BAIA BITS: Calvin Burnett


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art


The support was there from the start. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1921 to a loving mother and an encouraging, physician father, the talented young Calvin Burnett was destined to become an artist.

“My father was interested in art and did a little bit of drawing here and there and I saw some of his things,” recalled Burnett, in a 1980 oral history interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “And then my mother had painted an apple at some point in her life and had that hanging on the wall. And it seemed to be a very accurate depiction of an apple to me… and I always thought that was kind of miraculous to be able to do that sort of thing.”

So, fortunately, for the rest of us, Burnett began to do that sort of thing. The aspiring artist graduated from the Massachusetts School of Art in 1942, spent some time in the war effort, and then received his M.F.A. from Boston University in 1960 before teaching at a number of institutions including the Massachusetts College of Art and the DeCordova Museum. He would spend a lifetime creating and teaching art, with his work exhibited extensively throughout the United States in galleries and museums including the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum.

Calvin Burnett | Sojourner Truth (I’ll Keep You Scratchin’), circa 1964
Color lithograph on cream wove paper, Prints & Graphic Art, 737×518 mm; 29×20 3/8 inches, Signed, 9/15


Ultimately, Burnett’s compelling and artistic life trajectory was something he largely attributed to the foundational and unfaltering open mindedness of his parents.

“My father wanted me to go to Harvard and get a liberal arts education, and I thought it might be better to go to art school,” noted Burnett, in his Smithsonian interview. At the time, he explained, one of his friends “was an artist and we both were in the same art class and we both were good… Now, both of our fathers wanted us to go to Harvard, and his father had the money and forced him to go. My father said I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Burnett went on to reveal that his friend completed his studies at Harvard and subsequently became a lawyer in Boston.

“But he didn’t want to go to Harvard, and he had a nervous breakdown,” continued Burnett, noting his friend “had a very hard life after he recovered. Whereas I went to art school and immediately liked it and enjoyed it. And from that point on, I’ve liked all kinds of studying and everything about learning since then.”

Painter, designer, and illustrator Calvin Burnett died in 2007 in his home state of Massachusetts.

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