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If a tree falls on Charles Burchfield's grave, would it make a good painting?

Charles E. Burchfield understood the power of nature better than perhaps any other American artist of his generation.

His paintings are static records of his own near-religious awe in the face of natural phenomena, from a backyard lightning strike to the first flush of a West Seneca spring. Despite the wonder they inspire, they are solitary things, like private prayers preserved in watercolor and then reluctantly shared with the world.

Burchfield was especially drawn to storms.

So when Buffalo photographer David Torke took this shot of Burchfield's grave in East Aurora's Oakwood Cemetery after a recent windstorm that felled trees across Western New York, it understandably piqued the interest of some local Burchfield fans:

A tree fell on the grave of Charles E. Burchfield and his wife, Bertha, during a recent wind storm. Photo by David Torke.

It wouldn't exactly be fodder for a Burchfield composition -- it's too narrowly focused and its drama seems random rather than choreographed from on high. But it's hard to deny the symbolism, or to wonder what the famously reflective artist might have written about the occurrence in his daily journal.

The image is especially resonant in light of the Burchfield Penney Art Center's recent exhibition "Blistering Vision," which considered both the beauty of nature and its interaction with the built environment.

Of course, the fact that a tree fell directly onto the grave of Buffalo's most famous painter of trees is just a coincidence. But it's natural for us to look for meaning in that coincidence, as Burchfield so often did on his expeditions into the wilds of West Seneca and beyond.

"December Storm," by Charles Burchfield, the centerpiece of Burchfield Penney's 50th anniversary exhibition.

As for the tree itself, it remains in place as the financially strapped Oakwood Cemetery Association asks the Town of Aurora and Village of East Aurora to assist it in cleaning up the wind-damaged cemetery for the second time in about a month.

Oakwood Cemetery Association Vice President Dan Rahn said that the recent storm took down eight or nine trees, and he's in the process of reaching out to the town and village to assist with cleanup. The last storm took down four or five trees, which the village and town helped to clear, he said.

As for the apparent damage to the Charles and Martha Burchfield's gravestones, Rahn said that the gravestones "take quite a bit of abuse." Once the tree is cleared, cemetery workers will repair damage to any gravestones and sites, including the Burchfields'.


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