Amos Lemon Burkhart could attract a crowd with his wit and artistic gifts, but he was never comfortable being the center of attention.
Students would gather to watch Amos draw a picture, usually of other people, and he was a talented musician and athlete, in addition to being an Eagle Scout.
“This is one of the funniest people you would ever want to meet,” said Dane Burkhart, Amos’ father. “He was the kind of kid, he would sit in the back of the class, and other kids would get in trouble laughing.”
But along with the qualities that made him stand out, Amos suffered from anxiety and depression, Dane believes, and he was isolated from others.
“He was captain of the tennis team, but he hated that,” Dane said. “He didn’t want the pressure.”
When Amos’ body was discovered on Dane Street Beach on the morning of Monday, May 7, 2018, the 19-year-old Mohnton, Pennsylvania, native had been living in Beverly for a week and was planning to attend Montserrat College of Art in the fall.
The school is hosting an exhibit of his work, “You Miss 90% of the Shots You Don’t Take,” at The Founders Gallery at 248 Cabot St., where a reception will be held this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m.
“Though very few people on campus got a chance to meet Amos, news of his passing hit us all hard,” said Nathan Lewis, gallery director at Montserrat.
Amos’ mother, Ann Lemon, said the title of the show is a play on the phrase, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” which means you can’t succeed at something if you don’t try.
“Amos being Amos, he liked to twist sayings around and play with words, and he wrote the ‘90%’ quote on the cover of his last sketchbook, and it also appears in one of his pieces,” she said. “I think he was acknowledging that sometimes luck applies and you get something you didn’t even try for — which was very true in his life; he was incredibly lucky.”
A catalog for the show will be sold, along with prints that Ann has made, which are based on some pieces by Amos. The proceeds will go to a foundation that is dedicated to preserving and promoting Amos’ work.
Ann and Dane said that they have already funded scholarships at Montserrat and Amos’ high school and hope to create residencies for counselors at both schools.
They said that young artists need help resisting, not only emotional problems and drugs, but also social ideals that imply artists must suffer to create.
“What our mission statement boils down to — it’s about self-care for artists,” Ann said.
Art became the main focus of Amos’ life when he was a young teenager, but during his senior year of high school, that life started to unravel.
In addition to experiencing a “whirlwind of feelings” in an intense relationship with a girl at school, Amos started cutting himself and also abusing pot, tranquilizers and alcohol, which contributed to his drowning death in Beverly, Ann said.
Amos also wasn’t an angel and could be hard on others, she said, adding that he eventually started buying and selling drugs online.
Both parents confess to their own troubles with addiction, although Dane said that they have both been clean and sober for 27 years. But their personal experiences with recovery were no help in breaking through to their son.
“He put everything on paper and said nothing out loud,” Ann said.
Amos would eventually fill 21 sketchbooks and paint or draw 320 unique works of art between his 16th and 19th years.
His parents weren’t aware of how much he had created until they started pulling it together for a memorial service.
“There was so much more than we knew existed,” Dane said. “I saw very little of it. He wouldn’t say, ‘Dad, look.’ I’m not a Facebook guy, where he posted for his friends. The last two years of his life, I couldn’t get two words out of him.”
Ann has organized Amos’ work into categories, which she said correspond to stages of his development, and posted samples of each at a website, www.amoslemon.org.
The images range from monochromatic “thins,” or skeletal figures with elongated limbs and hands, to “zoetropes,” as Amos called them, which are composite forms with a rich variety of colors.
“There’s a figure in the background and, on top of that, little sequences, like animation,” Ann said.
Lewis said that Amos’ work was “extremely sophisticated” and reveals a world view in which the artist is “so early on starting to galvanize his notions of human form.”
“They do feel energetic and dynamic,” he said. “They are leaping off the page. You see the performance of making these, Amos’ true hand trying to find the volume. It’s like he’s working from inside out.”
Whichever style Amos was using, his work portrays humans that are “grotesque and monstrous,” Lewis said.
“I get the perspective of a person navigating the world and finding these characters: silly, scary, sexy,” he said. “You see things about sexuality and personhood.”
Lewis has explored paranormal themes in his own work, and he said that Amos’ drawings and paintings remind him of 19th-century “spirit photos,” which purported to show interactions between the living and the dead.
“He’s going for the liminal spaces, the places in between, pulling these characters from the shadows, from the ether, from the imagination, from the maps that shape the imagination,” Lewis said.
A life cut short
Amos first overdosed on Xanax in the fall of 2017, which allowed his parents to have him admitted to a Caron Treatment Center, but that lapsed after 24 hours.
“Then the next time, after four days, he was ready to leave, but we told him he couldn’t come home, and he said, OK, I’ll stay,” Dane said.
That was the hardest thing that he and Ann ever had to do as parents, Dane said, but it was the only way they could keep him in treatment.
Amos was in Pennsylvania for six weeks and transferred in August 2017 to a long-term facility in Florida that addresses both addiction and underlying mental illnesses, and he remained there until March.
“That is when he said, ‘I’ve had enough of southern Florida,’ and he got enough money together for a plane ticket and he flew to Rhode Island,” Ann said.
While living in Providence with another girlfriend, he found out he had been accepted to Montserrat, where he had applied in December, she said.
The people at Caron who had been treating Amos said that he should have his own job and apartment as a condition for living in Beverly, and he managed to find both of those things.
“He came home for a week, he had his belongings to move into his apartment, he went back and started to use heavily,” Dane said.
Police found his girlfriend wandering around on May 7 at 2 a.m., a block from the beach, and Amos was discovered later in the morning, Ann said.
“They shoplifted alcohol from a liquor store,” she said. “In the police report, they had them on tape. They probably would have come to arrest them on Monday.”
Ann and Dane had visited Montserrat on April 26, after Amos was accepted, and they felt its intimate size and atmosphere would suit him.
“Had he started school, and if the drugs would have become an issue again, he wouldn’t have been able to hide it at a school like Montserrat, and steps would have been taken early on,” Dane said. “But everything happened so quick. There was no time to put an infrastructure in place.”
In a college application essay, which Dane said is the best description of addiction that he’s read, Amos is frank about his struggles but said that he was developing a sense of direction in his life.
“Art helps me try to make sense of it all, and I get lots of inspiration from my past,” he wrote. “I feel as though I’m ready for whatever happens next. I’m excited to do whatever I end up doing.”