself and fellow artists to paint.

“Portraits are the hardest kind of painting. Nobody’s ever heard a tree say ‘that limb you’ve painted looks nothing like mine,’” says Avedon in her amateur role of stand-up comedian. Women of a certain age like her portraits, she says, “because I charge way more for bags and wrinkles. They simply won’t pay.”
Among Avedon’s hundreds of subjects are eight grandchildren. “To be painted, children have to be photographed or stuffed,” she deadpans.

In her spare time, Avedon, a former editor, has edited the breast cancer newsletter Toward a Cure. “At least three of us here,” she notes, “are breast cancer survivors.

“I’ve painted all kinds of faces,” she says. “Including faces changing with cancer.”

Fishing is another “disease,” says she, “that runs in my family. My son took his seven-year-old catching croaker. They filleted the croaker and we had them sautéed.”

Words are another. “As a recovering editor,” she says, “I recognized that Bill Burton was a hell of a writer, and I’ve always admired writers. There’s a sort of camaraderie between authors and editors.

“Burton is clearly a fisherman, clearly his own self, a very ornery guy sitting for us only because he wanted to. He was a terrific subject. Finishing that damn insignia on his cap is going to be a nuisance. I could slap it on sloppy, but doing it right validates the painting.

“Yes, he’s a good subject. He’s got depth of character. He wore interesting clothing. And he told us stories.”

Reese said “Jesus Christ, the man’s dead and there are fish signs everywhere. You don’t see many days like this. Put him in the fish chest.” (This fish chest was a six-foot box at the stern.) “He won’t mind, not if he’s dead.”

Lynn Der
“I hear a lot of portrait painters say they’re looking for their subject’s essence” says Der, of Crofton, another of the professional painters in the group. “Not me. I look for beauty.

“Beauty is mechanical, not emotional. I look for the shapes and planes of this person. If you get that, you will find an incredible beauty, because nature created it for you.

“It happens by itself. You get the shapes right, you get the beauty.”

To Der, Papa Burton is indeed beautiful. So is her painting, for she has gotten the shapes right.

Edith Feder
“How long have I been painting? This spring, I had my 57th reunion at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. I graduated in the class of ’44,” says Feder, of Crofton.

“I used to paint portraits professionally. It’s a wonderful feeling to study character. But painting to satisfy other people is very stressful. Now I’m only trying to please myself.

“My husband is retired Navy captain. We met on a blind date 49 years ago. We’ve lived all over the states and in Italy. Italy was heaven!

“Now we travel a great deal, all over the world. I always carry my sketch pad. And I’ve got two grandchildren, five and two, who are half Chinese. But they live in California, so I’ll have to travel some more to paint them.”

“… And get $60 out of his pocket.”

I refused both orders. “We can’t do that,” said I. Reese insisted. Finally, I said, “call the Coast Guard. If they say we can fish, okay.” I knew they wouldn’t.

Donna Fink
“Bill Burton is such a wonderful subject that we should be paying him. Well, we are paying him. But we should be paying him a lot more. It’s a privilege to paint him.

Fink, of Pasadena, has been painting since she was about thigh-high to the five-foot-something she now stands. “I have pictures from when I was two that my father saved. I painted the coal man shoveling coal down the chute. My father was a sign painter and I think he was pleased that I wanted to paint.

“At 50,” Fink says, “I’d raised my family — four kids — and took up painting seriously.

“It’s the first thing I ever really loved. My love did not fail me when I returned.”

Joan Howe
“I’m a landscape painter, but this group is my social club. We bolster each other’s confidence and share helpful criticism,” says Howe, of Annapolis. “We talk about taking trips and sharing a villa in Tuscany. I love each and every one of the people here. That …” she says, raising an imaginary bow to her shoulder “deserves a violin background.”

After a summer trip, Norway’s landscapes will be Howe’s inspiration — but she’ll return to her portrait club.
Sue Merrill

“We have a heck of a lot of fun as we share this passion to try to get a good likeness,” says Merrill, of downtown Annapolis, one of only two or three capturing Burton not with a brush but with sticks of pastel colors. “Friday is for me a chance to blossom into color.”

