Emerson Burkhart and the Works Progress Administration

“A real artist is one who knows that culture is a way of living, the sum total of what goes on around you during your life is the warehouse of your art. Your feelings of love and hate about this life is what gives your art its vitality.”

-Emerson Burkhart, Ohio Historical Society Collections, MSS 4-40-1-7

Emerson Burkhart was born on a farm in Union Township near Kalida, Ohio in 1905. After attending Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, Burkhart moved to Provincetown on Cape Cod, studying with artist Charles Hawthorne. By 1931, Burkhart moved to Columbus to teach at the Ohio School of Art. In 1939, he married Mary-Ann Martin, a famous model who would later become an artist herself.

From his house on Woodland Avenue, Burkhart quickly established himself as a “Columbus Institution.” In 1934, he received a commission from the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project for a mural over the auditorium at Central High School in Columbus. The Federal Art Project intended to give artists like Burkhart employment during the Great Depression and provide art for non-federal government buildings. Burkhart created a 13 by 70 foot mural, known as Music, featuring young women and men dancing and playing musical instruments. Just four years later, in 1938, the principal ordered that the mural be painted over as “it was too sexy and had too much oomph.” Starting in 1999, over the course of six years, 1,000 art students from the Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, under the supervision of art conservators, worked to remove the paint that once covered the mural. After its restoration, the mural was installed at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Burkhart with Elizabethan Court Mural
In 1938, Burkhart received his second commission from the WPA for ten life size murals at Stillman Hall on the Ohio State University campus. He was paid $1,209 for 13 months of work. Each mural featured important historical figures like Walt Whitman and David Thoreau. Burkhart connected the content of his murals to the function of the building, which served as the social work building. In one mural titled Elizabethan Court Life, Burkhart contrasted the life of the wealthy privileged class with those of the working class, connecting to the ideals of social work. The murals are still located in the building today.

WPA sponsored mural by Emerson Burkhart as it appears in Stillman Hall today.

WPA sponsored mural by Emerson Burkhart as it appears in Stillman Hall today.


It is estimated Burkhart painted 3,000 pieces during his 40-year-career, many of these portraits of Ohio residents whom he would pay a small fee. He even painted a portrait of famed writer Carl Sandburg, currently located at the National Portrait Gallery. Burkhart died in his Columbus home in November 1969.
Study for the mural in Stillman Hall, Ohio Historical Society, catalog number H ------.

Study for the mural in Stillman Hall, Ohio Historical Society, catalog number H 82907.


The Ohio Historical Society has studies for both WPA murals Burkhart painted in the permanent collection. You can see two other Burkhart pieces currently on display in the permanent exhibit at the Ohio History Center: a self-portrait of Burkhart (catalog number H 64287) and Mrs. Coleman (catalog number H 51186), a portrait of a longtime eastside resident.

Emily Lang, History Curator

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