David Lee Burgess, 8/25/1934 - 12/26/2011
"The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one's life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so
heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of
a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can
survive the best of us." -- William James
David Lee Burgess was an extraordinary painter and draftsman. Like Emily Dickinson, he produced a remarkable body
of work which was rarely made public during his lifetime and, like her, he chose a life of self-imposed seclusion. He repeatedly
affirmed Degas' idea that art should be part of private life, and as an artist he wished "to remain illustrious and unknown."
He had little patience for the hustle of the contemporary art market, which he thought was chiefly about what Alexander
Solzhenitsyn called "the relentless cult of novelty."
David was also an extraordinary man: serious, mercurial, dauntingly well-read and cultured, but never stuffy. To be
around him at all was to experience something of his powers - his verbal skill, his subtle mind, his sharp eye for the ridiculous,
his range of knowledge. He was a man of strong opinions and high ideals who could also be a very difficult man - impossible
even. Yet those who knew him well were inspired by him and educated by him.
He wanted, as he used to say, "to cut a wide swath" in life. He possessed considerable independence of mind. "People treat
the past with a contempt it does not deserve and the present with a respect it deserves still less," wrote Bertrand Russell, and this
idea was a guiding light to David's study of art and the life of the mind. A desire to "see into the heart of things" was a constant
in his life, and was painstakingly and conscientiously pursued. He read widely in philosophy and at the end of his life held A.N.
Whitehead and C.S. Peirce in the highest regard.
He produced an imposing legacy of drawings, watercolors and paintings. His work is characterized by great vitality, elegant draftsmanship, nobility, and that quality he valued above all others in works of art - mystery, which for him was imbued with religious feeling. Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, J. M. W. Turner, and Giorgio Morandi were profound influences. Early on, he identified, both artistically and personally, with Cezanne. He saw in him a kindred spirit: an outlaw and an artist of volcanic temperament who was at the same time a cultured man.
David was born in Spokane, Wash., and raised in Moscow, Idaho. His parents were a study in contrasts, and the tensions those contrasts generated in him played out creatively and powerfully in his life. His mother, Anna Hanson, was a schoolteacher. She organized a local theosophical society, wrote short stories and was a devoted proponent of world peace. Through her, the Burgess home became something of a salon in Moscow, welcoming numerous visiting artists, spiritual figures and statesmen.
During his growing-up years, David met many of them: Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar, Krishnamurti, Henry Wallace, and Glen Taylor, among others. David's father, Dr. Jesse Hugh Burgess, was an energetic, self-made man who, in his younger days, tried homesteading, wisely abandoned that enterprise, and settled on a career in optometry.
By the time his son David was born, he had become a prominent optometrist in Moscow. He was an enthusiast for the traveling circuses that came through town in those days, and he documented the lives of the circus folk with an 8mm movie camera. Many years later, David mined those films for a series of paintings and drawings that includes some of his finest work.
As a boy, David was notably gifted at drawing, demonstrating remarkable fluency and an accurate eye. In eighth grade, a revelation occurred: one day, his art teacher showed him a reproduction of a watercolor of geraniums by Cezanne. It changed his life, opening a realm of possibility he had not before imagined. After years of study of the great art of the past, David would develop his "theory of passages," and his steadily growing authority as an artist truly commenced.
An additional passion entered his life at 16, when he discovered sleight-of-hand magic. His introduction to that art was by way of circus magicians performing tricks for his father's movie camera. He fell in love with magic, went to work at once to learn the art and soon developed an act. As a teenager, he performed more than 150 shows for various organizations, clubs, and associations. From those years forward, he continued all his life to invent and perform sleight-of-hand illusions for his family and friends. He often said that learning how to master difficult tricks from magic books taught him how to read with great precision. Magic also taught him how easy it is to be fooled, how easy it is to fool someone, and how much people want to be fooled. These insights, he said, helped him develop "a good BS detector," something he considered one of his most indispensable intellectual assets. He credited what he called "the three magical effects" (levitation, transposition and transformation) as strong influences
on his ideas in philosophy and painting. His favorites among the great modern magicians were Dai Vernon and Slydini, and he maintained a life-long high regard for the wide-ranging writings of another magician: the mathematics and science writer, Martin Gardner.
