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Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art

About Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968)

I was born on August 30, 1909, in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. My mother was English, a poet and a musician. My father was the dearly beloved Dean Burton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . . . their first dean and only dean until he retired in 1921.

My memories of early childhood in Newton Corner consist of English folk songs and English folk dancing around a Maypole . . . celebrating Twelfth Night when everyone dressed up in costumes and the neighbors came in to sing and dance and "wassail" the old apple trees. On other holidays our parents put on marionette shows for us and our friends. Our old barn was converted into a school, and I believe the first Montessori System in this country was taught there. Dad, instead of giving us toys for birthdays and Christmas, gave us beautifully illustrated children's books, which he would read aloud to us. I am sure my interest in picture books stemmed from this.

We lived in Newton Corner until I was about eight. The New England winters were getting to be too much for my mother's health, and as it was about time for my father to retire, we moved to California. We stayed one year in San Diego and then moved up the coast to Carmel-by-the-Sea. Carmel was then a simple unspoiled small town inhabited by retired and semi-retired artists, writers, and musicians. There were three theaters and a little old two-room schoolhouse. Always there was a play or an operetta in rehearsal going on and everybody took part. To be sure it was all amateur, but it was a lot of fun. My sister and I loved dancing and studied at every opportunity (of which there were many) and appeared in the local productions.

When I was sixteen and a junior in high school, where there was a good art teacher, I happened to win a state scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. In my senior year I was editor of the school annual and, on the side, started a dancing class of my own.

Having no desire to go to college, I thought I might as well go to art school and continue studying dancing with a good ballet teacher in San Francisco, which I did. I lived across the bay in Alameda with my school friend, Mabel, who also had a scholarship. There were no bridges in those days, and it took us at least two hours by train, ferryboat, and cable car to get to school — sometimes longer when it was foggy. I mention this because I used those long commuting hours to train myself in making quick sketches from life and from memory of my fellow passengers.

In 1928, after a year in art school, I returned east to join my father in Boston. My sister had already started her dancing career on the stage in New York. There was a chance for me to join her troupe and I had even signed the contract when my father broke his leg, so I stayed home to take care of him . . . and that was the beginning and end of my dancing career, which was just as well because I wasn't very good anyway . . .

My practice in sketching on the San Francisco ferry led to a job as a "sketcher" on the now extinct Boston Transcript, where I worked under "H.T.P.," famous drama and music critic. In my two and a half years with the Transcript, I was able to see and draw the good and great dancers and actors of that time. I signed my sketches "VleeB."

In the meantime I had been a lifeguard and swimming instructor, taught art at a newsboys' foundation of which my father was the director, and been an art counselor in a YMCA summer camp.

Through mutual friends I had heard of George Demetrios and what a great teacher of sculpture and drawing he was, so in the fall of 1930 when I was twenty-one, I enrolled in his Saturday morning drawing class at the Boston Museum School. In the spring we were married. We lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where our first son, Aris, short for Aristedes, was born. A year later moved to Folly Cove, Gloucester, where we have lived ever since. Our second son, Michael, was born in 1935, coincidentally on my birthday. The last act in my book, Life Story, tells the story of our life here in Folly Cove.

Choo Choo is not my first book. My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. My friends I and thought it was very clever, but thirteen publishers disagreed with us. When I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half, he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson, and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest. The same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.

My subject material, with a few exceptions such as Calico the Wonder Horse, comes directly from life. I literally draw my books first and write the texts after — sort of "cart before the horse." I pin the sketched pages in sequence on the walls of my studio so I can see the book as a whole. Then I make a rough dummy and then the final drawings and, when I can put it off no longer, I type out the text and paste it in the dummy. Whenever I can, I substitute picture for word. Each new book is a new experience, not only in subject material and research, but also in learning a new medium and technique for the drawings.

We regret to say that Virginia Lee Burton died on October 15, 1968, at the age of fifty-nine. She is survived by her two sons.

Biographies of Virginia Lee Burton's Sons, Aristides and Michael Demetrios

Aristedes Burton Demetrios, Virginia Lee Burton's oldest son, is a renowned contemporary sculptor whose works can be seen throughout the United States and elsewhere around the world. Educated at Harvard University in history and literature, Aristedes later studied sculpture with his father, George Demetrios, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Since then, he has worked with the some of the nation's leading designers — Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, Peter Walker, Ken Kay, Peter Calthrope, and Michael Taylor — to create bronze fountains and sculptures, large-scale outdoor stainless-steel sculptures, and painted steel sculptures commissioned for public pavilions, private residential gardens, and corporate facilities. Aristedes also exhibits his work in galleries throughout the United States. He is currently an artist-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Michael Burton Demetrios was born on August 30, 1935, in Groton, Massachusetts. When he was four, Virginia Lee Burton dedicated Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to him, and he served as the model for the little boy who helps Mike and Mary Anne dig the cellar in one day. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Michael was the president of Marine World Africa USA for more than twenty years. While president, Michael, together with a group of businessman, purchased the park from Resorts International and successfully relocated to Vallejo, CA. Now, Marine World Africa USA is a world-class facility and has reached annual attendance levels of 1.9 million. Since January 1998, Michael has served as president of Intra-Asia, a U.S. company with two amusement parks in China and plans to have five additional parks within the next four years. He travels extensively throughout China and sees this as an "exciting and fascinating time to be doing business" there. Michael Demetrios lives outside Los Angeles.

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