UI art professor emeritus, circus performer dies at 90


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When Byron Burford was only 13 years old, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life — join the circus. Often being called an artist in everything he did, his passion for life was clear and his presence was unmistakable, those close to him said.

The University of Iowa professor emeritus, artist, musician, and entertainer died in his sleep on June 17 at the age of 90.

“With Byron’s passing comes an end of a legend, an end of an era,” said close friend and colleague Wallace Tomasini.

Tomasini, whose friendship with Burford dates back to 1958, said Burford was a close friend who was always there to help resolve problems and was a very generous friend to all.

A native of Mississippi, Burford came to Iowa City as an undergraduate to study art under the distinguished painter Grant Wood. His teaching career began in 1947 in the UI School of Art and Art History, and he retired in 1986 and was named professor emeritus.

Jeff Martin, the UI Museum of Art manager of exhibitions and collections, said Burford was a very talented artist—his work is displayed not only in the UI Museum of Art but in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the J. S. Guggenheim Collection in New York City, and the Des Moines Art Center, among others.

“I do not want to stray from the fact he was a very good teacher and will be remembered by students as well as artists,” Martin said. “It’s not a surprise he was a good artist, but he was good at other aspects of the job.”

He is best known for his renowned circus-theme paintings and prints, and he is also recognized for his love of the circus — even joining it whenever he could, often as a drummer in the circus band.

Burford’s daughter, Nana Burford, recalls watching her father in the circus at a young age.

“My favorite memory of him was watching him play the drums in the circus,” she said. “He just looked so happy; he loved it.”

Burford’s son Kevin Burford recalled his father always saying the most important thing is to do what you love.

He said he remembered his father inspiring him and his sisters creatively at a young age, giving them drawing lessons when they traveled around the United States and Europe in the family’s RV.

“He was a terrific father and creative in every aspect of his life,” Kevin Burford said.

Burford’s love for King Kong encouraged him to purchase a gorilla suit, Kevin Burford said, which he wore when he traveled with a circus. Sometimes, he even surprised people around the house with it.

“He had such a wonderful sense of humor; everyone loved him and his warmth,” Nana Burford said.

Byron is preceded in death by wife Kathleen “Kay” Burford, who died in 2009.

“They were a creative and wonderful couple,” Tomasini said. “They were always there when I needed them, when anyone needed them.”

An informal remembrance for Burford will be held at the home of Kevin and Helen Burford later this week.

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