An inside outsider
By ANDREW MCGINN
It’s probably not often that a painting can sober up a homeless drunk.
But two decades ago, when Roy Burgess tracked down a man named Slim living on the streets of Kansas City whose portrait he had just painted, that’s exactly what happened.
“He was just absolutely dying of alcohol poisoning,” Burgess explained, standing near the portrait of Slim hanging on a wall. “You get up close and you can see all the blood vessels in his eyes have popped.
“He hadn’t realized he’d gotten so bad. When you see yourself at your worst, it changes people.”
Ten years later, Burgess learned that Slim had quit drinking.
A Jefferson native, Burgess moved back home only about a month ago. There are still boxes yet to be unpacked, but the man clearly has his priorities — the walls are already lined with his paintings, all neatly framed and even labeled, as if waiting for a school tour, an art critic or a new patron to just happen upon the modest little house on West South Street.
He’s even installing track lighting in order to better illuminate those burst blood vessels in Slim’s eyes.
As an artist, Burgess has always been drawn to people on the fringes of society and anyone at odds with a suburbia hellbent on assimilating all that it reaches.
That presents a particular challenge for an artist who ideally would like to sell his work.
“Most people,” Burgess confessed, “don’t want a picture of a homeless man hanging on their wall.”
Burgess might have found his subjects at the lowest points in life — or at a time when their way of life was threatened with extinction — but, like Slim, many of their stories have happy endings.
There was Alexander Austin, a homeless street artist who has since become a muralist of renown in Kansas City, complete with a profile on LinkedIn.
A friend who served in Vietnam as a Green Beret was, at the time of the painting titled “Pride and Dignity,” still little more than a deranged “baby killer” in the eyes of society. He’s now eligible for an Honor Flight, and has presumably been thanked so profusely for his service that it’s starting to weird him out.
At 70, Burgess returned home to Jefferson with the hope of seeing one more happy ending play out.
“Some of these paintings need to be seen,” Burgess said.
The art world has always kept Burgess at arm’s length, making his affinity with outsiders deeply personal.
While Burgess has been able to make his living as an artist, he never garnered the acclaim or attention to make things easier.
An art gallery in Vail, Colo., once sold a painting of his for $4,000, but never paid him, knowing he couldn’t afford an attorney.
“The people who went to art school dismissed me,” Burgess said. “I broke all the rules.”
In the waning days of the Cold War, he even orchestrated an artist exchange with the Soviet Union — entirely on his own.
His photo-realistic work came along at a time when that style simply wasn’t in vogue.
“To be an artist,” he lamented, “you had to be ‘nonobjective’ or throw paint on a canvas.”
With or without the help of the art universe illuminati, Burgess set out to depict the world around him, exactly as it is.
He talks often of the day when this civilization will end — history being cyclical and all — and what future civilizations might glean about the way we were. Like a cave painting, his work will tell a story that abstract art can’t.
Maybe then Roy E. Burgess will get the respect he’s owed.
How he’s managed to evade attention is itself something of a mystery.
The story of a self-taught, photo-realistic painter who’s blind in one eye would seem to be the stuff of a “60 Minutes” profile.
Burgess was a Greene County teenager the day an errant baseball in Cooper smashed into his face, knocking him cold.
By his 20s, his vision had diminished so badly he sought medical help. Surgery in those days could save only the eye, not his sight. He came out of the operation completely blind in his left eye.
“Little kids are scared to death of black eye patches,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice.
The paintings themselves aren’t actually paintings — they’re done with pastels.
Burgess calls them pastel paintings because the word “drawing” doesn’t do justice to their level of depth.
He found the fumes from oil paint too bothersome. Acrylic paint didn’t do what he wanted.
“One day I picked up pastel,” he recalled, “and it was like magic.”
He’s been known to shave a pastel crayon down to a point with a razor blade in order to achieve the right amount of detail — a task made that much harder by nature of having only one eye and skewed depth perception.
At the same time, Burgess’ work is frankly too good to be recognized as true “outsider art,” the term applied to artists who live and work outside of established norms.
“My stuff is too classical to be labeled that,” he said.
“I don’t have a tribe that I belong to,” he added. “That’s why I always went with the disenfranchised, because I always felt that way.”
Like so many other kids reared in rural Iowa, Burgess never thought he’d call Jefferson home again.
“You should never say never,” he said. “It’s really odd how things happen.”
He had been reading about good things happening in Jefferson, and he now wants to be a part of the momentum.
“That’s why I’m here,” Burgess said. “I see what they’re getting done.”
The truth is, though, he’s also tired of traveling; tired of trying to fit into a suburbia with little character.
“I was fed up with the city,” said Burgess, who last lived in Phoenix. “Tired of the noise, tired of the traffic, tired of the aggressiveness.”
In search of a tribe, he painted the street people of Kansas City. He painted Inuits in Alaska. He painted native Hawaiians before the millionaires came and walled off the beaches of Maui.
“For some dumb reason,” Burgess said, “I run into people who fascinate me.”
Each painting begins out of natural curiosity.
“You just go up and ask questions,” he said.
For two years, he lived in a Benedictine monastery on the wind-swept plains of South Dakota, painting the inhabitants within and the nearby residents of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe.
“You can tell where I’ve been from my work,” Burgess said.
His hometown is now the last best hope he has for establishing a legacy.
“I would like to get rid of these paintings,” he said, sitting inside a house that contains more artwork than furniture. “I don’t have anybody to leave them to.”
