Our Towns

Mural Commemorates Salem Native’s Famous Watercolors

SALEM, Ohio – A hundred years ago, perhaps down to the hour that you’re reading this, one of the great American watercolor artists was painting scenes around Salem.

After graduating from art school, Charles Burchfield returned to his hometown in 1916 and started painting. He set up his easel on his front porch, in his bedroom, in downtown Salem, at the park, in the forests. In total, he painted more than 500 pieces in 1917. Even after he moved to Buffalo, N.Y., scenes from Salem were prominent in his work.

To celebrate the centennial of Burchfield’s “Golden Year,” a mural has gone up in downtown Salem showing some of his most famous works and informing visitors — whether locals or tourists — where to find more.

“In that time frame, he was not only representing his community but also establishing his signature style,” said Sara Baer, a board member of the Burchfield Homestead Society. “One might classify it as a type of synesthetic representation, where he’s taking his emotions and representing them in his landscape works.”

At the Burchfield Homestead Museum, operated by the society, paintings are arranged, to provide visitors the same view the artist had while painting. A second floor window is surrounded by pieces that feature the same chimney — one that’s still on the house next door, 100 years later — over and over again.

Having the artist depict scenes from Salem time and time again, even after he left, should be a point of pride for the community, said Jock Buta, vice president of Butech Bliss and a driving force in having the mural created.

“In little old Salem, we’ve got this significant artist who’s known by aficionados who know his work,” he said. “I’d guess that most citizens don’t know that a hundred years ago, Charles Burchfield was setting, in some art historians’ words, a new style in the country’s art history.”

Buta, who serves on the board of the Salem-area economic development agency Sustainable Opportunity Development Center and the Salem Public Library, said this is just the latest piece in improving downtown. The mural covers two vacant lots where buildings were demolished after collapsing in 2015.

“We spend a majority of our lives at and near work, so for those that live here, it’s a benefit to have a downtown to walk and eat and spend time at after work,” he said. “It shows cohesion in the community, in this case centered around Salem native Charles Burchfield and his work.”

Burchfield’s pieces have been on display at the Butler Institute of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the National Museum of Art and the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo.

On one end of the mural, a few panels highlight the renovations being done to the second floor of the library, where seven of Burchfield’s paintings are on display, including “The Three Trees,” which was delivered to the library as a gift in the 1930s.

“Our most famous piece, ‘The Three Trees,’ came to our library on the running board of Burchfield’s car from New York,” said Brad Stephens, the library’s director, adding that the library has seen out-of-town visitors stopping by to admire the works.

“I think this will just help to enhance that traffic even more and it will help local residents be aware of the treasure we have in our local community,” he said.

Among the library renovations are the addition of study rooms, a young-adult section, new technology and an expanded computer area.

“The library is all about partnerships and community, finding ways to connect people and resources and information to make Salem a better place,” Stephens said. “Salem is a wonderful community with a great past and a great potential for the future. Any time we can highlight those things and show people what’s possible, it’s a plus for everyone.”

The mural is on a fence along East State Street between Broadway and Lundy avenues, covering a space where a building collapsed two years ago, shutting down traffic through the area for a time and leaving downtown with a missing front tooth.

Aside from images of Burchfield and his works, the mural also highlights the Salem Public Library, which houses seven original Burchfield paintings, as well as the Burchfield Homestead Museum and renderings of possible uses for the site beyond the fence. On the mural, the space is shown as a pocket park and a mini amphitheater for plays and concerts.

“This, to me, is inspiration. This is a mural that represents the past, the present and the future,” said Michael Mancuso, executive director of the Sustainable Opportunity Development Center.

“Mr. Burchfield was inspired by our little town of Salem a hundred years ago and I think there are a lot of people over time that have been inspired. … On the face of this Earth, there is a five- or six-year-old walking around who will be the first person to step foot on Mars. We can inspire that six-year-old to become that person. That’s our opportunity here.”

Pictured: Butech Bliss Vice President Jock Buta, Salem Public Library Director Brad Stephens, Burchfield Homestead Society board member Sara Baer and Sustainable Opportunity Development Center Executive Director Michael Mancuso unveil the mural commemorating artist Charles Burchfield’s “Golden Year.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.