Byron Leslie Burford was born in Jackson, Mississippi on July 12, 1920. He studied under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa, earning a BFA in 1942. He returned to the university to earn his MFA after serving in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. Upon graduating, he was appointed to the faculty at the behest of Grant Wood and taught painting until 1986, when he was named professor emeritus. He also taught at the University of Minnesota, California College of Arts and Crafts, and the Joslyn Museum.
Burford is known primarily as a figurative painter and printmaker. He is perhaps best known for images depicting circus life. When he was only 14 or 15 years old, he briefly joined the Tom Mix Circus. Since that time, he has gone out with circuses whenever he can – Clark and Walters, Famous Cole, Franzen Brothers, Great American – often as a drummer in the circus band. Other bodies of work deal with the military, industry and sports. Common elements include the passage of time and human endurance.
Burford is a prolific artist and his work can be found in several museums and institutional collections, including the Walker Art Center, the J. S. Guggenheim Collection, the Des Moines Art Center, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Joslyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the High Art Museum, and the Eastman House, to name only a few. His extensive list of exhibits includes one man shows at the Walker Art Center (1958), the Des Moines Art Center (1961 & 73), Babcock Galleries, New York (1966, 67, 69 & 75), the American Academy of Arts Annual, New York (1966, 72, 79, & 96), and Foslley/Leach Gallery, Washington (1987 & 92). Selected group exhibits include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1942), the Chicago Art Institute (1943 & 59), the Corcoran Biennial (1952), the Venice Biennale, Italy (1968), the Bienal Arte Coltejer, Colombia (1970), and the Kunsthaus, Zurich, Switzerland (1972). Awards include Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1960 & 61), the Ford Foundation Award (1961, 62 & 64), National Institute of Arts & Letters Grants (1967, 72 & 75), and a Midwest Arts National Endowment Regional Fellowship (1988).