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James O. Burnley relaxes in his studio on Riverside Drive during a 2002 interview. File Photo by Margaret A. Ontl

Longtime Hudson resident and artist dies

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News River Falls,Wisconsin 54022
Hudson Star Observer
Longtime Hudson resident and artist dies
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

In this business some things stick in your mind. For me I remember the first time I photographed James O. Burnley, known to most in town as Jim. It was when he had created a pen and ink sketch of his church, First Presbyterian.


From the start, it was made clear to me he was a man of considerable renown and very particular about his art and photos. Over the next two decades, I came to know him and his wife, Ede, as well as son David and his wife, Ellie. I learned that while he was particular, he was also passionate about his artwork and continued to paint until shortly before his death on Sunday.

While he had a significant military career, it is his artwork that made its mark on Hudson - whether it was a set he painted for a high school play or a painting for the Hudson Home and Garden Club to sell as prints to fund their hanging flower baskets downtown.

Good friend and neighbor Warren Pagel said he photographed the hanging baskets at Tartan Park to give Burnley some idea of what the club had in mind.

During a 2002 interview, Burnley told of his interest in art.

"This wonderful lady, Del Miller, gave me all her art supplies - paints, brushes, canvas and easels," said Burnley of his high school art instructor. She really encouraged me to go on. I wasn't a football player or anything of that sort when I was in high school.

"It was during the Depression and there wasn't any money for college so I entered an art competition." Burnley was 17 at the time.

"It was kind of funny. The contest was to draw a picture of the model," said Burnley. "She came into the room and dropped all of her clothes. Boy was I surprised, but I won the contest."

Winning gave him a one-year scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. He earned scholarships for the rest of his four years and after graduation earned a year's entrance to the Art Students League in New York City.

"After that I worked as a starving artist until I was drafted in 1941," said Burnley, who ended up making a career out of military service.

"I did just about nothing except sketches while I was in the military. I was always too busy so I only painted when I was on leave."

In 1966, Burnley retired from the military and moved to Hudson, where both his mother and father had lived. He completed several commissions for local residents, including portraits, still lifes and landscapes.

Burnley's home was designed around a studio that features two-story windows facing north, the best light. Shelves of art books lined one wall while paintings of every size and stage are placed around the room, some on easels and others leaning against the walls. Although Burnley had painted with watercolor and acrylics, oils were his favorite medium.

While many people take photos while on vacation, Burnley actually took his studio with him. A bit of an inventor, he has a steel tackle box filled with paints, brushes and palettes as well as an easel to hold small canvases.

A shelf holds dozens of small paintings he has created throughout the world, each one labeled on the back as to where and when it was painted. He also had stacks of sketchbooks of varying sizes, which are filled with work dating back to his time in the service. All are dated, signed and labeled as to the location. The subjects are varied, from landscapes to personality sketches to national landmarks.

"I really like impressionist art," said Burnley. "It is not so detailed and is much quicker to create.

"I do a lot from memory. Where ever I go I make a sketch. I try to do it when the subjects are not looking."

Military career

Jim Burnley was drafted into the Army in 1941, served 27 years that included World War II and the Korean War, and retired as a lieutenant colonel. This is part of an interview also done in 2002 with the Burnleys by Jon Echternacht

Wife and mother Ede lived through it all and traveled to faraway places with her career Army husband.

"I was 27 years old when I was drafted in June of 1941, before Pearl Harbor," said Jim during a conversation at his home on Lake Mallalieu.

When he got the notice, he came to his parents' home in Hudson before he was inducted. "We left Hudson on the bus. The Hudson High School band gave us a send-off," Jim said.

He went in as a private, was promoted to corporal and decided to go to Officers Candidate School. When he got his second lieutenant bars, Ede felt it was time to marry him.

"We got married on the banks of the St. Croix River," said Ede, "on the Minnesota side."

Ede, a native of St. Paul, explained that the marriage license they had wasn't good in Wisconsin and they didn't realized it until almost the day of the wedding. To solve the problem, they got married in Minnesota by her pastor.

"Then we came over to Hudson and had another service at Central Presbyterian Church," said Jim. That was June 10, 1943.

Eventually, Jim joined a combat engineer battalion and headed to the war in Europe. The trip across the Atlantic was in the Queen Mary with 15,000 troops. They landed in Scotland.

He moved through France, Belgium and was in Germany when VE Day arrived.

Jim said his unit was then ordered to Japan. "We were in the middle of the Atlantic when we heard the war ended," he said. "The ship turned right around and headed for New York."

He left active service in 1945, but stayed in the reserves with the 373rd Engineer Panel Bridge Company organized in Hudson. "We met at the Dibbo Hotel," he said. The company started with about 24 World War II vets.

In August 1950, the whole company was called to active duty for the Korean conflict.

"The company built up to 90 men and 90 vehicles," Jim said. They were sent to California then got orders to Germany.

The call-up for Korea more or less made Jim a career Army man. He did a tour in Korea in 1956-57, served a lot of intermittent time in Chicago and returned to Germany in 1962.

Jim retired on June 30, 1966.

Riverside Studio Gallery

In 2006 Riverside Studio Gallery was launched.

"It really came to mind when I did the painting of Hudson's hanging baskets -- that perhaps there are people who would like prints of my paintings," said Burnley. The painting he created in 2002 was a fund-raiser to help expand and maintain the hanging flower baskets in downtown Hudson.

It was shortly after that when Jim, with the help of his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Ellie, started to assess the scope of his work.

"It is a way of mixing colors, trying to give some feeling of reality to the scenes," said Burnley of what he enjoys about painting. "I'm just fortunate to have a reason to paint."

His favorite subjects were portraits of people and animals.

"I like to make them better than they were," said Burnley of his retouching. "On a painting of my mother, I painted flowers over her arms because I did not like how they turned out."

"I wish I could paint like Rembrandt," said Burnley. "But I'm not that good."

"It's all his idea (Jim's) as a way to share his artwork for the first time," said Ellie. "People can select the print and order it in the size they want and can afford."

"I hope some of the people will recognize a familiar scene, and it will bring back memories for them of when they visited the same place," said Burnley.

Today, Riverside Studio Gallery, located at 406 S. Second St., offers over 300 of Jim Burnley's prints. His last visit to the gallery was in December for a grand opening to kick off the holiday season. During that time he visited with friends and talked about a painting he was trying to improve on.

If you have never visited, take the opportunity to see the amazing depth of his work. James O. Burnley left a tremendous legacy in his artful interpretation of life.

He was also a founding member of the Valley Arts Guild, the precursor to The Phipps Center for the Arts. There are over 29 entries on his card file at the Hudson Star-Observer starting in 1950 through 2002 when the late Willis Miller stopped indexing every issue of the paper.

For a complete obituary, see page 3C of this week's print edition. The full obituary will also be online beginning Friday morning.