It’s no secret that the Blackhawks are crushing it in this delayed NHL season. As a super fan you’ve likely got the ridiculously expensive Toews jersey, season tickets at the United Center, and even a few hotel reservations already booked for select away games. But I ask you, fictitious, rich sports enthusiast that I just made up and am already jealous of, what are you going to spend your money on next? What could possibly push your Blackhawks fandom over the tippy top? Well... how about a tree?
Chicago’s Bruce Burton has been illustrating and selling copies of his handmade “history trees” since the 1970s. Every Burton History Tree takes on a specific theme, ranging from sports teams to music decades, each acting as a visual history detailed in illustration and typography.
I chatted with Burton History Trees founder Eric Fine, who sought to start a business with his former high school swim coach and make him and his unique artwork famous.
What is the backstory behind Burton History Trees?
Our artist, Bruce Burton, is a very interesting man who had a background and passion for fine art as well as music and sports. His flash of genius came back in the late ‘70s; he was looking for a way to get into art and he did a lot of research and read every magazine he could find on music.
He was frustrated with the fact that there was nothing that commemorated specific musical genres. He took a piece of illustration board and hand drew the original family tree of British Rock, where the shape of the tree showed chronology and growth in the genre.
I first met him when he was my high school swim coach back in 1993. I tracked him down again in 2007 and told him that I wanted to make him famous. I thought that we could really carve out a new kind of art that brings together typography, sketch, and graphic art with history in a way that nothing has ever done before.
How is the Blackhawks tree selling amidst their excellent season?
It’s selling really, really well. Winning teams sell trees and it’s doing great. We came out with the Cardinals tree last year and that’s been selling great too.
What are some other popular trees?
The most popular music tree is the American Tree of Rock, and then the most popular sports tree is going to be tied between the Blackhawks and the Bears. One of the things that I’m trying to really bring out are the decade trees. We have these great gifts for anyone who loves music, and you can choose the decade based on the person’s age.
How do you go about choosing a theme for a tree?
It’s just a decision that Bruce and I make about what to do next. Right now we’re working on the family tree of the Chicago Bulls, and for that the easiest answer is that it really rounds out our Chicago professional sports team portfolio.
What tree themes can we expect to see in the future?
We’re in the process of working with some people who have been part of successful publishing companies in the past and really like the idea of making and creating some new, readymade work that’s not necessarily sports or music related -- things like the family tree of the city of Chicago or family trees of other cities.
There are a lot of ways to go with this. Any subject that a history book has covered theoretically could benefit from a Burton Tree.
What has been your biggest failure?
Two super important failures set me back years. The first one was that I invested a lot of money in inventory shortly after signing an exclusive relationship with Bruce, but before sales were happening. The other was trying to invest in software to automate the process.
I think it all comes back to not really sticking to a plan and making decisions based on what I thought was the right thing to do. Today we’re much more focused on a plan. Decisions are made a lot different now than they were in the early days.
What’s next for Burton History Trees?
We’re finishing up the Bulls tree; that is number one. Drew Wasserman, one of our great partners, is in the process of redoing the entire website, which is going to be great. The rest of what is next before we do anything is filling in the gaps in our online presence. We have a social media presence with our website, Etsy store, and Twitter, but we’re probably 10 percent of the capacity where we could be.
I want to add some functionality to our website. I want to create more content that’s applicable to the products that we sell. I want to get more products on walls of public places and get the art out there.
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