Vernon Burwell's Sculpture Garden(1916 - 1990)
723 East Highland Avenue, Rocky Mount, 27801, United States
1976 to 1990
The site is no longer extant; however, both the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) and the High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Georgia) have work by Burwell in their collections.
About the Artist/Site
Vernon Burwell was born April 28, 1916 to a sharecropping family on a tobacco and cotton farm near Rocky Mount in northeastern North Carolina. At the age of thirteen, he was orphaned. He spent the rest of his unstable childhood moving from farm family to farm family – seven in total. Burwell married in 1942, and he and his wife had five children. In 1943, he began working for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad as a janitor. He eventually began assisting a mechanic, and after attending night school, he was promoted to mechanic himself. He worked for the railroads for 33 years and retired when he began to develop diabetes-related health problems.
Poet and founder of the Jargon Society Jonathan Williams once interviewed Burwell while traveling through the South in search of manifestations of vernacular art and culture. (These ramblings with Roger Manley and Guy Mendes have since been captured in the 2019 publication Walks to the Paradise Garden edited by Phillip March Jones.)
Jonathan Williams: “So why, Mr. Burwell, did you suddenly in 1976 decide to start making human figures out of cement?”
Vernon Burwell: “Well, I just decided I would try to make something.”
Burwell found inspiration for his cement figures all around him, saying, “I like to do animals, famous people, Indians, Africans, birds, members of my family. Sometimes I just look in books–anything.” Two of his animal sculptures, a leopard and a tiger, are in the collection of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, has Burwell’s busts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Burwell created multiple sculptures of Martin Luther King, Jr., including a large piece where he is astride a rearing horse. He said of this dynamic work, “It was great excitement to the people here in the neighborhood. I had Dr. King out there on the corner of my lot in a blue suit of clothes and a necktie. People would stop to look–I thought to myself, somebody is going to have an accident. Somebody did! Came right up on the grass and broke it up. Fellow across the street liked it so much, he asked could he have the head.”
While the first iteration of several of his sculptures featured color palettes based in reality – for example Dr. King in a blue suit riding a brown horse and a rendering of Jesus wearing a brown robe and holding a white lamb – when Burwell’s vision began to fail due to cataracts, he painted over these pieces with a gold paint tinged with green, giving them the appearance of oxidized bronze. The faux-patina lends the work a sort of classical gravitas, aligning the work with sculptures from antiquity he may have discovered through his research. He eventually had surgery to remove the cataracts and returned to painting his sculptures in full color with automobile paint.
Burwell passed away in 1990. In addition to the sculptures appearing in the collections of JMKAC and the High Museum, Burwell’s work is occasionally appears at auction. No evidence of the work remains at the home on East Highland Avenue.
Williams, Jonathan, et al. Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey. Edited by Phillip March Jones, Institute 193, 2019.
Manley, Roger. Signs and Wonders: Outside Art Inside North Carolina. North Carolina Museum of Art, 1989.
concrete, paint, mixed media
Map & Site Information
723 East Highland Avenue, 27801
Latitude/Longitude: 35.946688 / -77.7844754
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