NBA dreams fade, but painting helps renew artist's life

Vernon Burt

Vernon Burt dreamed of having an NBA career. But like his oil paintings, his life has taken on many layers.

Burt's presentation of “Race, Politics and Art” takes place on 6:30 p.m., Feb. 16, at the Nursing Innovation Building Two, 550 N. Third St., Phoenix, Innovation Auditorium, room 110. The lecture commences this year's spring 2012 Humanities Lecture Series, a part of the ASU Project Humanities and coincides with Black History Month. It is free and open to the public.

“Art has always been a part of humanity and race simply gives it a different viewpoint,” Burt said. “My life experiences have always been very eclectic and it reflects in my work.”

Burt, who grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, was a star guard at Benedictine High School and pinned all of his hopes on becoming a professional basketball player. While at the late "Pistol" Pete Maravich basketball camp in Pennsylvania, Burt was singled out by the legendary college and NBA player.

"I was fortunate enough to not only meet my idol but to develop a close personal relationship with him," he said. "Pete always said I should have something to fall back on after basketball is over."

Those dreams were dashed when he discovered his abilities weren't good enough for the pro ranks, and he left California State College before the start of his sophomore year. He grew depressed over the next few years and the disappointment fueled his alcohol consumption, which became full blown when he entered the Cleveland Heights Police Department in 1979.

After 10 years on the police force, Burt was promoted to homicide detective where he excelled despite losing his battle with the bottle. Burt finally decided to get help and through a 12-step recovery program, he turned his life around. Burt quit his job, got married, and decided on a fresh start. He and his bride pulled out a map of the country, placed it on a coffee table, and pitched pennies where it might be interesting to live. The last penny landed on Phoenix, and the two found a home in Gilbert.

Burt and his wife Francisca found employment, but he said his life lacked a certain passion. That is, until his wife suggested he rekindle his love for painting. While on the police force, Burt had studied art for a few years at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Then the words of his idol came back to him.

"It hit me – painting is what I should be doing," he said. "That was the one thing I should fall back on because it made me happy."

Burt specializes in oil, airbrush, and acrylic paintings and has made a name for himself in local art circles for his work on Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and black cowboys. His work has been displayed in several valley art galleries and sells for up to $1,000 a painting.