Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2003

By Barbara Elleman, Reviewed By Vivienne Clark

virginia lee burton a life in art book cover

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art
by Barbara Elleman; Houghton Mifflin
Company: Boston, 2002; $20

I can still remember when my dad read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to me. In fact, my dad remembers when his mother read Mike Mulligan to him. Did you ever wonder what was the story behind the acknowledgment to Dickie Birkenbush at the bottom of a page in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel? Have you ever wondered if there was a real Mike? I did and found the answers in the book Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art. If you are curious, read the book to find the answers in the first chapter.

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art is Burton’s biography that describes her creativity and lifestyle. Energetic and amiable, Virginia kept busy from dawn to dusk, raising sheep, vegetables and two children on her New England farm. Abandoned by her mother as a teenager, she found emotional strength from her artwork, as well as her skill as a dancer. Burton created a home environment that promoted her artistic fervor, surrounding herself with artistic things and people. Her husband was, in fact, a well-known sculptor. Numerous photos that depict her life in art fill this book. I particularly like the one of her dancing on the giant granite picnic table in her backyard. In another photo, Virginia and her sons stand in front of the boys’ bedroom wall that shows hilly tracks and trains painted by their mother. The back cover shows an eye-catching picture of her uniquely decorated barn studio, only steps away from her house.

I admire Virginia because of her ability in handling the emotional stress of her mother’s abandonment. Despite the negative impact that this must have had on her, she created a happy life for herself and her family. Interviews with her sons, who never recalled any visible signs of distress from this sad event, proved her successful efforts. While I still have my mother, I want to follow Virginia’s example of not dwelling on negative aspects of her life, but living in the present and improving her future. It must have taken a lot of courage to remain positive without letting her inward feelings affect her outwardly. I probably could not do this, because, if I have a problem, I go to my mom. Without her, I would have a hard time coping.

Although Virginia was emotionally stronger than me, we are similar in several ways. Like me, her perfectionism made her constantly fix her work. If I’m doing a project and don’t like something about it, I mess with the mistake until it looks right. Sometimes, I end up making it worse. Virginia loved drawing, always sketching down ideas. When she took art and designing lessons, she had a long commute by rail, ferryboat and cable car. During those long hours, she sketched her unwary fellow passengers. I also enjoy sketching my friends and other people I meet. If I don’t have anyone to sketch, I draw people and animals from my imagination. Virginia read her stories to her children to test if they were interesting enough for them. I’m always testing my funny stories on my younger brother to see whether he will laugh. The hard part for me is writing the stories down on paper. It’s fun to read a biography about a person with whom I found much in common.

2003-11-12-virginia-lee-burton-a-life-in-art-vivienne-clark

Vivienne Clark, 10 Albuquerque, New Mexico

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