Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart is now open in our 3rd Floor Library Lobby and First Floor Spotlight Gallery. Emerson Burkhart (1905-1969) ruled the Columbus art scene during the 1950s and 1960s with his honest portraits and depictions of life in the city. While Burkhart was praised for his artistic skill, conflicts in his personal and professional life prevented him from receiving national attention. Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart displays never seen artwork by Burkhart, including the original sketches for the controversial mural Music.
Emerson Burkhart met Mary Ann Martin when she was just 15 years old; he was 28. Born in 1918, Martin was the daughter of a pharmacist and grew up in German Village. Martin became enamored with artists at a young age. She became an artist’s model at the age of 14, posing for students at the Ohio State University and quickly became a staple in the Columbus Arts Community.
Even though Martin and Burkhart had started to see each other, Martin decided to move to Woodstock, New York after graduating high school. Woodstock was considered to be a gathering place for some of those most prominent artists in America. Martin ended up posing for artists such as Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Eugene Speicher.
Martin moved backed to Columbus and married Burkhart in 1937. They established a home in the Old Town East section of the city, becoming fixtures in a rapidly changing neighborhood. Mary Ann settled down, playing the constant hostess to prospective donors, artists’ models, and other acquaintances Emerson would bring home nightly.
Martin was active in promoting Burkhart’s work, but she had artistic desires of her own. She wrote at least one novel during her lifetime and could often be found sketching around their house. Like Emerson, Mary Ann had a very extensive library of books; she had so many Emerson made Mary Ann her own book plate.
However, their marriage was not always a happy one. Mary Ann was an alcoholic and Burkhart was a known womanizer. Their loud fights could often be heard from several doors away. Unable to have children biologically, Mary Ann contacted a socially worker about the possibility of adoption. The social worker accessed the house and talked with Emerson; she determined it would not be a fit place to raise a child and their application for adoption was rejected. Mary Ann never forgave Emerson for this.
Emerson struggled with his feelings about Mary Ann. In a portrait from 1944, Emerson portrays the 26 year old Mary Ann as much older, with wrinkles and dark eyes, placing her in child-like clothing. On October 12, 1955, Mary Ann Burkhart passed away from complications from liver disease, likely related to her alcoholism.
The Ohio History Connection has several drawings of Mary Ann’s in the collection. These sketches were done over the years as Emerson would bring in models for his own work. The sketches are of female body forms as Mary Ann honed her own artistic skills. See the sketches in person in Reflections of an Artist: Emerson Burkhart on the 3rd Floor Library Lobby Gallery at the Ohio History Connection!
Emily Lang, History Curator