Born in 1907 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Burton Callicott spent much his of childhood and his seventy-year career as an artist and educator in Memphis. Callicott graduated in 1931 from the Cleveland School of Art, where he began an exploration of the use of light and dark that would follow him throughout his life. He is perhaps best known regionally for his set of three large murals in the Memphis Pink Palace Museum titled The Coming of De Soto.
Completing his training in sculpture at the Cleveland School of Art in the midst of the Depression, Callicott returned to Memphis, where his mother and stepfather, Michael Abt, resided. The director of the western division of Tennessee’s Federal Works of Art Project, Abt played a major role in launching Callicott’s career. He put Callicott to work immediately on Memphis Cotton Carnival floats and displays for other Memphis festivals while also helping him secure a commission for a Public Works of Art Project mural in 1933. Installed in the Memphis Museum of Natural History (now the Memphis Pink Palace Museum), the three-panel mural depicts Hernando De Soto’s arrival in West Tennessee. Another of Callicott’s most recognized works, The Gleaners (1936), was completed during the early years of his career and received much attention at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. These early projects set Callicott off on a long and successful career in Memphis.
Callicott became a founding faculty member of the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art) in 1937. As Tennessee’s first professional art school, the Cleveland School of Art provided Callicott a solid base for the demanding program of instruction for the new school. He began as a teacher of sculpture and ceramics and went on to teach drawing, painting, and calligraphy. Making an impact on artists of local, regional, and national renown during his decades of teaching, Callicott became professor emeritus in 1978.
Callicott’s early interest in sculpture quickly shifted in the 1930s to painting and the depiction of light and color on natural objects, using the powerful expression of light to reflect the spiritual in nature. Frequently illustrating the racial inequalities of the South as seen in The Gleaners, his early work often took on the social realist tone of American Scene artists, as influenced by figures such as Jean-François Millet, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.
Although at first he was interested in the representation of volume in figurative forms, his introduction to the work of Hans Hoffmann in the 1940s encouraged him to pursue the flattened perspective of Abstract Expressionism in his later career. With this shift toward the abstract, he began to focus on images of sunlight and rainbows as a portrayal of the true spirit of light and color. Works such as Tree in the Sun (1950) and the Rainbow series (1970s) characterize the evolution of his later style.
Callicott’s works have been exhibited at various museums across the state and region, including the Cheekwood Museum of Art and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, the West Tennessee Regional Art Center in Humboldt, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University, the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. Samples of his artwork are on permanent display at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. The Tennessee Arts Commission chose to honor the work of Callicott in 2000 with a specialty license plate for which he designed a rainbow with the caption, “art is . . . a rainbow.” Callicott continued to live in Memphis until his death in 2003.
Celia Walker, “Painting in Twentieth-Century Tennessee,” in A History of Tennessee Arts, ed. Carroll Van West (2004): 99-125; “Century of Progress: Twentieth Century Painting in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 61 (2002): 4-73; Susan Knowles, “Sculpture in Tennessee, 2000 Years,” in A History of Tennessee Arts, ed. Carroll Van West, 57-78