Emerging From Solitude
A Jamestown native photographer’s residency at Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo has drawn her out of the solitude associated with being an artist.
Janelle Lynch, who recently began her residency, has been given the opportunity to study and create work associated with watercolorist Charles Burchfield over the course of a year. Lynch was selected for the Burchfield Penney residency by Anthony Bannon, director of Burchfield Penney Art Center, after writing a five-page proposal entitled “Spiritual Kinship: A Year with Charles Burchfield.” Thus far, Lynch has made two trips to the center, where she has explored the center’s archives, vault, scoured many of the approximately 10,000 pages of Burchfield’s journals and visited locations which inspired his work.
According to Lynch, part of her charge as artist in residency, for which she is the first to be selected, is to further the understanding of the life and work of Burchfield, while also furthering her own work. Thus the museum has made available to her the archives, which are composed of a collection of works associated with Burchfield, including sketches, drawings, finished works and the journals he kept from his teenage years to the end of his life.
Nancy Weekly, head of collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey curator, shared Burchfield’s early life experiences with Lynch. One of the topics was that Burchfield had lost his father when he was 5, and how it affected his temperament and works. That sense of loss at such a young age was something Lynch experienced herself, who coincidentally lost her grandfather, who was her only father figure, when she was 4. She believes the loss influenced both Burchfield’s and her interest in solitude.
Lynch was also recently given a tour of the center’s vault, where framed completed works by Burchfield are housed, by Tullis Johnson, associate curator and manager of archives.
“Tullis has a remarkable set of knowledge and understanding about the works, and we studied several paintings in the vault as well as taking some out to study in the archive study room together,” said Lynch.
The tour was made during Lynch’s second visit to the center, which she felt was appropriate as her first visit entailed going straight into the field to make pictures. After doing some research, Lynch found that she was interested in the theme of solitude in Burchfield’s work.
“It is something that is important to me, and I have indirectly explored solitude in my photography before now,” said Lynch. “I was an only child for the first 10 years of my life, and so I think I learned to exist comfortably in a solitary space. I’ve read some entries related to the theme of solitude in his journals, and I looked at a finished painting called ‘Solitude.’ In the journals Burchfield often made notations about areas in Western New York where he worked or that inspired the work that he did in his studio.”
Lynch was able to identify Zimmerman Road in Buffalo as one of the places that Burchfield was drawn to. He referred to Zimmerman Road as his ‘outdoor studio,’ which Lynch felt was quite strong, especially since he had a studio at home.
“I went to Zimmerman Road and I was very excited to see what he saw there,” said Lynch. “But, we’re talking 50-60 years later, and to my great disappointment I did not connect at all to the Zimmerman Road of today. Not only visually, but in terms of emotional connection to him or to the sensations he created in his paintings, I found no correlation – it’s developed. I think that Burchfield would not have been able to work on Zimmerman Road today. So, that was an unsuccessful attempt at connecting to a place that was important to him, which was the original idea I had for this proposal, to identify places that were important to him and I would work in them. I’m having to rethink that now because I also didn’t connect to Chestnut Ridge Park, which inspired some important paintings of his.”
Lynch also explored the landscape in front of Burchfield’s home, which today is called the Charles Burchfield Nature Reserve, as well as a tour of two dozen architectural sites that were of interest to Burchfield that he included in his paintings. While Lynch felt some interest, she said, there wasn’t a great enough of a visceral connection. That’s when Lynch began to feel slightly concerned and a bit of pressure about where she was going to work.
“The number of visits I will be able to make will be limited, so I felt a bit of pressure to capitalize on the time that I was there,” said Lynch. “I had to step back, pause and rethink this approach because in order for me to pursue something photographically it has to resonate on a personal level. I want to successfully execute this project and really produce something of meaning for myself and for the museum, but at the same time I have to be honest about my experience.”
Lynch decided it would be a good idea to talk with Bannon about her concerns, and fortunately because the two have a history of working together the conversation was fruitful.
“Tony and I have a relationship of unusual regard and trust, so I felt able to go to him and say, ‘Tony, this isn’t working,’ and he understood me immediately,” said Lynch. “He paused and said, ‘The landscapes aren’t wild enough for you’ – and that’s exactly it. So, we sat together and talked about other sites in Western New York that Burchfield identified in his journal entries, such as Letchworth State Park, Rock City Park and a gorge in the Alleghenies, that might be more akin to my aesthetic to be able to make that truer connection to Burchfield and my own sensibility.”
The plan is for Lynch to explore these landscapes, as well as a tour of Burchfield’s hometown in Ohio in July, which is open to the public. In September, Lynch will attend the Burchfield Center’s annual fundraising auction and gala, for which she will donate a photograph from her “Akna” series. Lynch also hopes try out another idea she had regarding property she owns with her partner David in the Catskills. The location marks one of the first places Lynch made photos after her first conscious connection to Burchfield. Burchfield anthropomorphized the landscape, and rarely included people in his works, which is similar to the way that Lynch produces photographs, she said.
“The woods were really important to Burchfield, and my woods are really important to me – they are a place I go for solitude,” said Lynch. “After seeing Burchfield’s work I felt a kind of permission or freedom to pursue this vision of making works in my own woods. I made about 15 portraits of trees, and I never did anything with that work. So, now might be a good time for me to go back into the woods and see what I see.”
Lynch is also considering adopting a technique, which Burchfield employed, of adding to her photographs the way that Burchfield did to his paintings.
Although Lynch has already made two trips out of the planned four to Buffalo for the residency, she hopes to add several more to ensure that she accomplishes what she came to do. But, thus far, the experience for Lynch has been cathartic. Working with the staff at the Burchfield Center has drawn Lynch out of her solitude and allowed her to flourish in a setting where she is comfortable with those surrounding her.
“It’s really important for me to be alone in the landscape when I work, however, that can also become lonely,” said Lynch. “The whole art-making process is a lonely one, and I like that because it’s my nature. But, what I’ve found on these two trips is a kind of comfort in knowing that the museum staff was there and available to me when I needed them. They are eager to support me and interested in what I’m doing. It really feels like a community project done with like-minded people.”
Kathleen Heyworth, director of marketing and public relations for the Burchfield Center, suggested to Lynch that she should keep a blog about her experience during the residency, which can be found at www.burchfieldpenney.org.
For more information visit www.janellelynch.net.