JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Burt Calkins Was One Cool Dude

Most of you didn’t know Burt Calkins. Too bad. He was one of the most interesting men I ever knew. Not that I knew him well. Nobody did. He was one of those characters who just drifted in and out of your life, and each time it was an enjoyable experience.

Burt Culkins died last week from lung cancer.
Burt Culkins died last week from lung cancer.

I guess I came to Burt about halfway through his life (maybe mine, too, although I don’t know yet when the halfway point was — or will be). By then, he was a drifter, following his muse, barely surviving by using his wits and his God-given talent as an artist. I think he spent much of the last few years living in a little camper trailer somewhere in the Southwestern desert.

Lung cancer got him last week. His son, Craig, told Burt’s best friend, Gary Williamson  —  who Burt worked for back in the 1970s or ’80s, I think — that Burt was moving into hospice last week. A few days later, I got an e-mail from Gary telling me he was dead. His obituary was in Wednesday’s Bismarck Tribune. You can read it here.

But let me add a little about Burt’s life.

I think our paths first crossed in the 1980s, when I was North Dakota Tourism director. That job landed me a spot on the North Dakota Centennial Commission, a group of about 20 of us with a small staff, tasked with putting on a celebration of our state’s first 100 years.

Burt Calkins designed the North Dakota Centennial logo.
Burt Calkins designed the North Dakota Centennial logo.

One of our first jobs was to create a Centennial logo.   We held a contest. Burt won. I think he got some royalties when it was used on items for sale, but it wasn’t much.

Then, a couple years later, it was time for a new license plate, which lasted more than 20 years.

Burt Calkins's “Two Sentinels.”
Burt Calkins’s “Two Sentinels.”

Burt brought me a print of a new piece of work he had done called “Two Sentinels.” It was a bison in front of Sentinel Butte. The folks in the Motor Vehicle Department liked it, so Burt adapted it to fit the blue- and-gold color scheme, and it became our new license plate in 1993. (Note: In an earlier blog about license plates, I gave the people at 3M credit for the design. Burt was quick to let me know that he had done the design himself.)

Burt’s Calkins' license plate design lasted more than 20 years.
Burt’s Calkins’ license plate design lasted more than 20 years.

Anyway, we’ve been looking at “Two Sentinels” on the back of the car in front of us for more than 20 years, thanks to Burt.

It’s a helluva a lot better than that piece of garbage they’re selling now. It’s fitting that Burt and the license plate are leaving at the same time. They can design a new license plate (although not very well), but nobody can design another Burt Calkins.

Burt Calkins' “Elkhorn Rendezvous.”
Burt Calkins’ “Elkhorn Rendezvous.”

We stayed in touch over the years as Burt wandered around the country, setting up as an “artist in residence” at a series of state and national parks, including a summer in Medora, N.D., when he first painted “Elkhorn Rendezvous” — a magnificent bull elk looking down from the top of the Little Missouri River bank at the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt’s home in the North Dakota Bad Lands.

I bumped into him in South Dakota one summer in the 1990s, where he was artist in residence at Custer State Park in the Black Hills.  This was a very productive period in Burt’s life, a time when he focused on wildlife, mostly. He had a good quality print shop doing prints of his originals, and he made some money selling them at the various park gigs.

I was visiting with him in the welcome center at the park one day as tourists examined his paintings. One fellow came over and said “I really like pronghorn antelope. You got any paintings of them?”

Without missing a beat, Burt said “Yeah, but it’s back at my cabin.  I can bring it over here tomorrow morning if you want to come by and look at it.”

“How much?” the fellow asked.

“I think that one is $300, but I’ve had it for a while, so I’ll let you have it for $250,” Burt replied.

“You’ve got a deal, if I like it,” the man replied as he was leaving.

When the guy was out the door, Burt turned to me and said “Jim, you’re going to have to excuse me. I’ve got about 18 hours to paint an antelope.”

And he did. He could do that.

He worked long into the night, and when I came by at 9 the next morning, there it was, on an easel in the lobby, the watercolors nearly dry. And it was spectacular. I wish I could show it to you, but the guy came by and bought it, so no prints were ever made of it. He did another antelope painting though, this one in winter, and you can see it on his website, which I hope his son Craig is now operating until the paintings and prints are all gone.

Burt was a darned good artist. Really good at wildlife. I have an original on my wall of sandhill cranes landing in a field. It is in a place of honor in our dining room.

Burt was one of the few of my friends who actually chose to do letters to communicate instead of e-mails. Burt was as gifted a writer as he was a painter, and I saved some of them because of the quality of the writing. The last one I got was last summer, and I could tell it was a troubling time in his life (although he was 75 years old, and troubles are easy to accumulate at that age).

“I tried to answer the e-mail you sent me this spring but my virus ware wouldn’t let me open the attachment, and then when I sent a text to reply to the text message, it said it was undeliverable,” he wrote (technology passed Burt by a few years ago).

“I was going through a lot of medical shit at the time and didn’t try again. I finally got some of your numbers from Slim (Gary Williamson). Since Christmas, I’ve been doing nothing but going back and forth from Socorro to the VA in Albuquerque. Everything from A fib, irregular heart beat, to kidney stones to blood in my stool. I’ve had EKG’s, echocardiograms, stress tests, colonoscopies and much more. I made it through it all and got lucky as far as anything terminal. So I’m back in the world for now.”

But later in his rambling letter, he wrote “I’m still active in the arts to a degree. Enclosed my latest Smoke and Mirrors Gallery profile. Looks good, but my ship has never really come in, so I struggle away here in the desert. Soon it won’t make much difference.”

I puzzled over that last sentence for a while, then put the letter aside. He said he would give me a call when he came in the fall to hunt, but that call never came. I guess he must have known about the cancer then but decided not to tell me. He was pretty isolated out there in the desert, and he probably never told anyone. There was a lot of stoicism in that guy — he was not a whiner.

Burt’s website is still active — I’m guessing his son, Craig, is looking after it. There’s a good bit of art on display there, but there’s no way, that I can find, to buy it online. I laugh every time I look at it.

There’s a page labeled “Testimonials,” but when you click on it, you go to a page with a big headline that says Testimonials, and then, under that, in small type, it says “No testimonials yet.” I’ll update this blog if I find out how to buy Burt’s stuff, in case you’re interested.

Burt Calkins was one cool dude. I can’t say that I will miss him, because we spent very little time together the last 10 years or so. But the world will miss him.

Leave a Reply