LEAVING A LEGACY
By ANDREW MCGINN
Nearly 175 years ago, a man named Mew-hu-she-kaw — a leader of the Iowa, the American Indian tribe from which the state nicked its name, not to mention its land — sat down for painter and traveler George Catlin.
Even if the self-taught Catlin did only half-justice to the chief known as White Cloud, what he committed to canvas is a magnificent figure resplendent in a headgear of dyed deer tail and eagle quills, a bear claw necklace and streaks of green face paint.
At the time, 1844, the Iowas numbered just 470 in population, down from 1,400 when they were first booted out of eastern Iowa to a reservation in southeast Nebraska in accordance with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Catlin had scores of other paintings just like it, of Americans who were vanishing in plain sight even as everybody else went about their daily lives.
He tried in vain to get the U.S. government to buy his “Indian Gallery” for preservation, and died in 1872 without knowing what would happen to his artwork at a time when Americans had little interest in Indians.
Reportedly, his final words were, “What will happen to my gallery?”
Today, it’s housed in the Smithsonian Institution, a national treasure and a priceless historical record of an entire people.
Roy Burgess, the homegrown artist who went off and painted family farmers at the dawn of corporate agribusiness and urban street people just before gentrification, sees a lot of himself in George Catlin.
“I’m going to die poor,” the Jefferson native predicted recently, “like all other artists.
“I just assumed that’s life.”
At 70, Burgess is now just six years younger than Catlin when he died.
“I never dreamed I’d live to 70,” he confessed. “It’s a big shock to be this old.”
Similarly self-taught — but not even George Catlin was blind in one eye — the eyepatch-clad Burgess returned to Jefferson this past fall, desperate to find good homes for his paintings while he still can.
“It’s hard to sell paintings of contemporary people,” Burgess explained.
“History-wise,” he added, “I’ll be treated more kindly than I am today.”
Eric Anderson, director of the Blanden Memorial Art Museum in Fort Dodge, agrees.
The Blanden is in the process of becoming the repository of Burgess’ archives, the first of its kind for the 86-year-old institution and a move that brings to Burgess a peace of mind that Catlin never found.
If anyone 100 years from now wants to research Burgess, the Blanden will be the place to do it.
“If people want to know about Roy, they can come to the Blanden,” Anderson said. “They’ll be able to write papers on him. He has the talent and the history to be someone that Iowa should remember. This is just the next step.”
Burgess, who has no wife or children, began thinking five years ago about the future of his artwork.
“I always wanted my paintings in a museum,” Burgess said. “That’s kind of an arrogant way of thinking, I guess.”
But because he has no formal training, Burgess has always been held at arm’s length by the art world.
As he puts it, “I don’t speak art-speak.”
Most museums simply blew him off when he called about acquiring his work. Hospitals, which have been known to buy original art, weren’t interested either.
“The Blanden was always in the back of my mind because they’re close to Jefferson,” Burgess said.
The Blanden already has four of Burgess’ paintings in its permanent collection, acquired by two previous directors. Technically, they’re insanely detailed pastel drawings, made all the more impressive by the fact that one eye gives him a warped sense of perception.
Still, Burgess wasn’t sure how Anderson, the director since 2015, would react when he called out of the blue about a month ago.
Burgess wanted Anderson to come to Jefferson to see nearly two dozen works for himself, which Burgess has displayed gallery-style in the modest house he rents on West South Street.
“They don’t tip their hand,” Burgess said, recalling the day Anderson strolled from room to room. “They don’t tell you if they like your work or not.”
If the Blanden were to pass, Burgess thought, his next call was to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, primarily because it has some of Catlin’s work in its collection.
As it turned out, Burgess didn’t have to make that call.
“I found him to be very interesting as an artist,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know he was a self-taught artist. It’s magnificent what he’s done.”
Anderson agreed to take all of Burgess’ paintings, in addition to drawings, sketches and even personal effects.
“He’s a part of Iowa artistic history,” Anderson said. “What better place to house them than the Blanden?”
It sets up a happy ending for an Iowa-born artist who was always on the outside looking in, hustling for exposure while those in the know — from gallery owners to the Des Moines Register — pretended he didn’t exist.
One year at a Walmart in Kansas City, Burgess met company founder Sam Walton and hit him up on a proposal to exhibit his art from Walmart to Walmart.
Back in the 1840s, Catlin had taken his Indian Gallery on the road, too.
Walton ultimately passed, but not before writing a personal letter to Burgess, admitting he knew nothing about art.
Burgess had better luck in 1989 with the Soviet Ministry of Culture — yes, you read right — when, in the final days of the Cold War, he orchestrated an artist exchange all on his own. He went to Russia with his artwork and then later brought an artist to Jefferson-Scranton High School.
Media coverage was virtually nil.
One of the state’s oldest museums, the Blanden already has an impressive collection for a museum its size, including works by abstract expressionists Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell.
The Blanden also is home to “Fantastic Horse Cart,” a 1949 painting by Russian-Jewish modernist Marc Chagall. His work was once confiscated from museums and deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, proof once again of the Third Reich’s taste: A Chagall painting sold last year at auction for $28.5 million.
For his part, Anderson thought he was coming to Jefferson to just look at some paintings.
“The next thing you know,” he said, “I’m the keeper of Roy Burgess’ art and archives.”
“He’s got that way. You’ve got to watch him,” Anderson joked. “He’s such a charmer that one.”
There are still plenty of details to hash out — namely, how many of the paintings the Blanden will actually retain for its permanent collection.
“We’re very limited in storage and space,” Anderson said. “You want to take in everything, but you want to be a good steward of the things you do have.”
Anderson thinks the work could be loaned out to other museums as a traveling exhibit.
He also wants to explore the possibility of opening a satellite gallery somewhere in Jefferson, first to showcase Burgess’ art and then the work of others.
“Even just a temporary exhibit in Jefferson would be very meaningful,” Anderson said.
“To start,” he said of the work, “we’ll bring them to the museum, house them and take care of them.”
That’s all Burgess wanted.
“This way,” Burgess said, “I know they’ll be safe.”
He can now travel on with a clear conscience: Burgess was planning on living out the rest of his days here in his hometown, but just recently received an offer that’s awfully hard to decline.
Six years ago, while living on Maui, he put his name on a waiting list for 55-plus housing.
They now have a spot opening up.
Burgess, who doesn’t have a car and didn’t actually mind his first Iowa winter in years, will be a mere half-mile from the beach.
By comparison, a half-mile walk from his place on West South Street gets him to Hy-Vee.
Exploding volcanoes on the big island aside, the offer to live in Hawaii is too hard to pass up.
“You don’t know if you’re standing next to a homeless person or a billionaire. They’re dressed the same: shorts and flip-flops,” he said. “That’s appealing to me.”
It’s also possible, he said, to grow the marijuana there he needs for his deteriorating eyesight.
In the end, Burgess will be at peace in a way George Catlin never was, even though both men in their own way sought to preserve “the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America,” as Catlin defined his mission.
“When was the last time you saw farmers walking around the Square in bib-overalls?” Burgess asked. “Growing up, that’s all you saw.
“They’ll know in 100 years what kind of overalls they were, because of the stitching in the painting.”
Meet the artist
Roy Burgess will make his paintings available for public view from 1 to 4 p.m. June 8, coinciding with the Bell Tower Festival.
His address is 307 W. South St.
The paintings can also be seen anytime by appointment by calling 602-743-3255.
Visit royeburgess.com for more info.