Editorial: Heroic creativity offers glimpse inside life of ‘outsider’ artist, Genevieve Mae Burnett

Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2015

It was never easy being Genevieve Mae Burnett. She was 6 when her family took her to a psychologist to figure out why she heard things others didn’t. A few years later, this child’s struggle received a label: paranoid schizophrenia.

Burnett refused to let illness define her, though its burden was savage and inescapable, damaging her physically and pushing her into a life apart. The child who loved to draw kept trying to make sense of her world.

When she died Nov. 5 in Northampton at the age of 70, Burnett left an enormous body of artistic work — more than 700 paintings — with the Anchor House of Artists, the Northampton center run by Michael Tillyer that had been her representative, her champion and her spiritual home.

Burnett also left journals that may be woven into a posthumous autobiography. A senior at Hampshire College, Jo O’Lone-Hahn, is organizing Burnett’s writing — spiral notebooks with musings, lists and poems. The material goes back as far as 1959, when Burnett was 14.

In one journal entry, Burnett wrote: “Then again I can see a lot of things. But what I see is not necessary ‘Real.’ Only the shadows reflected in my mind, I can’t see the molecules.”

The paintings and drawings Burnett produced over the decades are categorized by collectors and agents as “outsider art.” If that sounds dismissive, it isn’t meant to be. It is art against the odds. It is art with an asterisk; art that contains a story of its own, whether that story can be detected by the viewer or not.

Burnett’s illness was there as she worked, with every brush or pencil stroke. Schizophrenia was her greatest obstacle and, in the end, her abiding subject. In his eulogy for Burnett Nov. 14, Tillyer said she fought to continue creating art against the chorus of internal voices insisting she was “no good.” “Genevieve’s art is a testament to her fortitude,” Tillyer said.

Over the years they collaborated, Tillyer helped Burnett get her paintings into galleries and collections in urban centers like New York and Boston, bringing her vision to an audience. They found strength together. Without his backing, and this recognition from a fellow artist, Burnett might not have been able to continue. But she did keep painting, on her own and with others, coming to the Anchor House on Pleasant Street to sit on the floor, set up a short easel and create.

She painted friends, particularly her black-and-white cat Mike. And she painted spaces inside the former Northampton State Hospital — bare walls, naked lightbulbs — evoking isolation and abandonment.

One former state hospital patient who attended Burnett’s memorial service recalled the loneliness, dread and fear that permeated the place, saying of her friend, “she captures it perfectly in her art.”

Often, the value of an artist’s work rises after death. Burnett’s paintings deserve to reach an even wider audience. Some will find her works, whether they be still lifes, portraits or scenes, compelling just as they are, regardless of the artist who created them. Others see the special value they represent as outsider art. They will study her canvases trying to grasp the world this woman witnessed and feel the pain she endured.

At her burial this month at the Wildwood Cemetery in Amherst, friends dusted the ground with pastel chalk. Its traces will fade, but Genevieve Mae Burnett’s art is an enduring gift to all.


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