James H. Burrus, tall, dynamic and looking more like a businessman on his Saturday afternoon off than a successful artist, turned from a wall where he was busily engaged in hanging a painting and said, "Nothing that’s happened in the last hundred years has been so important to Hickory as this Art Museum!" (Hickory Daily Record April 22, 1944.)
James Hoyle Burrus,commercial designer, painter, lecturer, illustrator, art museum enthusiast,and writer, was one of the people in Hickory who not only actively supported Paul's vision of establishing an art museum in their town, but who also pitched in with the myriad hands-on details of getting the museum up and running. For one thing, at Paul's invitation Burrus served on HMA's first Board of Directors, and attended the very first meeting of that board on December 1, 1943 along with four other men and one woman. Burrus eventually worked as curator at HMA for several years. (The letterhead below that mentions Burrus as one of the "officers" is from 1951.)
Burrus was born in Sugar Grove, NC; and North Carolina remained his home for his entire life. He studied at Trinity College of Arts and Sciences (the undergraduate liberal arts college at Duke University), and graduated in 1917. "At Duke, Burrus was extremely active in campus affairs, especially in literary and club enterprises. ... During his senior year, he was editor-in-chief of the Chanticleer [college yearbook], and he also served on the staff of The Chronicle [student newspaper]." (Information from his Duke Magazine obituary, Oct. 1955) During that senior year at Duke also, Burrus was stricken with tuberculosis; and it was during his convalescence that he took up painting and developed a love for art.
Burrus worked for some years as a designer for an advertising firm in Asheville before moving to Hickory to design for the Clay Printing company as well as for a number of the mills in the area. At one point he taught art in the Hickory high school; and all along painted and sold artworks, achieving recognition in that area also.
Burrus lived in the nearby (to Hickory) town of Rutherford College, where he was a dedicated member of the Abernethy Memorial United Methodist Church. The church's "brief history" web page mentions that sometime in the late 1950's, " six exceptional paintings by local artist and member James H. ('Mr. Jimmy') Burrus were installed in the Sanctuary." There are as many non-religious Burrus paintings in other spaces throughout the church, including this one of the 1930's church building (painted in 1952).
In Hickory, Burrus made friends with both Paul Whitener (like Burrus, a then-recent student at the Ringling School of Art Summer session at Little Switzerland) and Wilford Conrow; and with them and others he became deeply involved in the efforts to start and grow an art museum in Hickory.. Later he was "A key leader in the establishment of the State [Art] Museum in Raleigh NC" according to his Duke University obituary.
In an interview that was published in the April 22, 1944 Hickory Daily Record, Burrus explained why he was also a painter, "I could no more leave off that side of art than I could the commercial side." (Other quotes below are also from that April 1944 article.) Burrus' involvement with the Museum continued to be hands-on after it opened. "The enthusiastic Mr Burrus … was in his shirtsleeves adding the finishing touches to the Hickory Museum of Art’s April exhibit. … His greatest ambition right now is to see the Museum occupy its proper place of importance in the minds and interests of the people of Hickory and the surrounding area. He believes that it will.”
“In painting, Burrus says that he prefers landscape, and Hickory folk who saw his beautiful work during the opening exhibition at the Museum can well understand his preference. However, he likes portraits almost equally well.” (Above, Burrus' 1954 portrait of Pastor Abernethy for whom the Rutherford College church is named.)
“ `The importance of art in awakening a sense of the appreciation of beauty cannot be measured. Even meager training in Art opens the eyes. Nothing is ever quite the same once you have learned enough about art to see the color variations in the trees, or the clouds – why,” he said, smiling broadly, “suddenly you realize there’s more beauty in one day than you could exhaust in a century.’ “
This post is # 11 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.
Post including artwork photos by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.