Guest Post: Helen Burford
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Guest Post: Helen Burford


We are thrilled to present our very first guest post on the Olson-Larsen blog. Helen Burford, daughter-in-law of the late Byron Burford was kind enough to share her perspective and memories with us and all of you.

Burford's work is on view as part of our current exhibit, Prints, Drawings and Paintings, on view until April 5. 

Whenever I go through the body of Byron’s work, I want to find a way to explain how his images were from his memories of life in Mississippi, his love of music, his fascination with entertainment and melancholy or disappointment with humanity rather than focusing only on the circus imagery. Byron was also a great technician, understanding the mediums he worked in and he liked to experiment with the mediums leading to the prints, xerographs and even restoration work.

When I met Byron in the late 60’s there were domestic tensions, protests, riots and the ominous Vietnam War. It seemed only natural to me that he was questioning sending his son into war. Decades later I learned he had a close friendship with Kurt Vonnegut during this period and that they shared a deep cynicism for war and the destruction of humanity.  But it also took me a long time to put two and two together and realize that the year (1960) he spent in England painting also immersed him in  “war weary” Europe.

Byron Burford in his studio

The Burford household was always full of books as both Byron and Kay were voracious readers. They amassed collections of books and periodicals on their favorite subjects such as magic, the circus and sideshows, Antarctic and polar exploration, jazz musicians, poetry, photography and history. Byron was particularly interested in the history of World War I and amassed a collection of books, photojournalist accounts and anthologies on the subject. Included in his collection was a book of poetry “Lost Voices of World War I” that was compiled by Tim Cross for the University of Iowa Press. The book is heavily marked-indicating that particular poems and poets were of interest to Byron. For example, “After Court Martial” by Francis Ledwidge appears to have triggered the image “Court Martial of a Female Spy” that has a young girl being tossed into the air. 

Byron Burford, Courtmarshall of a Female Spy, Lithograph, 17 x 13 inches

Other images such as the Soldiers Head, Irene’s Mission, Sergeant Carter, Figures with Zeppelin Wreckage, Posters of Past Events and the xerographs draw heavily from this knowledge.  But it is Byron himself that explains it best, “ My work tends to be figurative in nature as I am interested in the human experience, history and behavior as I am in the in the purely formal aspects of art.  For me, the figure becomes not an object but an image, a metaphor for human experience.  I have found that the polarity between constructive use of the human imagination and the destructive use which one observes in humanity can be made visual, in my case, through the use of images derived from themes of exploration and warfare-other images would have sufficed perhaps as metaphors.  However, I had a lifelong emotional reaction to these themes and this takes them out of the realm of abstract ideas into the realm of compulsive ideas.  I find that ideas must have this compulsive quality for me to overcome the inertia I feel when faced with an blank canvas or paper.” (Iowan Magazine, Winter 1969)

Byron Burford, Solider with Gas Mask, Lithograph, 8 x 14 inches

But most of Byron’s life was immersed with people and ideas.  He was a showman in his own right, having toured with a dance band, performing his own spook show and even managing his own Byron Burford Circus of Artistic Wonders.  And, his paintings and prints reflect this life.  As Byron commented, “ To be honest, I feel like I have to paint a certain biography of things that happened to me.  I don’t care if everyone else in the world is painting a different way. This is the way I work. …I just don’t think anybody ever had all the kinds of experiences I had.  It’d be impossible for me to leave all that out at this point. I gotta get all that in, even if it’s awkward, messy and sometimes out of date, I guess.” (Gazette, Friday, March 2, 1990)

As Byron often related, his first job was fetching Coca Colas and candy bars for “Baby Ruth” while she was in competition to be the first woman to gain over 800 pounds.  The sideshow also introduced Byron to “Mildred”, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, According to Byron , she was a  German woman who had emigrated to the US. He was fascinated by her tattoos from head to  toe  and remembered watching her walking in her mules wrapped in a robe in her wagon on the back lot.  For a teenager, this was a mysterious and dangerous experience. His memories of this moment brought life to “Mildred” who he immortalized in his prints and paintings.   

Byron Burford, Mildred Dressed for the Princess of Thebes, Mixed Media, 44 x 36 inches

Working with the sideshow was a humanizing experience for Byron, however, it was the circus that held his fascination for the remainder of his life. “ The part of the Circus that the public thinks of, the stereotypes of clowns, wire-walkers, etc. doesn’t interest me as much as the overall experience-the teardown the night before; the jump to the next town; setting up, often under the most adverse conditions; the performances; and then the teardown again. I like to observe the transformation of an ordinary housewife to a “Princess who stands on one finger.” I like the shared illusion of Art which keeps people working in what is one of the most grueling professions in the world.”  (Iowan Magazine, Winter 1969) The circus was part of his life. Each summer he traveled to join a small mud show. He painted banners, played the drums in the “orchestra” and helped set up and tear down the tent. Over the years, he grew to know many of the performers, animal acts and different circuses. He kept track of them all. When he was not on the road with them, he followed the circus routes and schedules, read every publication and even corresponded with many.

Byron Burford, In Grand Combination, Screenprint, 29 x 21

As a painter, Byron was well-known for his knowledge of pigments, paints and the chemistry of painting. He had restored a number of works, most famously, the Jackson Pollack gifted to the University of Iowa by Peggy Guggenheim. Therefore, it was not unusual for Byron, as a printer, to experiment with inks, papers, metals, and work both in with silk screens and lithography. From his studio in Iowa, Byron ran “Butterfly Press”. Using the process camera he repurposed from the local newspaper, Byron produced his own images and silk screens. In the summer of 1978, Byron was invited as a Master Artists for Tamarind Institute, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here he worked with three surfaces for his lithographs: zinc, aluminum and Barvarian limestone. Byron completed nine designs during the semester. In later years, Byron experimented with digital printing, producing several large giclees.

A particular song comes to mind when I think of Byron, “Lush Life.”  I think he shared his lush life with us all.  He brought to life people who lived in the shadows of society and made them stars.  He entwined us in the mystery of magic and illusions. He reminded us of how lonely it is to face adversity. He invested years in guiding students on to successful careers of their own.

Who would have thought a young boy from Mississippi would come to Iowa to study with Grant Wood and have a wonderful career of his own?

Helen Burford

To see all of the Burford works in the current exhibit, visit our website

02/26/2014 12:37 PM |Add a comment
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