Oral history project captures Weir's legacy

by Joan Lownds

Senior Staff Writer

Charlie Burlingham’s home in Cambridge might be described as a movable feast of Weir Farm Art Center. Here, the grandson of Julian Alden Weir and president of Weir Farm Art Center is surrounded by “a veritable treasure trove of Weir family art … a visual banquet,” said Megan Smith-Harris, a Wilton documentary filmmaker who is in the process of creating a Weir Farm oral history project.

Janice Hess, executive director of Weir Farm Art Center, said the film is aimed at highlighting the life of Julian Alden Weir, with a special focus on his grandson.

“As Weir Farm National Historic Site moves forward with the renovation of the house, studios and property, we at Weir Farm Art Center are aware that a big part of Julian Alden Weir history has remained largely out of the public eye,” she said. “We wanted to document the works of art that reside in the home of our president, Charles Burlingham, and to also document his very interesting life.”

Toward this end, Ms. Smith-Harris and Ms. Hess shot footage at Weir Farm, and then headed to Cambridge to capture Mr. Burlingham’s memories and art collection on film.

“This project was an absolute joy to work on,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “Not only was Charlie Burlingham able to provide a wealth of information about his grandfather, Julian Alden Weir, but he was also able to share a rich history about life at Weir Farm since he spent a great deal of time there as a child. Charlie is a gifted raconteur, and his stories and anecdotes are truly captivating, so the editing process will be a lot of fun.”

Many of the paintings featured in the film are making rare public appearances. “They have not been displayed in public much, if at all,” according to Ms. Hess.

She said Ms. Smith-Harris and her company, Pyewackkit Productions, which includes award-winning cinematographer Laela Kilbourn, was tapped by Weir Farm because “our goal was to shoot excellent footage professionally, which we did this summer. … We feel we have the makings of a fascinating documentary film.”

Ms. Smith-Harris agreed. “There is definitely potential for a longer form documentary because there is such a rich vein of family history just waiting to be tapped into. Julian Alden Weir not only created memorable art, he inspired other artists to create memorable art. The property continues to inspire today’s artists through the fantastic residency program sponsored by the Weir Farm Art Center,” she said.

Weir Farm is the only national park service site dedicated to art.

The “preliminary film shoot” was funded by $5,000 from the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust, but Ms. Smith-Harris said more funding is needed to complete the project. “We need to raise an additional $20,000 to properly transcribe the interviews, log the footage, and professionally edit what we have with Emmy award-winning editor Jeff Reilly.”

When the film is finished, Ms. Hess said, “We do know for sure that it will be shown at Weir Farm National Historic Site, for the visitors. “We would also love to see it distributed on TV, and also to hold a premiere here in Wilton.”

Added Ms. Smith-Harris, “This is the perfect opportunity for any individual who loves film, art, history, and nature to make a big difference. This is a very special project and needs a champion, or champions … to move forward.”

No title has yet been selected for the film, she said.

What is the importance of preserving the memories of Weir Farm and the legacy of J. Alden Weir, especially as seen through the eyes of his grandson, Charles Burlingham?

“Weir Farm, with its three generations of artists living and working on its grounds, is a unique place, as evidenced by its designation as a national historic site by Congress,” Ms. Hess said. “The legacy of Julian Alden Weir as an artist, a friend, a mentor, and family man is lent nuance by Charlie Burlingham’s family paintings and family stories.”

Added Ms. Smith-Harris, “Speak to any of the artists who are lucky enough to be chosen for the residency program and you will instantly realize why it’s so important to preserve these memories. Weir Farm has a history of inspiring artists because is a magical place — there is so much to see in the flora, fauna which changes dramatically with the seasons. You just have to look.”

Although Julian Alden Weir died before Mr. Burlingham was born, he spent time at Weir Farm as a child with “his mother and aunts, surrounded by the family art and stories,” Ms. Hess said.

“Charlie knows so much about the family history, he really makes it all come alive,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “He tells the stories that he learned at the knee of his mother, father, aunts, and uncles, and I can assure you, these memories are rich and varied.”

He has a strong desire to preserve and promote his grandfather’s legacy, according to Ms. Smith-Harris. “I think he feels it’s both a privilege and his duty to make sure current and future generations understand what was going on in the art world at that very exciting time, and how Julian Alden Weir came to play such an important part in it. He was not only a painter but also an encourager, a great friend, and more.”

Mr. Weir’s reputation continues to grow. The new American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York features four Julian Alden Weir paintings. Wilton resident Joan Kaskell, an art historian and lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the important role the painter played in American art.

“Julian Alden Weir regularly lent his practical and artistic expertise to his many, many colleagues and friends,” she said. “A leader of his contemporaries, he was a founding member both of the Society of American Artists — the progressive painters and sculptors who disagreed with the conservatism of New York’s National Academy of Design — and 20 years later, of The Ten American Painters, consisting mainly of American Impressionists such as John H. Twachtman, Childe Hassam and Weir himself.”

Although Julian Alden Weir was recognized critically and commercially until his death in 1919, “he never associated with early 20th-Century trends, whether with the exploration of themes like the modern life of working people, or with radical movements like Cubism,” Ms. Kaskell said. “Neither an initiator nor an imitator, he responded to and created from various artistic ideas.”

However, Ms. Kaskell posed this question: “To be ‘important,’ must one be a pioneer? Looking back at the 50 years of Weir’s oeuvre, we can now appraise his substantial body of realized work in landscape, still life and portraiture, including his interpretations — for half his career — of French Impressionism, as well as of other contemporary influences, including, for example, those of Japanese prints.”

“A visit to his paintings in the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum begins to reveal the breadth of his oeuvre. When the rotating spotlight comes back to Weir, his excellence in the areas he chose will be recognized anew to highlight his place in American art.”

Does his grandson follow in the family artistic tradition?

“He will say he dabbles,” Ms. Hess said.

“That’s exactly what he says, but he’s being modest,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “He actually paid homage to his grandfather by doing a very fine copy of one of his paintings.”

As president of Weir Farm Art Center, Mr. Burlingham visits “for all our meetings, held several times a year,” Ms. Hess said.

“Having volunteered at Weir Farm in the past and helped to raise money for the current artist’s studio, it has been a real pleasure to be involved in this project,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “Now all we need is some funding to move forward.”

For information or to make a donation: www.weirfarmartcenter.org, or Weir Farm Art Center, 735 Nod Hill Road in Wilton.