As most of you know, Andrew Wyeth passed on in his sleep, on January 16, 2009. If I had been able to do my series of Heroes as I had intended, Andy would have been done as he was high on my list. On my “list” of the most famous people I have met, Andy came right under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and just above Katharine Hepburn. It is a very short list limited to those who have impressed me. It is part of a much longer list if you consider I used to work at the Pocono Playhouse in the summers back when they had REAL stars on the stage. Some of them were wonderful people, some were hateful. But I digress… as usual. Maybe I should have said – impressed me in a positive way.
I met Andy years ago – I am not even sure just when it was now, but he was visiting at the home of a friend in the Brandywine area. He was “real” and not a pompous ass, stuck on himself or full of LOOK AT ME. In fact, if I had not known the name and had not been an art major, I might not have paid him any attention. One of his favorite things was to sit at Hank’s Diner and listen to and sometimes talk with the tourists who wanted to know if he had ever seen Andrew Wyeth or knew where he lived. He usually said, “No.” Or that Wyeth was a real recluse or was in Maine this time of year. And, that recluse part is kind of true as he was not the flashy celebrity type, if you know what I mean. And those who knew him frequently lied to people who came looking for him. “Nope, ain’t seen him in a while… think he went to Boston (or Portland, or Philadelphia…)” when he might be right across the street or sitting at a table across the diner! If you did not know his voice, you probably would never have known he was around. He looked like your neighbor, or a local who just stopped in for a cup of coffee and a piece of home made pie. He probably drove that old Suburban in the parking lot – definitely not the Beemer type!
I first “discovered” his work in art school where a couple of profs thought he was OK and a couple others looked down on him as an illustrator, which did not make sense to me – but what did I know? I was just a kid. Personally, I found it difficult to appreciate Jackson Pollock and the splash and dribble crowd and found things in Wyeth’s work that touched me and spoke to my way of looking at life. Do not think I am saying I saw life the same way he did – its just that most of his things made me feel something that sometimes I could name, and sometimes I could not, but his art “held” me – if that makes any sense. It was much more than, “Oh, that is nice – or – well done” – it held me, made me respond inside, and isn’t that what every artist wants? To get a response? To communicate a feeling? I related to the places, to his people. They were my neighbors, my friends, the people down the road a piece.
As time went on, I “taught” the Wyeth’s as an art history unit actually using them as local artists since it is possible to drive to the family home, visit the museum, have lunch, visit a number of his “locations” (the Kuerner farm, for example) and be back home in time for supper. I call that local. Several of my friends have studied with Carolyn Wyeth, Andy’s sister, who lived in the family home at Chadd’s Ford until her death. The house is now open to the public thru the Brandywine Museum tours as is the studio.
One of my favorite Wyeth stories was told to me by my old friend and neighbor, Sabra Kimball,* who passed away about 10 years ago. Many years ago, Sabra was the art editor for a very well known publishing company. She wrote to NC Wyeth, Andrew's father, and asked him if he would do the illustrations for – um, I don’t remember the book right this minute. NC did a lot of famous children’s classics… Anyway, NC wrote back that he was much too busy – BUT – he would do the cover if they would let his son Andy do the illustrations. He was but a boy, but, he said, he was pretty good. Sabra (do ya love this?) Sabra said she decided to take a chance on the boy – and the rest is, as they say, history! Andy was 16.
Andy was the same age as my father, just a couple of months younger. My kids used to be so impressed that I could remember all the dates for the Wyeth’s – but they all correlated with dates in my own family. I loved to use Andy's work for creative writing, too. Knowing the histories of the places and people who lived there, most often the kids sensed the dynamics of the people whose personalities came thru the paintings - even when the people were not shown. The Kuerner farm made most of the kids a bit uncomfortable yet the Olson home seemed friendlier.
If you don’t know much about Wyeth’s work, do look him up. In my humble opinion, I think that time will prove him to be the greatest – or at least in the top 3 – artists of his time. He is definitely at the top of my list, followed closely by Georgia O’Keeffe, but his work, as my grandma used to say, has more meat on it! It keeps you there chewing on it, not just because of his mastery of technique, but because he “takes you there.” Does that make sense? Or it takes you someplace you can relate to. On the other hand, I suppose if you lived your life in a city and never got out in the country – it might seem a foreign place – likewise if you grew up in the desert. But I lived much of my life in the eastern part of Pennsylvania and on the coast of Maine.
I find myself wishing I could talk to the people in his paintings. I am sure I know some of them, or I knew someone in their family… see if you don’t feel the same way, too. Though I must confess, I cannot relate to the Helga series and in reality I may have met her! But that is one body of his work (pardon the pun) that does nothing for me. I have a large collection of his prints (I taught a class about him, remember) and I do not have one Helga print. My favorite painting is which ever one I am looking at at the time. http://www.awyethgallery.com/andrew/ has a good collection of some of his most famous works. Or just google Wyeth prints and find a lot of good stuff.
For more information on Wyeth please go to: http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/index.html. Or visit the home and studio at http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/ncstudio.html. They used to have a virtual tour of the studio, but I don’t see a link to that anymore and my saved link goes to the page but it will not load, so I guess that page is down for some reason. I know my kids LOVED that page and the folks at the museum allowed me to take my video camera in there and do my own video for my class. That was totally cool. I also have shots from the Kuerner Farm.
Again, I feel I have been so fortunate to have had the chance to be associated with these people and to have seen so much of his work. If you are anywhere near Wilmington, Delaware, you are only minutes from a wonderful gallery and some of the best art work in the world. Be sure to stop in!
*Sabra, for those of you who follow my blog, was the one who gave me several of my camellias seen on this blog, most notably Yule Tide and Debutante.