11:01 AM CST, January 25, 2013
As you begin to read this story about Fred Burkhart, Fred Burkhart may be dead.
That's a shock, I know, but it is what it is. In August, Burkhart was told that the prostate cancer he has been living with and fighting for more than three years had spread, and it was likely to take his life within six months. You can do the math.
But a little more than a week ago, the 71-year-old Burkhart was almost buoyant.
"I've had a broken back, was almost killed by the Ku Klux Klan," he said. "I had a stroke in 1988. I take this cancer as a warning sign: 'Burkhart, you better straighten out you life.' I have become a full-time vegan, I have let the anger and frustration go, and the stress is down. I am hoping … no, I am expecting to be moving on, gaining new insights into life."
He said this the day before the Jan. 19 opening of "Burkhart's Underground" at Alibi Fine Art, 1966 W. Montrose Ave. (alibifineart.com), a gathering of more than 50 black-and-white photos that Burkhart has taken in his long and wild and unconventional career.
It is his first gallery show, and the photos are of what might be called marginalized people, or, as he puts it, "ordinary people who have set themselves up to be a minority."
The title of the exhibition is taken from the gatherings that Burkhart ran a dozen years or so ago out of the basement of his home near the corner of Halsted Street and Diversey Parkway. It was a salon of sorts — no booze, no drugs — that attracted an array of young writers and artists.
"I had no nurturing when I was young, so I thought this was the perfect thing to do," he says. "I tried to put together my own family a couple times, and it didn't work out. So I opened my home/studio to fill a void: All you kids, come on in."
One of those kids was Bill Hillmann, a former Golden Gloves boxer, writer and the creator of the Windy City Story Slam, a live storytelling competition (windycitystoryslams.wordpress.com).
"I found the Burkhart Underground shortly after I served a 90-day sentence in County Jail for a violent outburst," says Hillmann, frankly, via email. "I was an incommunicable-tuff and had no venue to express myself. I found a kindred spirit in Burkhart and a venue for my writing. It served as a conduit for all the anger and passion that coursed through me. The crowds didn't always pat me on the back or give big applause, but I slowly honed my craft and built confidence there.
"He has influenced every single one of my creative endeavors. He showed me a way to live through your art and to make a life in it. I owe Fred a tremendous debt. I'd spend endless hours flipping through the dozens of milk crates full of his photos on his enclosed front porch. It inspired me that such high art could be made out of documenting people like the homeless. It made me believe I could make high art out of the things I endured in my life. Burkhart is an unknown world-class photographer, a guru, an original and a living legend. I'm very grateful to call him my friend."
Hillmann's friend has had a fascinating life. He does not much like to talk about his early years — born in Cincinnati, adopted into a middle-class home, reform school (twice) — before arriving in Chicago as a teenager in the early 1960s. He spent his time here living hand to mouth and visiting all the art museums and galleries that he could. The works there inspired him to start painting.
In 1965 he moved to New York.
"I had a style similar to pop art," he says. "I was able to sell my stuff for as much as $1,000, an incredible amount of money in those days."
But he drifted into drugs and booze and away from New York and from painting. He wound up in California, and that is where he first picked up a camera.
"I wound up selling paintings in California, selling them for $10 so I could get a drink," he says. "I began to realize how shallow my life had been as a painter. It kept me apart from the rest of the world. With photography I was face to face with people."
He was drawn to the outsiders.
"These relationships were defining me," he says. "I was looking for a family that I never had. And in every community I could find a kindred spirit. If you get past the politics, religion or sexual orientation, you will discover that the people in any group love their families and they love their ideas, even though they may hate every one else."
He spent a great deal of time photographing the Ku Klux Klan until one day a member asked, "When are you going to join us, bro?"
"I'd join the Girl Scouts before I joined you clowns," Burkhart replied.
That led to the aforementioned beating that "nearly left me dead in a hotel room."
He has been in Chicago for more than three decades and is currently living in the Uptown neighborhood in one room with a group of Jesus People, a Christian communal community, surrounded by the artwork of a lifetime.
"Taking pictures of the people I am living with is very different from my street photography," he says. "I have found a home with these people. So what I am creating is like a family scrapbook.
"I have never been influenced by other photographers but by people. I have never taken a picture. I have been given a picture. It is not necessary to take when given. People trust me. All they have is their identity, and they hand it to me, and they want me to hand it back with understanding."
He says that he has been feeling weak but adds, "My art is about healing, I see a full life."
Amen to that.
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