A burial service for Ozarks artist James Burkhart, 78, of Gainesville, will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, at St. Paul's Lutheran Church Cemetery in Boomer Township, Iowa. Funeral services were held Friday, Oct. 28, at the First Christian Church in Gainesville with the Rev. Bobby Jo Wade officiating.
Mr. Burkhart died Tuesday, Oct. 25, in Gainesville.
He was born Oct. 15, 1933, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Harry and Edna May Scott Burkhart. He grew up poor and joined the National Guard while still in high school in Council Bluffs. He left school to serve with the Navy aboard a minesweeper during the Korean Conflict and then finished high school after his discharge.
On Aug. 8, 1958, in St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Boomer Township, he married Donna Christoffersen, who survives.
Other survivors include a daughter, Tawny King and husband Scott of Kansas City, Kan.; a son, Cory Alexander Burkhart and his wife Jeanne of Ozark; four grandchildren, Quinlan and Tristan King, and Joel and Ben Burkhart; and nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his parents and by one brother.
Settling into Ozarks life
Soon after their 1958 wedding they moved to Kansas City, where Mr. Burkhart attended the Art Institute and Mrs. Burkhart taught PE in junior high and high school. While the Burkharts were living in Kansas City in the 1960s, they were introduced to Ozark County by friends Carolyn and John Marsh, who invited them to come on a float trip. They fell in love with the hills and streams and, Mrs. Burkhart said, "Everything we did from that point on was aimed at bringing us back here."
After graduating from art school, Mr. Burkhart worked as a commercial artist for American Insurance. After they relocated to Springfield - a move designed to bring them closer to Ozark County - he worked for a commercial design company and later started his own commercial design firm. Later he switched his emphasis to fine arts and started his career as an independent artist, focusing on capturing the scenes and people of the Ozarks.
In 1967, they bought 185 acres of land on Bryant Creek for $75 an acre. The place had a ramshackle house and a river cabin, and the family spent every possible weekend there, floating the rivers and enjoying the land. They moved here permanently a year later and quickly settled into Ozarks life, becoming known to friends and neighbors simply as Jim and Donna.
Jim worked hard to support his family solely through his art. Donna Burkhart describes him as being "obsessed . . . driven to pain every day because he knew he had to support his family. Every single day he went to his studio at nine in the morning and painted until three in the afternoon."
He developed a heritage program in which he provided prints of local landmarks and other scenes to banks and insurance companies throughout Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and other states for use as customer premiums. The program included rodeo-inspired bronzes of a cowboy bull rider he created for State Farm Insurance.
He completed murals for companies on walls and ceiling of business buildings, always answering, "Sure!" whenever he was asked if he could do something-and then figuring out how to do it, Donna said. Today his work can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the Midwest.
The family went through some financially hard times when work was slow, but they survived-and thrived-in their home on the Bryant.
A love for making
Tawny describes her dad as an entertainer who "loved to make people laugh and liked being the center of attention." She remembers daylong float trips down the river, sometimes with a flotilla of other canoes, her dad telling stories all the way. The Burkhart kids grew up working hard on the farm - until their dad's quitting time at 3 p.m. "Then we would go play badminton on the beach on the river, swim, fish or just explore the beautiful Ozark hills surrounding Bryant Creek," she said.
The family enjoyed campfires by the river "eating marshmallows and stuffing them into the horses' mouths, watching them try to get the gooey sugar off their lips. Dad would tell wonderful ghost stories," Tawny said.
Jim Burkhart was an easygoing man, but "he would get enraged at people littering," Tawny said. She remembers him once picking up a bag of litter that someone threw out of a car - and then throwing it back at the culprits.
In the mid-1980s, after their children were grown, Mr. Burkhart's popularity was soaring as residents throughout the Midwest discovered and began collecting his paintings, prints and sketches of Ozarks people, places and things. But he voluntarily stepped back from his career to help Donna achieve her own dream of completing a degree in physical therapy. They locked up the farm and moved to Columbia, where he returned to commercial art to support them while she completed her studies.
Back in Ozark County a couple of years later, they continued their work, with Jim creating commissioned paintings and limited-edition prints and Donna commuting to West Plains to work as a physical therapist.
The Burkharts were members of the First Christian Church in Gainesville, where, one year, during an Easter service, he created a pastel scene of Calvary while pastor Gene Bates preached the sermon. In December he created a Christmas scene the same way. The pictures still hang in the church sanctuary.
The first symptoms
In 2004, Jim began noticing symptoms of the illness that would eventually shorten his life. He was unable to focus, his hands wouldn't do what he wanted them to do and his vision was failing. He was eventually diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy PSP, a condition that causes mid-brain cells to die. He fought the disease as long as possible, moving to the computer to begin a new area of artwork when he was no longer able to draw and paint by hand.
Jim was a "people person," who loved nothing more than being surrounded by friends and family. "If we stood in line for a movie or something, by the time we got to the ticket window, Jim knew all the people around us in line, where they were from, what they did for a living, how many kids they had," Donna said.
Tawny described her dad as a man who loved the water, along with beautiful golf courses, hunting and fishing. He taught his kids to get the most out of life and encouraged them often to "stop and smell the roses," she said.
"He was very artful at finding beauty everywhere," Tawny said. He captured it in pictures ranging from a dew-kissed spider web suspended over a trash barrel to a rugged Ozarks farmer digging potatoes. He painted Ozarks animals and landmarks, old barns and buildings, old people and old friends and Ozarkian family gatherings.
In response to publicity associated with a 2008 art show in Gainesville sponsored by the Burkharts' church, inquiries and orders came from several states ranging from Alaska to Maine. His limited-edition prints today are available for purchase at the Ozark County Historium on the square in Gainesville.
His work's popularity came because it captured the hearts of those who saw it-and reflected the heart of the artist. He told an interviewer that the beauty of the Ozarks inspired him. "I'm closer to God here than anywhere else," he said. "My family and I had to sacrifice some things to live this way, but the things we have and appreciate, money can't buy."