Never married and without kids, he hopes to be able to find good homes for his work while he still can.
Bringing it all back home
Rural Iowa has been good to him in the past.
The Blanden Art Museum in Fort Dodge owns three of his paintings.
Even in Jefferson, though, Burgess always felt like an outsider.
The youngest of three, his parents had left his naming up to his sister and brother. They picked Roy — in honor of Roy Rogers.
“If I was a girl, I would’ve been named Dale,” Burgess said. “Thank God they didn’t like Bullet.”
At 11, his parents divorced, taboo at the time for a Catholic family.
“And to divorce in Jefferson,” Burgess recalled, “was a real stigma.”
Beyond that, Burgess added, “your family breaks apart and it really changes a person.”
He came to idolize big brother Tom, which would have been fine except for the fact that Tom Burgess was wilder than the proverbial March hare.
A hellraiser who was happiest burning rubber, Tom made front page news in the summer of 1959 when, at the age of 17, he drove an Oldsmobile convertible through the side of Jefferson’s old Dairy Queen drive-in on East Lincoln Way.
The DQ never reopened that season.
For his part, Tom was found not guilty.
Roy Burgess started accompanying his brother to car shows and drag races across the country where a new subculture — now known as Kustom Kulture — was taking shape.
There, Burgess fell under the influence of a small community of custom car builders and hot rod artists like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch whose names are now legendary.
Like Roth — whose monster character Rat Fink emerged from the ’60s as a Mickey Mouse for juvenile delinquents — Burgess also began airbrushing what were known as “weirdo” sweatshirts at car shows.
He was officially an artist.
“I was just kind of the mascot of those guys,” Burgess said.
Von Dutch, whose flying eyeball also became a decade-defining image, tried once to teach Burgess the art of pinstriping.
“And I failed miserably at it,” he said.
While Roth and others painted all sorts of grotesque creatures with their claws on oversized gear-shifters, Burgess found that he enjoyed painting realistic depictions of cars for their owners.
That said, Burgess once owned all kinds of original Roth and Von Dutch artwork, and even painted Von Dutch himself.
He now finds himself wondering what happened to it. Here’s a suggestion: Keep watching “Antiques Roadshow.”
The Burgess brothers worked the show circuit and came to be associated with Ray Farhner, a custom builder and show promoter out of Kansas City whose Boot Hill Express show car — a Wild West hearse with a Chrysler Hemi in it — would be immortalized in the form of plastic model kits.
Another, more famous builder, George Barris, even let the Burgess boys take his Munster Koach — the hot rod hearse seen on “The Munsters” — for a spin.
But Roy Burgess’ world nearly imploded when Tom was killed in the summer of 1968 in a motorcycle crash in Des Moines on his way to work at a steel fabricating company. Tom was 26.
Roy Burgess never worked another car show.
Like one of the Old Masters, Burgess arrived at his own style by initially copying what he liked.
“Gradually,” he said, “you end up forming your own style.”
The time he ventured back to Jefferson for a funeral, only to find out the local pool hall had closed for good, was the turning point.
“They’d kick me out of school and I’d go straight to the pool hall,” Burgess remembered fondly.
Seeing it closed was a shock.
“It just hit me,” he said. “Everything I remember is gone, is different.”
“You could just see it coming,” he continued. “Small towns were going to be eaten up and go by the wayside.”
It marked the beginning of his “Rural Roots” series of paintings. To Burgess, small-town Iowans are among a vanishing breed of Americans like the cowboys and Indians before them.
He set out to become what he calls a historical painter.
“This is critical,” he said, “the way we’re losing our rural heritage.”
By then, the Cold War was rapidly thawing.
One of the more vivid memories from his childhood is getting to witness Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during his area visit in 1959 to see seed magnate Roswell Garst in Coon Rapids.
“I was fascinated by this man who was evil,” Burgess said.
Recalling the goodwill generated by Iowa agriculture, Burgess came up with an idea to take his “Rural Roots” paintings to the Soviet Union.
Much to his dismay, no one from the U.S. government was willing to help.
So he did what anyone else might do — he personally wrote to the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
Soon enough, the Ministry of Culture wrote back, only in Russian.
Not knowing anyone who could read or write Russian, he headed to a library, where it took the better part of two weeks for him to translate what he could.
“I came up with the concept that I think they invited me,” he said.
He ended up spending a month in 1989 in the Soviet Union as the guest of the Ministry of Culture — great, because he departed the U.S. with only $60 in his pocket.
“Artists are dumb,” Burgess joked.
Burgess even brought back a Russian artist, the now-late Alexei Sokolenko, and visited Jefferson-Scranton High School.
Throughout it all, the Des Moines Register was mum, Burgess recalled, still irked by the snub.
He would return to Russia shortly after the fall of communism in 1991.
This time, he took with him a painting of American teenagers, done after Soviet kids in 1989 wondered how their Western counterparts dressed. (It seems so quaint now, doesn’t it?)
The painting was titled “International Symbol,” and now hangs in a place of pride in his house on West South Street.
Naturally, the Kansas City teens he chose to immortalize in pastel weren’t Homecoming queens or football captains. They were metalheads, and one is proudly throwing up metal horns.
That, however, isn’t the “international symbol” referenced in the title.
The girl in the painting is ever-so-discreetly flipping off the viewer, her middle finger extended in the bottom corner of the picture.
Kids the world over, Burgess said, spot it almost immediately.
“The adults,” he said, “still don’t get it.”