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 Nathaniel Charles Burwash  (1906 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New Hampshire/California      Known for: carved wood sculpture-animals, birds, figures

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Nathaniel Charles Burwash
An example of work by Nathaniel Charles Burwash
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A wood carver in modernist styles depicting animals, birds, insects, people and organic shapes, Nathaniel Burwash was born in Los Angeles.   As a youngster, he spent a lot of time climbing trees, of which two types were favorites--pepper and eucalyptus.  He said: "If the breeze was right you could climb the eucalyptus and it would just rock you." (Spitzer 4).

However, at the age of eleven, he left his beloved trees of California and moved with his family to his grandparent's farm in upstate New York at Hudson Falls.  He was put to work with farm labor, which included the slaughter of animals, a task he grew to hate and one that left him with guilt and shame.   Many years later, he was able to work through his feelings when carving animals as subject matter. 

In the interim, his family provided little support for his artistic leanings.  A dedicated teacher at one of his rural schools encouraged his talent, and a relative gave him five-hundred dollars towards education at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester, New York.  He apprenticed from 1925 to 1929 at the Gleason Gear Factory as a wood patternmaker, training that served him well in his future career as a wood carver.  During this period, he also took night painting classes with Fritz Trautman and Harwood Steiger at the Mechanics Institute.

In 1930, he spent a summer with friends at a log cabin in Nova Scotia, and devoted much of his time to drawing and painting, especially with watercolors.  Looking back years later, he marked this as the true beginning of his art career, although this early focus was two-dimensional and quite different from his wood sculpture that became his signature work.

During the 1930s, he married and traveled, living in New Orleans, New York, Europe, and then building a home for him and his wife, Ida, in Washington, New Hampshire.  From there as well as New York City earlier, he worked as a WPA artist, and the couple lived in a communal circumstance based on Hobo Ranch, a New Hampshire socialist community of creative persons who simply contributed as much as they could for their mutual food and lodging.  During these years, Burwash and his wife lived close to nature, subsiding on the basics, and he spent much time outside "counting trees', meaning walking among them and studying their unique characteristics.  The couple  were also quite political and signed a petition to put a Communist party member on the New Hampshire ballot---something that was highly controversial in that era.

Burwash had studied in New York in 1931 at the Art Students League with George Grosz, Vaclav Vytlacil, and Harwood Steiger.  Grosz was especially influential, and Burwash never forgot his words: "Be sure that when you think you have made a mistake that it is not your subconscious speaking".   In other words, don't ignore the unintended and the happenstance because it may come from your deepest core and be the truest expression.

In the 1940s, he shifted from painting to carving, and even after his so-called retirement at age 67, he was amazingly productive and completed over 200 works.  As a carver, he was intent on finding the message within the pre-carved block of wood and releasing it by following grain lines.  Then the work could speak for itself.  This process often took him on unexpected journeys, and he repeatedly proved that it is never too late to discover the wonders of what nature has to offer.

While living in New Hampshire, he exhibited at the Currier Gallery in Manchester and also at the Whitney Museum in New York City.  In 1942, he and his wife moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he began wood pattern making at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  This led to other commitments at MIT, which meant the couple basically lived the remainder of their life in Cambridge, although they kept their New Hampshire property until 1980.  Four years later, Ida Burwash died.

He exhibited from 1946 to 1971 at Boris Mirski Gallery in Boston and in future years with the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of New Hampshire at Durham and the Copley Society in Boston.   In 1948, he began the first of many trips to Mexico, where he went on Mayan Digs in Oaxaca, and in 1966, he went to Uganda, where he designed art-teaching projects for teachers in Entebbe.  In the early 1970s, he taught sculpture at the New England Craftsmanship Center, and from 1986 to 1994, he taught at Decordova-Dana Museum School in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Steven Spitzer, Wood Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, courtesy Alan Jay Rom,

Mr. Burwash died on 10 January 2000, a few weeks before his 94th birthday (17 February), at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Since the mid-1940s he concentrated his work on wood sculpture.  In the mid-1990s, over 100 of his WPA watercolors (such as what was displayed for sale) were matched to him, and they are at the State Library in Concord, New Hampshire.  During the mid-to late 1990s, 20 of these watercolors were framed and displayed in several libraries, art galleries, etc. in New Hampshire and several pieces of his sculpture were also displayed in a "Then and Now" show.

Mr. Burwash was named "Master" by the Copley Art Society, and an annual award is given out in his name.

Submitted August 2005, by Alan Jay Rom, executor of the estate of the artist.

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