Eoin Burke

Eoin Burke
Artist and Alumni, University of the Arts
and Yale University

The most expensive painting I ever had was a huge Larry Day. It was so large we had to rearrange the furniture to unroll it. Its paint was brittle and starting to crack, and the canvas, from the back, was the color of a coffee stain. There were even holes in the thing. It looked like it was from the ‘70s.

The painting had been leaning against the wall outside of a storage closet near the University of the Arts sculpture studios. I mistook it for the abandoned work of a grad student, not realizing that there was no grad program at the time. I thought the painting would look nice on a wall in my apartment, whenever I got an apartment with a wall big enough to put it on.

After leaning against a wall for a semester, the painting vanished. I, having an interest in the painting, found out that one of my peers had taken it, wanting, for some purpose that is beyond my comprehension, to paint on it. Why would a person think that painting over cracked paint or ancient canvas was a good idea? I will mark it up as laziness. I rescued the canvas, and I mean just the canvas — he kept the stretchers. They were not painted on and cracking, with small holes, like the actual painting.

So without knowledge of who did the painting, I left it rolled up in my studio with some hope of eventually having both a wall and a stretcher. My friend, a painter, discovered that there was a signature on it which turned out to be Larry Day’s — an accomplished painter who had taught at PCA before it was UArts. So I now felt morally obligated to get the painting to wherever it belonged. I took it out through the studio’s window into a waiting SUV, and transported it back to my house for the summer. I figured it belonged to me.

My mom’s concern about the questionable legal status of the whole thing, her frank disregard for it, and her desire not to have an enormous canvas cluttering up her house (where it had stayed most of the summer) finally prompted me to bring the painting back to my apartment. The Philadelphia Museum of Art seemed like a good idea; there, someone would know what to do with it. But I was in no hurry.

At school the next fall, I saw a lady cleaning out the closet and asked if she was missing a large painting. She went through rapid stages of shock and relief over the fact that the painting still existed. I told her I would gladly return it. Two weeks later the Development Office called me. It turns out that they didn’t just need the painting, they needed it ASAP. Day’s widow, a curator at the National Gallery in D.C., would be visiting the university soon, and they didn’t want her to find out an enormous painting by her late husband was missing.

The pictures I took the day I returned it came out really dark, even after Photoshop. And to complicate the whole matter, the camera batteries died after a few pictures. Now all that’s left from the whole event is a dark photograph. The thousand-dollar finder’s fee that I received was snatched by Financial Aid Office the moment I got it. The painting had to be worth more than a thousand dollars though. And if I hadn’t been under the moral, possibly legal, pressure, I sure wouldn’t have taken a thousand for it. Not because I was planning to resell it to finance an education or anything. It just seemed like a nice thing to have on a wall, whenever I got a wall.

Usually people don’t just misplace large works of art, and they are not easily lost. It just happens to be something I lost. Maybe I should have toted it off to the Museum. Maybe they would have let me keep it, because they already have too many paintings packed away and one on someone’s wall wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Published 5/2007

Eion Burke
University of the Arts
Yale University