Preserving art and a life: Anchor House of Artists recognizes the work of Genevieve Burnett

  • Jo O’Lone-Hahn, left, and Michael Tillyer of Anchor House of Artists have worked to preserve the legacy and work of one of Anchor’s key artists, the late Genevieve Burnett.

  • Genevieve Burnett painted the more somber self-portrait at right based on the photo that Michael Tillyer took of her. Photo by Noah Baustin

  • Genevieve Burnett painted contrasting bedrooms — a peaceful one, another seemingly portraying chaos — that charted some of her struggles with mental illness. Photo by Noah Baustin

  • Photo by Noah Baustin Photo by Noah Baustin

  • Image courtesy Anchor House of Artists Image courtesy Anchor House of Artists

  • “Behind Mike,” acrylic painting by Genevieve Burnett. Image courtesy Anchor House of Artists

For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 18, 2019

The last piece of art Genevieve Burnett created was an embroidery picture of her cat, Pipsqueak. The beginning of her stay in hospice had been filled with oil paints, but as her lung cancer progressed, even painting became too much of a strain. One of the nurses saw Burnett’s decline and bought her an embroidery set.

“So Genevieve takes that, completely ignores the pattern on the thing, and essentially paints with it,” said Michael Tillyer. He gestured to the embroidery, which now hangs in his office. “It’s just loaded with thread and the threads overlap and they blend … You can imagine the woman in her hospital bed with a dark, single light above the bed, just working away on that.

“Like an artist,” Tillyer added. “She was an artist. She didn’t need a pattern.”

Tillyer, the founding director of Northampton’s Anchor House of Artists, knew Burnett, who died in 2015, very well. Tillyer started the organization in 1997 to provide a place where artists who struggled with mental illness, as Burnett did, could find support for their work and also fight the stigma associated with their illness.

One of Burnett’s greatest fears, Tillyer noted, “was that she would pass from this world and all her things would go into the dumpster.” Now Anchor House has made sure that won’t happen. Not only has the gallery and support organization saved over 700 of Burnett’s artworks, it has also preserved thousands of pages of journals she had kept since she was a teenager.

In a project that took years, Anchor House’s archivist, Jo O’Lone-Hahn, has annotated and organized Burnett’s writing and also composed a book of poetry that closely follows, and often directly quotes from, the journals. “Essence of All Before Us: The Life of Genevieve Burnett” is now on exhibit at the Conz Street gallery along with several of Burnett’s paintings.

As an artist living with schizophrenia and a long-time friend of Tillyer, Burnett was deeply involved with Anchor House for many years. Tillyer fondly remembers the times she would take up her favorite position: sitting cross-legged on the studio floor for hours while she painted.

“You could see her hand flicking with the paint and she’d be painting around, then she’d stop, completely still for long moments,” Tillyer said “Then the brush would start flicking and she would begin again.”

Some of Burnett’s work, now on permanent display at Anchor, gives us a glimpse into what she may have been reflecting upon during those moments of pause, such as two paintings of beds juxtaposed with each other.

One shows her childhood bedroom, a peaceful setting with a large, fluffy bed in the center of the room and white curtains framing a double window. By contrast, the second painting, done about 20 years later and titled “Schizophrenic Bed,” features a room with a tiny, barred window and a bed with tangled sheets and seemingly melting legs, all of it rendered in what O’Lone-Hahn calls “anxiety inducing yellow” and “harsh dark greens.”

Burnett, who was born into a wealthy family in Amherst in 1945, would later spend time in the former Northampton State Hospital and other psychiatric institutions, and her paintings reflected her struggles and her fraying relationship with her family, Tillyer noted.

“Seeing those two paintings together, it’s like a before and after,” he said. “It kind of looks like the intervening period was entire warfare.”

“[Genevieve’s] whole life was a challenge,” Tillyer added. “She lived on her own, stigmatized by her outsider nature … [feeling that her life] had been marked in a dark way.”

Art that stands on its own

But while some of these dark paintings may draw the eye, Tillyer and O’Lone-Hahn discourage defining Burnett’s artistic legacy in terms of her work dealing explicitly with mental illness. O’Lone-Hahn pointed out, “She was just painting from life itself, and the institutions were part of her life. I don’t think she really set out to be a painter with a specific message about that. I think she was more concerned, in a spiritual sense, with painting life and the world.”

Burnett’s work and her legacy are a vital part of Anchor House of Artists, Tillyer and O’Lone-Hahn say, because they symbolize much of what the organization and gallery are all about — striking a balance between creating a space for artists living with diagnoses of mental illness while avoiding reducing their work to that of “outsider artists.”

“I don’t focus on mental illness when I think of Genevieve,” Tillyer said emphatically. And O’Lone-Hahn added, “She was a person who was suffering from schizophrenia … and that was very hard for her. But she was an infinite number of other things, too. Her work is just so broad … and she painted for probably 60 years almost every day, painted on a number of subjects, and was constantly focusing on art history and composition.”

And, Tillyer noted, “[Isn’t] the important thing about people … who they are and their humanity? The other parts of our life are incidental.”

Indeed, he’s less concerned about the public perception of art produced at Anchor House. More important to him is that there’s a space where artists like Burnett can feel comradeship, community and encouragement to continue their artistic journeys.

Yet Burnett’s work did receive some significant recognition during her lifetime. Years of exhibitions at community institutions like churches and hospitals turned into shows at local galleries such as Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Historic Northampton and, of course, the Anchor House of Artists.

Burnett also had some showings in major markets including New York City and Washington, D.C. The zenith of her career was likely when her work was featured in a nationally acclaimed exhibit called “Truth from Darkness: An Exhibition of Works by Artists with Mental Illness,” which traveled to 15 American cities.

O’Lone-Hahn said Burnett was so thrilled to be featured that when the show reached Colorado, she made a spontaneous decision to attend the opening. Ironically, after a whirlwind of driving, “She was so tired when she got there that she fell asleep and she slept through the exhibit.”

A self-portrait of Burnett hangs at Anchor House next to a photo of her that Tillyer took. In the photo, Burnett is smiling; Tillyer explains that Burnett caught a glimpse of a bird out the window and cracked a grin just long enough for him to make the shot.

In the painting, however, Burnett has transformed her grin into a look of solemn contemplation. Scars on her forehead, from years of shaving off the widow peak that she worried was demonic, are barely visible in the photo. In the painting, they stand out as deep red splotches.

“She didn’t bother to hide … the wrinkles of her face or of her neck. She didn’t hide that at all, and she didn’t hide the abrasions on her forehead,” Tillyer said. “There was also this real emptiness and tiredness … in that painting. I think it looks like exhaustion … I think the painting actually has everything that was going on in the photograph that was unseen.”

Few could blame Burnett for feeling a sense of exhaustion at the end of her life. But in her art, at least, she was able to capture truths that the lens could not. For an artist, that’s a legacy she undoubtedly could be proud of.