Diamond in the Rough

The world-renowned Wharton Esherick Museum awaits its local coming-out.

Mansfield Bascom often asks visitors of the Wharton Esherick Museum what they think of its namesake’s impressionistic self-portrait. “Stereotypically, what kind of man do you think he painted?” poses the 86-year-old curator emeritus, who is also Esherick’s son-in-law.

From a prominent family in a far-different West Philadelphia, Esherick painted himself accurately in 1919: Tall and thin, he’s in the uniform of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, though he dropped out in 1910. “He appears rather aristocratic, doesn’t he?” Bascom probes. “A doctor maybe?”

“You don’t picture a guy swinging an axe, his favorite tool,” interjects Paul Eisenhauer, Bascom’s successor at the museum, which still uses the same Paoli mailing address Esherick used, though the master craftsman— whose famous furniture was as functional as it was sculptural—died in 1970.

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Mansfield Bascom and his wife, Ruth, at the Wharton Esherick Museum.Esherick first pursued painting. But as he began carving decorative frames for his art in 1920, his work gravitated to woodcut prints and then sculptures. Famed American author and friend Sherwood Anderson was among the first to provide focus for Esherick, telling him his frames were more interesting than his paintings.

By 1925, he’d carved 200-plus wood blocks, which illustrated less than a handful of books. One, Walt Whitman’s Song of the Broad Axe, celebrated its 85th anniversary last year.

Ultimately, Esherick progressed to furniture. In 1927, he completed a highly carved, heavy oak drop-leaf desk, storing his prints in its roll-out trays. Over the next 40 years, he created cubist and freeform sculptures—even entire interiors for what his museum calls “sculptural living environments.” In the process, Esherick bridged the gap between the Arts and Crafts and the studio furniture movements. By 1960, there was a spike in all crafts—the Craft Revival period.

“By his death, he’d become the grand old man in his field—the dean of American craftsmen,” says Eisenhauer, a woodworker and onetime sociology professor. “He was aware that recognition was going to come his way, but he never saw the money.”

A few upcoming events could bring museum visitors out of the woodwork, so to speak. March 5-28, the Wharton Esherick Museum is staging a print show at the Phoenix Village Art Center in Phoenixville in conjunction with Philagrafika 2010, an international festival of print arts in Philadelphia. A portfolio of 12 restrikes of Esherick prints will be released, and a March 20 exhibit will be held at the studio. Plans are to restrike a poster he designed for Media’s Hedgerow Theatre, where Esherick designed several stage sets and made chairs, tables and staircases. His daughters, Ruth and Mary, were actresses there and elsewhere.

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This fall also marks the release of the biography Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind, penned by Bascom, Ruth’s husband. And there’s a print exhibition planned in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. Tentatively titled Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern and slated to debut in October, it also will include writer Theodore Dreiser’s ephemera and many of Anderson’s papers. It was Eisenhauer’s research that solidified the connections between the three artists.

These days, traffic at the Wharton Esherick Museum is slow, despite recent citations in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Destination Art: 100 Best Art Sites You Have to Visit and Fine Homebuilding magazine’s “25 Most Important Houses in America.” “We’re on the same page as the Biltmore and Monticello, so that’s pretty good company,” Eisenhauer says.

Bascom wishes the museum was on more local folks’ to-do lists. “We’re better known internationally,” he says.

It could be the location—tucked away on one side of Valley Forge Mountain off a winding road Tredyffrin Township won’t service in the winter. That alone keeps the site closed in January and February. “People don’t comprehend what this is,” says Eisenhauer. “You don’t understand it unless you come see it and feel it.”

The lack of notoriety has something to do with Esherick himself, who didn’t seek publicity. He had three children: Ruth, Mary (who died in 1996) and Peter, who lives near Allentown. When their father died at 82, three years after suffering a stroke, he left behind about 200 pieces of his art—the museum’s contents.

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Bascom says there could never be an exact tally of the number of pieces Esherick made. “He often just gave them away,” he says.

A meticulous craftsman, Esherick was a less-than-meticulous record keeper. In one inventory, there’s a piece he simply called “screen,” a three-panel room divider with carved fields and trunks of trees in walnut inlaid with ebony crows. When “screen” surfaced, it was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $312,000. “He was one man, so when a piece comes up, people figure if they don’t buy it, they may never get it,” Bascom says.

Bascom and Ruth still live on the museum property in a 1956 workshop Esherick designed with famed architect Louis Kahn. A retired architect himself, Bascom converted it into a residence in 1972. The couple leases the studio and grounds to the museum, which has an endowment. But it must raise funds and rely on grants, membership dues, tour fees and gift-shop profits to make a break-even $225,000 annually. The Bascoms have bequested the property and its structures to the museum, which is also purchasing Esherick’s studio works from the family at a generous discount.

In 1926, Wharton Esherick began carving a studio-barn and home for himself —first out of stone, then wood. He shaped and tapered the barn’s stone corners ever so slightly. It’s as if the lines follow the contour of a tree trunk’s base—so-called organic architecture.

The property still includes his 1928 log garage, the 1956 workshop-turned-residence and his reconstructed outhouse. All are part of the site’s 1993 designation as a National Historic Landmark for its architecture. Nothing’s square or plum. Every piece of clapboard siding has a
different width, like it occurred in nature.

Support columns that level the studio against the slope start round, then flatten on one side to create a curved or prismatic side. Bascom says the inspiration came from watching cattle scratch their backsides on trees or barn support piers. “People always ask, ‘What were his
influences?’” he says. “He just looked at his surroundings—at nature.”

Esherick added an indoor bathroom in 1947. (The outhouse was later replicated by Coatesville’s Peter Knecht, who has worked for 30 years to maintain the home and museum.) Then came a multi-colored silo, which allowed him to expand his kitchen in 1966. He was 79 at the time.

After Esherick separated from Leticia “Letty” Nofer Esherick in 1937, he moved into the studio’s upper level, then rented the farmhouse, which the museum eventually sold. His late-in-life partner became Miriam Phillips, a Hedgerow actress and the museum’s first curator. She moved in and cared for him after his stroke.

Above the trapdoor to his bedroom are some of Esherick’s most personal pieces. There’s the wooden sculpture, “Her,” of his daughter Mary, along with “Head of Dreiser,” in honor of that literary friend. Eisenhauer believes the hand-carved, raised bed was inspired by Anderson’s short-story collection Winesburg, Ohio. “Twin Twist,” a piece of grotesquely twisted wood riddled with defects, is on loan from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, though he never finished there. “The method [at PAFA] was to copy what was put in front of you,” Eisenhauer says. “Esherick left to see what kind of artist he could become.”

Esherick became a faithful follower of Cubism and German Expressionism between 1930 and 1937. His barn-studio’s spiral wooden staircase reflects rustic cubism, its steps like branches off a tree trunk.

His most noted long-term project was the three years he spent in the mid-1930s at the Curtis Bok House in Gulph Mills. Before a developer raised it, Esherick’s pieces were salvaged and secured, mostly by museums. A fireplace mantel is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1958, the Museum of Arts & Design wanted Esherick’s 1927 carved oak desk for a retrospective exhibition. So he made a curly oak replacement to store his things while the other was in New York City. Yet, when museum staffers arrived, they liked the newer one better. It utilized refrigerator-inspired, motion-activated interior lights.

“He always said that if you wanted to understand him, you had to see his art,” Bascom says.

To learn more, call (610) 644-5822 or visit whartonesherickmuseum.org. Reservations are required for tours.

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