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 Byron Burford: American (Born 1920)

Byron Burford
Title (Date)
Media :: Dimensions
Byron Burford
Byron Burford
Byron Burford
Byron Burford
Byron Burford
Byron Burford
Byron Burford

biographical information

As a boy growing up in the 'Twenties, Byron Burford developed two passions: The circus and art. His attraction to the motions and commotions of the Big Top world perhaps was inevitable. His father booked the circuses, carnivals and other road shows that came to Greenville, Mississippi under the sponsorship of the local YMCA. How Byron revered the circus gypsies with whom his father was on a first-name basis -- the whip-cracking lion tamers; the aerialists who sailed like gulls in the Empyrean of their great tent; even Baby Ruth Pontico, a professional fat lady for whom he sometimes shopped for groceries which mostly consisted of boxes of Baby Ruth candy bars and crates of Coca-Cola.

When the mountebanks decamped, leaving behind no trace but a circle of beaten-down grass in the Greenville field where they had raised their canvas cathedral, Byron felt as though he been rudely shaken awake from a perfect dream. Summer days could be long in steamy Greenville, especially for youngsters like Byron whose imaginations needed more than the customary doses of stimulation. More fortunate than most boys, though, he had a way of transporting himself to exotic places far beyond the river town. Even as a kid, he could draw, really draw. When he was a mere seventeen, one of his paintings was accepted for an exhibition titled "Artists for Victory" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

As a youth, Byron was torn between whether he should aspire to become an artist or travel with a circus. As it turned out, there was no need for him to feel conflicted. He was able to do both. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Iowa in Cedar Rapids where his principal teacher was Grant Wood. In 1947, after finishing a stint in the U.S. Air Force and returning to University of Iowa for a master's degree, he joined Iowa's art faculty where he remained for forty years.

Throughout his teaching years, when Mays arrived and the university recessed for the summer, the professor joined one or another of the circus caravans cross-hatching the country. He played drums and trumpet in their bands. Outfitted in a top hat and a black tuxedo, he appeared on the bally stage and lectured to the assembling towners about the wonders inside the sideshow tent: the two-headed calf; the tattooed man whose body bore about half as many masterpieces as are on the walls of the Louvre; a lady with a beard that was fuller than that of both Smith brothers.... He also starred and striped the circuses' props with his brushes and added silver and gold scrollwork to their wagons and trucks. And, of course, at every opportunity, he made sketches of the the circus performers and animals inside and outside the sawdust ring.

Over the years, Burford has produced paintings on a variety of subjects. As was true of Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Chagall, Max Beckmann, John Steuart Curry, Alexander Calder and a great legion of other artists who came before him, though, Burford has always been bewitched by the circus and its dramatis personae. He's widely regarded today as the doyen of all living circus artists. Undoubtedly he knows the circus more intimately than any other artist working today, but his paintings rarely have the appearance of being mere literal re-creations of what he has observed inside and outside the Big Top. Burford dips his brushes into fantasy as well as observed reality. His paintings mist with happy/sad emotions that don't leave viewers even after they have turned away from them. He seems to use his canvases just as P.T. Barnum, the Ringling brothers and other impresarios used the sawdust ring. He fills them with the possible and the seemingly impossible, the beautiful and the grotesque, nobility and ignominy. Ultimately, he's a dream maker.

Burford has been the recipient of numerous awards for artistic excellence, including four Ford Foundation grants, two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a J.S. Guggenheim fellowship. In 1968 he was one of a handful of artists chosen to represent the U.S. in Italy's Venice Bienale, the most important of exhibitions organized to draw international attention to the best of each country's contemporary artists. His works are to be found in the permanent collections of numerous important museums, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, KS.; the High Museum in Atlanta, the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Central Museum of Art,Tokyo.

education

  • BFA University of Iowa (1942)
  • MFA University of Iowa (1947)

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