"…a body of works that is a tour de force, existing simultaneously as music, poetry, philosophy and painting."
— Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Catherine Esther Burchfield Parker (1926-2012) was the fourth daughter and second-to-last child of renowned American watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield and his wife, Bertha (Kenreich), a farmer’s daughter. Parker was raised in Gardenville, NY.
In 1929, the same year that her younger brother was born, Parker’s mother encouraged her father to leave his day job and devote himself full time to painting.
Later in life, Parker reflected that she was grateful to have been taught that “artist” was a permissible career choice. But for the Burchfield family, with five children born in a seven-year span, life in a rural suburb of Buffalo, NY on an artist’s income, became—and remained—a constant financial challenge.
Despite these challenges, the Burchfields instilled in their children a love of art and music. When her family would go to a restaurant for a rare dinner out, a live string trio filled young Catherine with dreams of someday performing in a similar setting. She did take up the cello as a child.
The Burchfield children were also imbued with an appreciation of the power of nature—though Parker’s impressions of nature, portrayed frequently in her watercolor, gouache and charcoals on paper, are often kinder and gentler than those which come through in her father’s work. Both painters do show spiritual and symbolic elements in their art.
Post-high school, Parker studied for a year at the Buffalo Art Institute. An enduring issue arose; her desire to acknowledge her father, yet distance herself from both her own and others’ comparisons of her artwork to his.
Her first solution was to leave. In 1947, Parker moved to Missouri, studying at the Kansas City Art Institute for three years. During that time, her principal painting instructor was Ross E. Braught (1898-1983); the influence of his stylized landscapes and rhythmic compositions influenced her for the rest of her life.
In 1950, she married fellow student Kenneth Parker, and, between 1951 and 1957, they had three children—Christine, Douglas and Jennifer. In 1956, after a few years in Denver, Colorado, they moved their family to Amarillo, Texas.
Parker was painting and exhibiting, but not feeling very connected to it. Around 1967, she stopped—and didn’t paint for eight solid years. Coincidentally, as Parker searched for her artistic identity, her father died. She returned to her childhood study of the cello.
In 1970, she earned a Bachelors degree in Music Education from West Texas State University. In her own words, she had become a “good amateur” musician. She performed with the Amarillo Symphony, and in chamber music groups.
Her marriage to Parker ended in 1975, and she moved again. “It might seem cliché, but, as a divorced single mother, I moved to Santa Cruz, California,” said a much more mature Parker in 2010. The move and change in landscape inspired a renewed interest and confidence in her painting. She took up her brush, wielding it both in her own work and as a teacher.
By 1983, with a longing to return “home,” Parker retraced her steps to Buffalo. At the time, she simply felt a sense of wanting to define herself as a “northeasterner,” despite having spent almost 40 years away from it.
She began painting with vigor, and embarked upon establishing a close community of personal, artistic and spiritual connections. During the decades following, Parker participated in dozens of solo and group shows in the Northeast.
In 1988, one of her career-defining moments occurred when she was given a solo show of her new works at the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1994, in acknowledgement of her artistic growth, she was awarded a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony.
In 1999, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Buffalo institute named after her father, whose mission is to promote him and other regional artists, also presented her work in a solo show.
All of her paintings convey both her love of travel, and the ethereal, potentially contradictory notion that wherever you are, is somehow still “home.” From scenes of Buffalo’s glorious yet crumbling industrial structures to a sunflower in her kitchen, to a Costa Rican jungle, her artwork remains true to this vision. While Parker did not have to see a place to paint it, she reveled in being elsewhere.
Her favorite American city was San Francisco, followed by New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Travels to Brussels, London, Paris and Papua New Guinea entranced her. She visited her children and grandchildren frequently in California, New Mexico, Minnesota and Ohio.
Her acknowledged artistic inspirations ranged from the Impressionist master, Henri Matisse, to contemporary artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney.
Again in 2010, looking back after almost 25 years of purposeful living in Western New York, Parker discussed the area’s appeal for her. “There is a sense of tradition here. I am impressed with people who have roots, who have perhaps taken over family businesses,” she said. “Here in the northeast, the hills even seem older. I like the land itself, the change of seasons.”
A sense of external place, as well as an internal seeking always drove Parker, informing her art in various ways. She painted many pieces influenced by jazz music, as well as painting to classical music and poetry she loved.
Commissions and collaborations with other artists, musicians and poets, motivated her to paint several series. She found inspiration for these series in both contemporary and classical music by Bach, Copland, Messiaen, and Sibelius, and poetry by Pablo Neruda and George Herbert.
Parker eventually acknowledged that she did not define herself as a “nature lover,” though she was deeply affected by whatever type of “scape”—city, desert, forest, beach, industrial—she was in.
“What is ‘nature’?” she asked. “It is cityscapes, buildings—it’s more accurate to say that I am influenced by my natural surroundings, whatever they may be.”
“I love the implied ‘character’ of cities, the structures, bridges, windows, the ‘mystery,’” said the artist. “The way the light—whether natural or artificial, daytime or night—hits certain parts and the shadows they cast; the ‘guts’ of the city: rivers, industrial parts, the train stations; the moods, personalities, and even gender.”
In Parker’s ongoing quest for truth in her work, toward the end of her life, she saw herself as having come full circle.
“There’s a T.S. Eliot poem that echoes my feelings,” she said. “The poem goes ‘We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.’ My interpretation, through my own journey—geographically and spiritually—is that, when you first start out, a tree is a tree, and a flower is a flower. Then you seek these different, symbolic meanings and experiences. Eventually you come back to the place where a tree is tree, and a rock is a rock—but there is a completely different feel.”
Parker’s explorations indeed brought her back to where she started, and also to seeing herself and her art, as Eliot says, “for the first time.”
In 2011, Parker moved back to California, to be nearer to family. After a brief illness, she passed away peacefully in Paso Robles, California, on November 6, 2012.
By Jana Eisenberg, © 2010, revised 2013