In Memory of Kenny Burge

February 16, 2018 by

There’s a studio in upstate New York where Kenneth Burge, Jr. would sit for hours. Born in Alton, Illinois, life had taken him to Missouri, Germany, Connecticut, Indiana, then Virginia before he landed in this town (and later on Huguenot Street) with a thirty-five year long professorship in the SUNY New Paltz Art Department.

In this studio he would paint in his signature abstract, colorist manner, then sit back and stare at the canvas in front of him. Abruptly, after what seemed like forever, he would run back to the painting again, having long contemplated his next brushstroke.

Since his passing last November, Kenneth—known to most as Kenny, a man of few words but profound character—has been deeply missed. Today, his 87th birthday, we celebrate his work not only as a silent driving force behind Women’s Studio Workshop, but also as an activist, artist, educator, and mentor.

Co-founder Barbara Leoff Burge met Kenny in 1959 when she lived in New York City and he, just back from serving in Germany, was staying in Connecticut. As it would turn out, she had seen his work before in a different show, and was introduced to the artist on Friday the 13th. They’d joke, “Lucky or unlucky, we never figured that out.”

A Washington University honors graduate, his first job took the two of them to Anderson, Indiana; with his second they both taught in Radford, Virginia. The third time looped them back to New York to settle in the Hudson Valley, where Kenny became known for his drawing classes and playing audio-collages of jazz music and political speeches. Whereas drawing was his curriculum and a social activity—he and Barbara had a game where he would draw whatever she said—painting was a personal act he kept for himself.

Kenny brought home every single sheet of student work and leafed through the newsprint sketches. In the 1970’s Ann Kalmbach took one drawing course and noticed he was unusually attentive to what she was making, despite what was perceived as a “boy’s club” atmosphere (the one female professor was fired in ‘71). She continued to work with him through independent studies and sitting in on his classes, eventually going to the house to meet Barbara and bringing Anita Wetzel with her. The rest we know by heart.

“Recently there was a radio program about a certain plant phenomenon where a plant will grow and will only bloom in the desert sometimes in a lapse of ten years or so,” Barbara smiles. “For some reason, I associated that with Kenny.”

Bloom and thrive are not synonymous. Kenny thrived in his quiet way, or as Ann says—”He watched the world go by and did not miss a thing.” Since his youth his was a devoted activist who participated in sit-ins, was a member of the ACLU, and later joined the local Caribbean and Latin American Support Project (C.L.A.S.P.). Anita would arrive at a Washington protest-bound bus to find Kenny there as well.

Blooming was something Kenny chose to do his own way, on his own time. His fervor never assumed rank among his friends and colleagues, whose visions he encouraged however he could and often without needing to be asked. Modest to the point that he would never claim modesty, Barbara describes, in the rare moments he spoke about himself, an entirely new side would present itself. “When he blooms, you find out he was valedictorian!”

Confident with his own nature, goals, and principles, Kenny had a dry, acerbic wit on the best and worst of days. “Quizzical” is also a word rolling around in Anita’s mind describing his thoughtful disposition balanced by his unconditional support. Fiercely committed since the beginning, not only was Kenny part of WSW’s incorporation as a nonprofit organization, he helped get Tatana Kellner and Ann a shared print technician job when the Workshop first began. For forty years he has been there, helping during the 1979’s Flying Objects Festival to washing dishing to serving as the “perennial secretary” on the board of directors.

Trusting the success of the organization, Kenny had the foresight to save anything and everything for the future WSW archives. So much of the Workshop would not exist without him; the collection gives depth to the institution.

In the same New Paltz studio, his work now hangs as an abbreviated retrospective to his creative life. Oil and acrylic compositions, precision and intuition, line the walls and tell us part of the person Kenny had been. Other disparate facts are remembered as well: he once owned a zoot suit and—because it was the 70’s—smoked a pipe. These bits are impractical to gather in totality, but impossible to leave out. They paint a larger picture of a man who lived generously, was believer in his community, and a person the Workshop will always be grateful to have had as a friend.