On April 9, 1893, Charles E. Burchfield was born into a world of coal-burning locomotives and freighters whose black belches swirled from the Ashtabula Harbor riverfront toward the family’s modest home on the west side.
Burchfield and his family moved from the industrial lakefront to the bucolic Salem, Ohio, while Charles was still a lad. But looking at the work of the American artist, one can’t help but wonder if his early childhood exposure to The Harbor’s industrial miasma subconsciously inspired his art. Burchfield’s modernistic work is characterized by skies of swirling smoke that enliven otherwise bleak skies and dark geometric, often industrial, subjects.
On the painter’s 125th birthday, Harbor native and artist Julene Schwarz carries on the Burchfield influence in works of “animated realism.” There is no doubt that she is inspired by both Burchfield, as well as Thomas Hart Benton, and her hometown environment. Julene’s works animate the inanimate buildings of Bridge Street, twist familiar lines of gazebos and Christmas trees and transpose to paper The Harbor of the mind for those who grew up there.
“Everything I paint is real,” says Julene, whose studio is taking over the family room of her Atlantic Street house. “But I want to make it fun, lively and colorful.”
Such are her landscapes of The Harbor, in which the familiar buildings of Bridge Street and icons of the river and lakefront are interpreted in Julene’s swirling, animated style.
“I always wanted to do a series of Harbor buildings,” Julene says. “I wanted to do them in a lively way, to show off how I feel about The Harbor.”
Her lively paintings of Bridge Street are reproduced on note cards sold at Harbor Perk. Her postcards of the same are sold at the Goodwill, Lakeway and Hil-Mak. Prints and cards are at her Bridge Street Art Works booth.
The great-granddaughter of Finnish immigrants, Julene grew up in The Harbor and “learned to walk up Hulburt Hill and learned to drive stick-shift on the hill.” She walked past the West 4th Street house where Burchfield was born on her way to Harbor High School.
Art was her escape, “my way to block out the world,” Julene says of her childhood interest. She worked with “paints, crayons, anything my parents would buy me.”
Julene earned her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Kent State in painting after graduation from Harbor High School. She worked as a graphic designer in Florida and freelanced in California before a divorce propelled her back to Ashtabula and school in 1981. She earned her teacher’s certification, with honors, from Cleveland State, and worked as an educator for 30 years.
“I always thought art could change the world,” she says. “But then I realized that teachers change the world. But you can change people’s perception of the world through your art.”
These days, Julene has but one student, her granddaughter Dianna Marie DeLuca of Geneva, who is learning oil painting under Julene’s guidance. Her husband, Eric, still works but enjoys woodturning as a hobby and exhibited his skills during the 2017 Art in the Alley event. With a working spouse, the retired artist can focus her energy on creating during the daylight hours.
“I usually work in the mornings, from 9 o’clock on, and a couple of afternoons,” she says. “But if I really get into something, I can work for days straight on it.”
Among her works in progress is a painting of the city’s other lift bridge, the railroad bridge upriver from the Harbor’s iconic Lift Bridge. Julene says that seeing the bridge in its winter upright position gave her a new perspective on a familiar sight. “I saw the rusty bridge highlighted by the white snow, and I thought ‘That is beautiful,'” Julene says.
“I go wherever I can walk in and not get kicked out,” she says when asked about her favorite places to paint en plein air. “Walnut Beach, by the river.”
She usually works from a photograph of her subject and often visits it several times under various weather and lighting conditions before deciding the setting in which to place it. She says getting the emotional feel of a place is part of her research.
“If I receive a commission, I’ll take photos of it and experience the area, even if I am familiar with it, because I want to see how the cold, sun and colors affect me.”
Julene’s projects and interests continue to unfold in her retirement years, even as they come full circle to the influence of Burchfield and his themes, which included industrial encroachment upon the natural and rural landscape.
“I may do a bunch of industrial paintings,” Julene says. “Maybe something about keeping Lake Erie clean, human rights issues.”