While a student at the University of Idaho, David met Esther (Esje) Prins, a fellow student only recently arrived from Holland. Esje lived in the same neighborhood at the same time as Anne Frank. Unlike Anne Frank, who remained in Amsterdam, Esje escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. She survived thanks to a series of heroic Dutch families who took her in and hid ("dived") her in their homes in rural Holland. She was from a cultured Amsterdam family: her grandfather, a rabbi; her grand uncles, cantors; her uncle, a chess Grandmaster; her father, a psychiatrist who had undergone analysis by a student of Freud. Tragically, most of her relatives were killed by the Nazis. When she and David first met, they discovered that she, a pianist, and he, a violinist, shared an intense interest in classical music. From that point forward they were inseparable, and they married in 1956. Their marriage produced three children - Aaron, Caitlin and Jesse - who often went to sleep at night to the sound of their
parents playing sonatas together.
David was an early "house-husband," reading, painting and taking care of the kids while Esje taught school. He wanted the three of them to be familiar with great works of art, to read the great books, to love wildness, to understand the importance of skepticism - everything essential to the development of their characters. In his 30s, he was politically active, helping organize protest marches against the war in Vietnam, against nuclear proliferation, and against the destruction and poisoning of the biosphere. He embraced the civil rights movement, and spoke out for an open, democratic and just society. He was president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the organization's state-level board of directors. In addition, he earned special commendations for his work on the Citizen's Advisory Council at the state penitentiary. During these same years, he took several jobs to help with the family's finances. He managed the YWCA ice skating arena, turning it financially from red to black in his first year there, voluntarily reducing his own salary to help achieve that end. He also worked in local social services,
spearheading and writing grants for community programs including the New Morning Guild and the Drop-In Center, both of which helped troubled youths. This foray into public life was, according to him, a digression. In his mid-40s, he turned back fully to the study of painting, his life's chief labor and concern. He worked in graphite, mixed-media, watercolor on paper, and oil and acrylic on canvas. His subject matter included landscapes, nudes, horses, bathers, clowns, still-lifes and portraits.
His work in portraiture is exquisite. The best - a dozen or so - can stand comparison with the best works in portraiture of the great masters of the past whom he so admired. These portraits exemplify virtuosity tempered with taste and understatement, and embody both faithfulness to each subject's likeness and a transformative vision of that subject's inner nobility.
David's own judgment was that his best paintings were "The Departing Clowns," a painting inspired by an image glimpsed in a scene from his father's old circus footage, and the "The Snake," a large landscape with a large subject: a view southward from the top of the Lewiston Grade of the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers. He rarely sold his work or signed it, but said many times that Esje's signature deserved to be next to his own. She was truly his "dear companion" and the pole star of his life. She died in 2003, shortly after her retirement from a 35- year teaching career at Walla Walla Community College. She was the most faithful supporter of his work and study, both financially and spiritually.
David showed a lot of pluck at the end. Suffering more and more from corticobasal degeneration, a progressive neurological disease, he elected to forgo all food and drink in order to make what he called "a graceful exit." As far as religion was concerned, he thought the formulation that best suited him was W. H. Auden's in "As I Walked Out One Evening":
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.
In his last hours, he quoted from Landor's poem "On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday":
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
He is survived by his brothers J. Hugh Burgess and John Morgan Alexander Burgess; his children Aaron Hansen Burgess, Caitlin Ann Burgess, and Jesse Hugh Burgess III; his daughters-in-law Katy Marie Burgess and Junko Okada; his son-in-law Peter Joel Bloomsburg; his grandchildren Jesse Lee Burgess, John David Burgess, Samuel Jesse Bloomsburg, David Willem Walter Bloomsburg, Anna Okada Burgess, and Thomas Aaron Okada Burgess; numerous nephews, nieces, and cousins; and friends old and new.
A memorial service and exhibition of David Burgess's artwork will be held in April, date, time and location to be announced.