How is it that a baby born in 1920 in Alton, Iowa, to parents named Eunice and LeRoy, and whose father is a proud Iowa Freemason, grows up to become an abstract painter in Paris?
This is the story of the artist of F.R.’s painting, Leroy K. Burket. She found this piece in Alpha Thrift, and it is sizable: at 50 x 33 inches, not everyone can hang such a piece.
F.R. has wondered about this piece for years, because although it is clearly a view into a woodscape, it is not realistic and plays abstractly with the colors of blue and red.
The signature is hard to make out, but here’s how I do this when a client tells me that a signature is illegible. I squint. Then I imagine different spellings. After that, I use the site Artnet (www.artnet.com) to find a match by looking at the styles of painters whose signature makes sense to me.
Burket was rather a fine painter and has worked at the Museum of Nebraska and the Walker.
After he left the University of Iowa, he served in the U.S. Navy 1942-5 aboard the USS Boise. He returned to follow up with a master’s of fine arts at the University of Iowa, and then got a teaching job at the University of Nebraska.
But he longed to travel again, and he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Canada and then France. He fell in love with Paris and left his teaching job in 1957 for France. He taught art for the Orly Air Base, one of many of the U.S. Air Force bases in Europe. It is located at Aeroport de Paris-Orly near Paris.
Orly, and I know many of us have been through that airport, was opened in 1932 as a second airport for France. Formerly the great engineer Eugene Freyssinet used the space as a place for airship hangars.
During World War II, the U.S. established a presence there. Later in the war, sadly, so did the Luftwaffe.
When the Germans were expelled, the Air Force used Orly as an Advanced Landing Ground “A-47” for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Ninth Air Force. Burket taught art in the buildings erected for at least 500 men stationed there. It became the largest U.S.A.F. terminal in France in 1955 due to the American presence and redevelopment, although it had been returned to French hands in 1946.
Orly was rebuilt after World War II as a joint civilian airport and NATO facility, supporting Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at Rocquencourt. Now try to imagine a farm town boy-turned-abstract painter teaching art THERE.
Burket had another even more interesting side to his artistic life. He worked in Paris for Trianon Press, a famous publishing house, and there in the 1960s, he developed research into and technical support for illustrations for a book of poems by William Blake. Burket must have been a fascinating man to have such diverse career angles in the art world of his time, the mid-20th century.
Many artists have one career goal, and that is to paint in a certain way. They don’t necessarily teach, they don’t work for publishing houses as illustration advisors; perhaps commerce detracts from their work. And they certainly usually do not work for the Air Force.
But this man seems to have been an individual in his time. Just to leave the Midwest in the 1950s for Paris is a jump enough to tell us that.
I like to think that this time of lockdown has been a space where many of us think. If we had to do it all over, would we have done something bold like Burket? And if we still have time, focus, creativity, adaptability, flexibility, and a little money, why don’t we make those bold moves when we are able?
Burket loved to collect art and had quite a fine collection, some of which ended up in museums, of 18th and 19th-century prints, 19th-century ceramics, bronze and all manners of oils on canvas. For a man of such taste, he was acclimated to Paris, and stayed there until his death in the late 1980s, visiting the Midwest every year.
F.R.’s painting, although not of the style that gets the big bucks by this artist, which are the very abstract organic shapes painted in blurred suggestive colors, is worth much more than a thrift shop price tag.
I would estimate the value to be $2,000 or more, since the painting is decidedly abstract though it is a semi-recognizable landscape.