Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 24
June 14-20, 2001
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The Other Side of the Fence
‘Papa’ Burton Talks Back

God is really only another artist.
He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat.
He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things.

-Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

I had the above quote from Life with Picasso (by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake) in mind one Friday morning in April last as I climbed the steps to the big doorway at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis. I was curious how artists would try other things on my favorite subject


In a moment of curiosity, while being overwhelmed by flattery, I had not reluctantly allowed portrait artist Phyllis Avedon to convince me to sit for a portrait at her class that was to run for a string of consecutive Friday mornings. I wondered how a dozen or so artists would perceive this weather-beaten face that has been around for three-quarters of a century.

If Picasso was right, maybe one of the artists I was to sit for could do for me what Oscar Wilde’s artist did for Dorian Gray. You know: In the end, the portrait grew old and wrinkled, harboring all the sins of life, while the living model remained young and fresh.

My 15 Minutes

Over the years, I have known many artists: Norman Rockwell who lived on the Battenkill in Arlington, Vermont, close to the covered bridge I often fished; John Atherton, another Arlington-based Saturday Evening Post cover artist who died on a fishing trip to Eastern Canada; composer Charles Ruggles who also painted his music as well as many other subjects; Meade Schaefer, who contributed to the Post and other magazines; and many others, including Grandma Moses, whom I met once while fishing the Battenkill on the New Side. But nary a one had ever displayed a hint that I would be a fitting subject.

The only two slaves to an easel who ever drew anything for me - and years ago - are Don Trachte, who still lives in Arlington, who for half a century drew the comic strip Henry; and Bob Weber, formerly a Riviera Beach neighbor, whose syndicated comic strip is Moose Miller, which appeared for years at different times in the Evening Sun and News American.

So on that Friday morning, wandering through the halls of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, toting a fishing rod and looking for the assigned studio/classroom, I thought of the 1968 words of another artist, Andy Warhol, who wrote in a catalog of his works: “In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.”

My 15 minutes was about to come, but it would be more than 15 minutes. It would be three hours, 9:30 to 12:30, on Fridays over a span of six weeks. I would be the center of attraction, the subject at hand. All eyes would be on me. And what would they see?

Model's-Eye View

The studio was a typical old classroom, I assumed once occupied by public school students. I was punctual - and alone. Then, I remembered artists, like public officials and doctors, are always late.

Over the next half an hour, the artists trekked in carrying bulging cases, satchels, bags, boxes, anything that would hold their gear. Had their homes burned down in their absence, they’d have lost nothing but the kitchen sink. Everything they owned was in their cases, satchels, bags, boxes and whatever.

Many eyed curiously the fishing rod propped up against the wall. I explained it was, along with my pipe, my prop. Seldom am I seen without one of them; often with both.

I thought my dozen tackle boxes back home carried a lot of gear - until they started unpacking their stuff. This accomplished, I was directed to the ‘throne,’ a big chair with arms, situated on a small stage and with a big red drape hung in the background. Time to go to work.

I thought my dozen tackle boxes back home carried a lot of gear - until they started unpacking their stuff. This accomplished, I was directed to the ‘throne,’ a big chair with arms, situated on a small stage and with a big red drape hung in the background. Time to go to work.

They gathered around me in a semi-circle, and went to work. I likened their situation at the time to mine at many other times. When beginning a column, I face a blank computer screen that has to be filled with words. They faced a blank canvas to be filled with paint.

Do artists have their own version of writer’s block? When writers have it, they just start punching in words, any words, to get the juices flowing. They can delete those words once the piece starts falling into place.

Do artists with blocks just grab a brush and start painting anything - lines, circles, blotches and such - maybe even subsequently think the whole convoluted mess is a new art form and stop right then? Sometimes, when I look at modern art, I tend to think so.

Some of the artists before me took photos. This, I learned, was for reference when I wasn’t around. Rockwell used photos as he painted my Aunt MiMi, her husband Larry and children Anne and JoJo for his classic “Norman Rockwell visits a Family Doctor.”

Then, suddenly I thought I was alone in that big room. But I wasn’t. I’d hear chit-chat, see a face peek out briefly from behind a canvas. I thought of Rockwell’s “Self Portrait” or the accompanying illustration that reflects accurately what a subject sees.

This illustration from Norman Rockwell Illustrator, a fine book by Arthur L. Guptill (Watson-Guptill Publications, American Heritage Press), tells it all. The subject sees nothing but the backside of easels and canvas - and a bunch of artists playing Peep’n Tom.

Minding the Minutes

At breaks, I sometimes noted their progress. John Eden’s I liked. His work was primarily in black and brown so my beard was black, which it hasn’t been since I was in the Navy in the ’40s. Marge Sizemore was my nemesis. She would insist I turn my head an inch because from her angle, the tip of my right ear wasn’t supposed to be seen.

Twenty minutes passes slowly when you are supposed to be frozen in time as artists do their stuff. In my mind, I’d count the seconds, 60 to a minute, to remind me time was passing. I dared not move to check the big clock on the wall, which presumably was eyed by impatient young students of yore.

Then, I found the solution to make the time pass. I envisioned the strawberry rhubarb pie sometimes available at the delightful cafe in the basement of the building. Why hadn’t I chosen a slab of that pie as a prop instead of a fishing rod?

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly