By Mike Harden
Reprinted, with permission, from The Columbus Dispatch
In his prime, Columbus artist Emerson Burkhart possessed the zest and energy to turn out scores of paintings a year.
Yet only one of the hundreds of works left behind when he died in 1969 mattered to Louise Marrow.
She was a teenager growing up across an East Side alley from Burkhart when he asked to paint her in 1949.
“He was quite a character,” Marrow recalled, “but a wonderful character. If you could have seen himâ€”sometimes he looked like a street person. He was erratic, brilliant, down-to-earth, so common.”
“He used to visit our family all the time.”
On one of those visits, he asked 15-year-old Louise to pose.
“I’d go over to his house each day,” she recalled. “He didn’t want me to put on any makeup.”
She doesn’t remember how many days the portrait consumed and, in that era, didn’t particularly think that her beauty had been immortalized by greatness. After all, Burkhart was just the guy who lived across the back alley.
In truth, he was one of the premier realists of his timeâ€”a Grant Wood with grit, a Norman Rockwell without schmaltz, a Thomas Hart Benton without the overwrought drama.
“He liked doing things in the raw,” Marrow said of the artist’s insistence that his brush miss none of the warts and blemishes of his subjects.
He was eccentric and often indifferent to his personal appearance: His bed-head coif sometimes looked as if it had been styled with an eggbeater. When he was invited to the college graduation of Marrow’s sister Diana, he showed up at the commencement barefoot.
But that was Emerson.
Capable of discussing the finer points of either cornhusking or Kant, he seemed to sense that art at its best often ennobles that which is typically dismissed as prosaic or banal.
“Look at that gray wall,” he once commanded a journalist while out for a drive. “Here, a woman passes. She is dying of cancer. Two lovers pass. An old man. A woman with a babyâ€”all human life. Human life is greater than art. Human life is right here in Franklin County.”
The human life that captivated him on summer week in 1949 was Louise Marrow (then Green).
Three years after Burkhart painted her, she moved away from Columbus. She returned a decade later to see her portrait at a gallery show.
“The last time I saw it, it had a $500 price tag on it,” she said, pointing out that she had hoped then to muster the money to make it her own.
But it disappearedâ€”for 40 years.
“I don’t have any idea where it was all those years,” she said.
Her sister Lucille Perry Barnes said: “My late husband and I used to look for it at galleries and shows. Art used to be one of our pastimes.
“I went through every gallery I knew. I went to sales of Burkhart’s work.”
No one had heard of it.
After a show of the late artist’s work in Columbus, Marrow asked the curator, “Have you ever seen a picture of a black girl?”
Marrow described the work in detail, she said, but was told: “No, there’s no painting like that. I know all of Emerson’s work.”
Those who know Burkhart’s work might consider the statement bold given the likelihoos that the artist himself didn’t know “all of Emerson’s work.”
“I’ve been in his home,” Marrow said, “and there were more paintings than furniture.”
She had all but given up when sister Diana Moss, while surfing the Internet for an art-research project, clicked on the Web site of Capital University’s Schumacher Gallery.
There, among Rembrandt and Renoir, Dali and Picasso, Moss glimpsed a countenance no larger than a commemorative stamp but unmistakably that of her sister. She shared the news with Marrow.
“Guess what?” an excited Marrow asked sister Lucille. “I found my portrait.”
For 23 years, the piece has been at the Schumacher, listed as “Untitled,” reportedly painted between 1951 and 1953.
“It was acquired before I came to Schumacher,” said gallery director Cassandra Tellier.
The painting is now named simply Louise Green.
“Pieces such as this are from the height of the artist’s career,” Tellier said. “Louise is Burkhart in his heyday.”
And the work does not carry anything close to the modest price tag Marrow noticed four decades ago.
“We could never afford it,” Barnes said. “But now Louise’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to see it.”