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Ad man makes the move from accounts to acrylics

Rodney Burlingame quits his day job to focus on the love for painting

Sarah Rothberg

In 2013, Burlingame churned out about one painting a week.

April 3, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

During three decades in the advertising business, Rodney Burlingame mastered the art of taking something ordinary and finding new ways to get your attention. Now, he has turned his attention to painting, but he hasn’t lost his touch.  

Like finding the right way to sell a product, he works from photographs, adding to and changing scenarios to fit his vision. In his capable hands, something as mundane as a haircut becomes personal and humorous.
“A little off the top” is Burlingame’s smirking portrait of his 11-year-old nephew. Above him, a sign on the wall promises a double espresso and a free kitten to unattended children; a gray kitten in the corner backs up the threat.

The Discerning Eye

Where: The Ashby-Hodge Gallery, Fayette
When: Through May 3
Cost: Free
Call: 660-248-6304
Online: The Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art

Burlingame work grabs people and prompts them to take a second look. His relatable characters and carefully chosen details make each piece engaging.

Raised in Columbia, he studied commercial art at Southwest Missouri State University, now Missouri State, and graduated in 1974. From there, with a little help from professor and mentor Bill Armstrong, Burlingame took a job in Boston.

He spent 33 years in the city as an art director for various companies and created products for clients including the American Lung Association and Harvard University.

Now, mostly retired and living in Columbia, Burlingame devotes his time to his art by producing a new piece almost every week.

Fashionable women, bright city scenes and vibrant vignettes of Cape Cod vacations now act as testaments to his decades on the East Coast. Paintings in the style of Norman Rockwell hint at time spent illustrating.

Rodney Burlingame continues to create wonderfully weird paintings such as “Flapjacks for Gavyn” in his home studio. Not for sale, his pieces remain a part of his private collection.

“While I was in the advertising field, I really didn’t have whole lot of time to do anything else other than work,” he says. “I really hadn’t had a chance to delve into it at all until now.”

From an Amish funeral procession to a small-town barber shop, every scene is a glance into the everyday, a moment captured in bright acrylics. In the past year, Burlingame made 50 pieces.

When Burlingame’s “Bus stop” won two first place titles at the Fayette Festival of the Arts in 2013, his work caught the attention of Joseph Geist, the supervisor of the collection at Central Methodist University’s Ashby-Hodge Gallery.

He approached Burlingame about doing a show, and in January, “The Discerning Eye” exhibit opened at the gallery. The show runs through May 3 and features 39 pieces, 37 of which were painted in 2013.

“When people walk in, they’re just taken off their feet,” Geist says of Burlingame’s work. “In these winter doldrums that we get in, this brings us a piece of spring and summer. It’s a bright show, a colorful show, and it definitely makes people feel good.”

Burlingame’s paintings had a similar effect on customers at Boone County National Bank, where his art showed from Nov. 26 to Jan. 3. Bill Costello, relationship management officer, says that people were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the relatable characters in Burlingame’s work.

“It’s either someone that you recognize or someone that you want to be or aspire to be,” Costello says.

Especially enthused patrons can order prints of Burlingame’s paintings, but purchasing the original is not an option. He refuses to put his paintings up for sale, at least not right now.

“I’d rather have all my paintings, especially the ones that are better, to create a show than to have some of them having been sold earlier and not being able to show them,” he says.

For now, the paintings will continue to grace the walls of the gallery and fill Burlingame’s home.

A smiling woman in sunglasses holds her small dog in a hall. A couple ballroom dances high on a wall. In his living room, a polo match and a game of croquet are in full swing. Even so, Burlingame continues to create new pieces.

“Who was it that said something like, ‘Learning to paint takes just a little bit more than a lifetime?’” he says. “That’s kind of what it is. Keep on keeping on. Even if you don’t get great at it, it’s the process that’s fun.”

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