Burt Calkins Was One Cool Dude

Burt on "Dress-up day." Didn't happen very often.
Burt on “Dress-up day.” Didn’t happen very often.

March 5 Update: In an e-mail from Burt’s son, Craig, I learned there will be a brief service for Burt on Monday, March 7 at 10 a.m. at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery south of Mandan. Friends are invited to attend.

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.  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 yesterday’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.

One of our first jobs was to create a Centennial logo. 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.

Two Sentinels
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.)

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.

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

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.

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 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.Burts elk

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 ten years or so. But the world will miss him.

15 thoughts on “Burt Calkins Was One Cool Dude

  1. Jim……. This was the first thing I read this morning…. I sat back and closed my eyes for a moment; I don’t know what he looked like, but can picture him sitting in Custer state park painting to his hearts’ content ..Thank you for this lovely vision this fine morning ..Love you big brother!


  2. Many of us at Game and Fish were friends with Burt. Like you said, he would just show up and was often traveling. Art and the outdoors were his life.


  3. Sheldon Green.
    Burt did some art and design for me at Horizons magazine. Always good but I think he undercharged to get the work. He’d come in with stuff then disappear for months. He guided on Sakakawea for a spell. A fun guy to be around. Hard to pin down. Always brightened ever room he was in.


  4. Wow, beautiful. Made me tear up again. My husband and I have had the pleasure of knowing Burt for 15+ years. We own approximately 30 of his painting, many originals. I think, but don’t know for sure, that we have the last 2 pieces that he ever painted.
    I was the only one who was with Burt at the Sturgis VA when he got his cancer diagnosis. I wanted to go to New Mexico with him as he was starting to go through his treatment, but ole Burt wanted to do this alone, and he had many friends where he lived.
    I’ll miss his stories, meals he made and him
    He’ll always be alive and well when ever I look at the paintings on our way. Love and miss you Burt.


  5. Burt was our neighbor in the RV park when we first moved to Socorro, NM, where he was still residing up to the time we lost him. He used to call me the Trailer Park Queen, and found it very amusing that I was growing grass beside the little place we rented while our house was being built. I took time off work last Friday to go and visit my buddy Burt in the VA hospital. He was not doing very well, but he’d smile at the odd line I’d say trying to let him know I was there. He was very responsive to my son’s presence, when he was in the room with us. It was an honor to be there for him, at the end, and my husband and I will miss him. He would come for dinner with us now and again, the meadowlark print he gave us for a housewarming will now be even more special than before, if that’s possible


  6. Burt was my father’s cousin. We lived in California since the late 60’s but Burt made his way out here several times. They were pretty close, but as you say Burt wasn’t close to anyone. Dad and I both have Burt’s art. Burt showed my dad a a nameless painting and my dad gave it a name. They called it “Big Hat, Big Coat, Big Heart” It was of a cowboy on horseback in a bad snowstorm helping out a lost calf.
    Burt gave us a print for my wedding gift called “Tender Touches.” I cherish it more today. RIP cousin Burt!


  7. Jim,

    Burt was my brother-in-law. I knew him very well as he did me. We worked together, hunted together, drank together, shared together, commiserated together, and cried together.
    Thank you for the kind words. It’s enough to say he was a complicated creative mass of energy, and that energy is out there… waiting…



  8. Hi! Every one has said so much there is little I can add except like every one says Burt was a loner and passed thru my life and made it a better place just because he was there. I live in northern NM close to Dulce the “Capital” of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. I miss him and his infrequent visits, but he is here in the prints I have. God Bless you Burt for making our world a better place. Jeanne Ridesalone


  9. Jim,

    A great article about a great guy. I knew Burt as a young man in Bismarck, ND. We used to hoist a few beers in the American Legion Club and although we did not serve at the same time, we would swap story’s about our time in the service. We corresponded regularly by email, and though I was aware he was having medical issues, I did not know the extent of his illness, he never complained. He was extremely proud of his son Craig and tell me of Craig’s success in the various marksmanship matches. He would always say “You don’t want officer Craig shooting at you”. Burt was a great American and will be missed by all that knew him. Rest in peace Burt.


  10. I tried to access his website on the North Dakota educational server but it is classified as adult material. I will have to try on another computer system. It has me quite curious as to what was adult about the site with art.

    I have to remember to read this blog more often. It is truly great writing and I love the politics beyond the scenes.

    Mr. Burt sounded like a great guy…..so much talent. It was good he shared it with so many as you do with your writing.


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