After working for 14 years as director of library services at Crownsville Hospital Center, Merrill now spends many regular hours a week painting. In between those hours, she’s a guide for Three Centuries tours, dressing up in colonial garb to show fourth graders how to see back in time. “I like the balance in my life,” she says.

Nancy Ostroff
“I graduated from art school — the same one as Ethel Feder, but 20 years later. The only things I didn’t study were stained glass and watercolor. So what did I do? For 20 years, I had a stained glass business. When my children were grown, I went back to my first love: painting. Except now it was watercolor, which has become my new love.

“It’s a demanding lover. It becomes an obsession,” says Ostroff, as she dabs oil paint onto her emerging Burton.

“I did a couple watercolor portraits and they didn’t seem to compare to the oil, so I tried it,” says Ostroff, of Annapolis.

“But I still love watercolor best.”

Bonnie Roth Anderson ¯
“I love how Bill Burton looks,” says Roth Anderson, of Severna Park. A professional portraitist for 30 years and teacher of portrait painting, she is one of two artists in residence at Maryland Hall who regularly works with the portrait co-op. “He’s one of those old characters, and I know old characters because I’m married to one.”

The other old character of whom she speaks is Judge Arthur A. Anderson. “I met the judge years ago when he came to my art class as a student. He never left, so we got married.”

Marge Sizemore
“Each portrait, I try to be more observant, to improve on what I’ve done before,” says Sizemore, of Eastport. Largely self-taught, Sizemore is one of a minority of two at work today with pastels to capture Bill Burton’s grizzled character.

“I’m very keyed into faces and very geared to seniors. I want their wonder to shine through. Look at Bill’s face: such wisdom, such experience, and his eyes are so merry.”

Reese called the Coast Guard. “The son-of-a-bitch is dead and there are fish signs everywhere,” he said. And he said he intended to fish. The Coast Guard told him he had to come back.

Lora Stern
“When a painting clicks, it comes out as if it had been in the canvas, ready to come out,” says Stern, of Annapolis. “When that happens, it makes a connection between my spirit and,” she nods at Burton, “his.
“An artist strives to do that every time. When you do, it’s glorious. It makes you obsessed. Your heart sings.
“I like the thrill, Maybe I should become a race driver.”

See more of Stern’s work, under the title Painting from the Heart, at Gallery 333 at the Annapolis Unitarian Church at 333 DuBois Road through June.

Monica Williams
“I just started painting three years ago. It had been 25 years,” says Williams, of Annapolis, a commercial artist who works larger than many of the painters busy around her. “I’ve always liked painting and I decided I’m old enough to do what I feel like.

“I love people and I love a challenge. I do landscapes, but it’s a bigger challenge to get a person’s likeness and personality. Of course you want the exterior, but just as important is what’s behind the exterior, the feeling and the depth of the person.”

“I don’t always get it, but sometimes I do.

“Bill Burton? He’s such a wonderful subject. So meaty. An intelligent man in fisherman’s garb. He can talk and we can listen for hours.”

Reese finally agreed, but he said, “I’m going to troll a bit on the way in. There are fish signs everywhere, and that damned man is dead. And I’m gonna get my $60.”

The Rockwell Effect
“I’m surprised to see how good they all are,” says Burton, during one of his eight-minute breaks. After all, he didn’t know what he was getting into or who might be painting him. And on the first day, he remembers, “they were …. Enough said.

“But I don’t know which is my favorite because sitting up here, you don’t get much of a chance to see them. It’s like that Norman Rockwell portrait of himself looking around his easel. That’s all I see is heads looking around easels to tell me my chin is a quarter-inch too long.

“And they notice things. Last week, I wore a new cap. Same style, same words, same color. They said, ‘You’ve got a new cap.’

“They check more than a jealous wife.”

The Kicker
So against my wishes, we trolled a while. I covered the body with a piece of canvas. It was the only time I ever went fishing that I prayed the fish wouldn’t bite. Thankfully none did, so we never got a fish. Reese didn’t get the $60. And we never even learned the man’s name.

See the many images of ‘Papa’ Burton at Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Thursday, June 21, meet Bill Burton and many of the artists in an open reception 6-8pm @ Canvasback Room, Philip E. Merrill Environmental Center, 6 Herndon Ave., Annapolis. Or visit by appointment July 2, 3, 5 or 6: 443/482-2001.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly