Burl Chalmers: A portrait of the artist

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL

Who was Burl Chalmers? He created a poignant piece of local art. Aside from that, local scholars have been left scratching their heads.

On the north wall of the Charles Fay Reading Room in Morenci’s Stair Public Library hangs a 1942 painting depicting 13 Morenci residents crowded around a poker table, among them former Michigan Secretary of Agriculture Charles Figy, Marvin Clark, owner of the defunct Clark Gas Company, and Clare Fauver, who commissioned the painting.

card-game Biographical information is known about all 13 men in the painting. The real trouble lies in identifying the man behind the easel.

Past inquiries to the Toledo Museum of Art and the the University of Michigan  art department turned up nothing. Lifelong residents could only vaguely remember Chalmers. In fact, there wasn’t even a death certificate for the artist in Lenawee County, assuming he was dead.

However, as of 2003, Burl Chalmers was not dead, and revived efforts to locate him have shed a new light on this important piece of Morenci history.

A Google search for “Burl Chalmers” turned up a 1983 obituary for Mary Alice Dolby, of Huntington, Ind., who was survived by a brother, Mr. Burl E. Chalmers. The obituary also listed two  of her sons, one of them Rex Dolby of Van Wert, Ohio.

A picture of Chalmers’ signature emailed to Dolby confirmed that Burl Chalmers was indeed the artist in question. Dolby provided a contact point for his nephew, and Burl’s son, Mark Chalmers. Mark was able to paint a picture of the man whose life, until recently, revolved around painting pictures.

According to Mark, Burl Edward Chalmers was “born an artist” on March 25, 1910 in Huntington.

He enjoyed painting and drawing throughout his childhood, and he eventually studied at an art school in Fort Wayne, Ind.

In the early part of the century, it wasn’t customary for studios to send posters and cardboard cut-outs to theaters to advertise upcoming movies. Rather, theaters hired local artists to design and create ad materials. During the 1930s, Burl was one such artist employed by the Huntington Theater.

When World War II broke out, Burl relocated his family–wife Martha, five-year-old daughter Carol, and newborn son Mark–to a farm near Morenci. Instead of serving overseas, he worked in the converted Willow Run Ford plant painting stars on B-24 bombers.

It was during this period that Burl “got mixed up with Clare Fauver,” as Mark put it.

Fauver owned the Morenci Art Display Company, which produced nativity scenes for people to display on their lawns during the yuletide. Fauver hired Burl to paint the scenes in his spare time.

At some point in 1942, Fauver commissioned Burl to paint the picture which now hangs in Stair Public Library. The painting was based on an existing photograph, but Burl had each man model separately. Mark doesn’t know much else about the production of the picture—he was only two years old when it was painted.

The painting was intended to go in the front window of the E.B. Butler & Sons store. Phyllis Gillen remembered it hanging in Fauver’s house long before it was donated to the library by his niece, Janet Schultz.

Fauver was quite a fan of Burl’s art. In fact, he was so impressed the nativity scenes that when Burl moved back to Huntington after the war, Fauver had them trucked to Burl’s house so he could continue painting them. When Burl displayed one of the nativity scenes for a Christmas decoration contest in the early 1950s, he won first prize, for which he appeared on the cover of the Huntington Herald, said Mark. 

Burl headed up the art department at a lawn furniture company in Huntington, Hetrick’s Manufacturing, until 1959, when Mark graduated from high school. Due to his wife’s allergies, Burl relocated the family to San Diego permanently.

 In San Diego, he took a job with Foster & Kleiser, a billboard advertising firm where he worked until retirement. It was at Foster & Kleiser that Burl achieved a level of acclaim for the artwork he did for the San Diego Zoo. Zoo officials were so impressed with his renderings of animals and wildlife that they wouldn’t let anybody else work on the project, said Mark. They even convinced him to come out of retirement to paint more.

Just as Burl’s professional life centered around art, so did his leisure time. He liked to use photos from numerous family road trips as inspiration for the paintings he did in his spare time. Mark said he enjoyed painting seascapes and desertscapes most, but he also branched out. He did a lot of paintings for the Navajo tribe, for example.

“His entire life was devoted to art,” said Mark. “My dad was a pretty famous guy.”

People came from all over the world to buy his artwork. One of his compositions, for which he won a major award, was on the cover of a national art magazine, said Mark.

How does the poker painting measure up to the others?

“That’s a pretty special painting you have there,” said Mark. “I’d like to get my hands on it,” he joked.

Mark remembers Burl mentioning the painting several times over the years. It must have been a special painting for him, because he rarely worked with humans, said Mark.

Burl Chalmers died in San Diego on July 16, 2003, at the age of 93 after a long life with the easel.

“He painted until he was too weak to get up out of his chair,” said Mark.

   - Aug. 24, 2005
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