Artist Wharton Esherick Featured in New Documentary

The Lower Merion enigma is the subject matter of ‘I Am Known As an Artist.’

It might seem implausible, but Lower Merion Township is home to both the famed Barnes collection and a less championed assemblage of furniture and sculpture by Wharton Harris Esherick. The latter was the lifetime passion of Rose and Nathan Rubinson. 

Now, Esherick is taking the lead in a documentary set to be released this month. Revered as the “Dean of American Craftsmen,” he was pivotal in establishing the American studio furniture movement, abandoning his classical training as a painter and printmaker to focus on wood. In 1920, he started carving designs on frames. Six years later, his hand-built arts-and-crafts-style studio—now an impressive museum in Malvern—turned toward woodcuts, sinuous organic sculptures, undulating furniture, and architectural interiors. Engrafted within a renaissance-like artistic community, and working primarily on private commissions, Esherick’s work rarely went to market. He passed away in 1970.

Last April, through the Rubinsons’ grandson, Geoffrey Berwind, Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery began offering what remains of the collection. Berwind’s grandparents were arguably Esherick’s best patrons. They commissioned 65 pieces of furniture and sculpture and bought hundreds of woodcuts. Berwind, who lives in Wayne, grew up sitting and eating on Esherick’s work. “I loved the stuff,” he says. “It was commissioned to be used, and we used it. When the pieces were leaving [for the sale], we filmed it. There was a bit of grieving. I’m willing to part with it, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been emotional about it.”

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I Am Known As an Artist has begun making the rounds at film festivals like Sundance. It’s the work of Carolyn Coal, a filmmaker and a professor at California State University, Fullerton. A central Pennsylvania native, she took a day trip in 2013 to visit with a sister who lives in Norristown, eventually ending up at the Wharton Esherick Museum. “It was a real jaw-dropping experience,” she says. “You really don’t understand the power of this tiny workshop until you’re actually there and see the intense vision he had. There are few individuals who have that power, but Wharton Esherick was one of them.” 

Coal found an ally in Paul Eisenhauer, the now-retired museum director and curator. She invested her own resources the first two years, weathered staff turnover, then launched an online crowdfunding campaign. Eisenhauer framed the film’s narration around Berwind’s decision to sell his inheritance, move it out into the greater art world, and leave it to chance. It’s a wonderful twist that moves the film’s progression away from a longitudinal biographical narrative of Esherick’s life.

“Geoffrey is interesting in and of himself, and I think that will work to Carolyn’s advantage,” says Eisenhauer. “When she started, she wasn’t sure what to do, but she was so moved by the [museum] experience that she wanted to do something. The sale was a coincidence. It happened to be just what she needed to blend Wharton’s legacy with the history and answer these questions: What did he mean? And what does he still mean to collectors?”

Robert Aibel, Moderne Gallery’s founder and director, staged an Esherick show back in 1996—the largest exhibition of his work since a one man retrospective at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in 1959. He says the narrative element converts what could be a glorified slide show into a true film that will be more accessible and hold limitless potential in informing others about Esherick, who was never self-aware or self-conscious about his influence. “He is, in many ways, still esoteric and obscure,” says Aibel. “When we did our show, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked, ‘Why do a story on Wharton Esherick—who cares?’ That’s changed.” 

Not counting woodcuts, 22 of the 35 pieces Berwind inherited are still available. The highlight is Esherick’s iconic “Music Stand,” priced at $450,000. Lent to the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, it was made in 1951 for Rose, a cellist. “It’s a sculpture with function,” Aibel says.

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Coal—whose past film subjects have included racecar driving and affordable housing for the senior LGBT community—taps the best of sources, including Mark Sfirri, an internationally known woodworker and a teacher at Bucks County Community College. Sfirri grew up in Media near the Hedgerow Theatre, where the Rubinsons met Esherick through Miriam Phillips, his eventual mistress. Sfirri discovered the craftsman in the early 1970s. He now incorporates Esherick into his courses. 

“The documentary is superb, from the parts I’ve seen,” says Berwind. “It honors Esherick, and I’m thrilled that my grandparents are represented in it.”

What would’ve been Esherick’s take on the film? Eisenhauer expects that he’d be appalled. Not a fan of art historians, Esherick didn’t even want his son-in-law, Mansfield “Bob” Bascom, to write his biography, Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind, which was finally released in 2010. “His politics were opposed to the cult of the personality,” says Eisenhauer. “The work was what was important. He didn’t care if you knew his name, but he wanted you to know his work. On the one hand, the exposure the documentary would give his work would please him, as he enjoyed exhibitions. But when it came to bringing his life into it, he’d draw the line.”

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