Wyeth's World

Main Line Today’s Catherine Quillman reflects on the artist’s life as she came to know it.

As a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Main Line Today contributor Catherine Quillman covered the arts and culture in the Brandywine Valley. Her career included interviews with the Wyeth family and a cast of Andrew Wyeth’s intimates, from the models for his work to his biographer, to the former caretaker of the family homestead. These conversations were bookended by two interviews with Wyeth himself, in 1993 and 2006. Below is her reflection.
I heard about Andrew Wyeth’s death in the early morning when I was awakened by a voice on my answering machine telling me that he had “passed on.” The message was from a friend of a friend whose late mother had worked as Wyeth’s housekeeper for over 30 years. I bring up that connection only because Wyeth seemed to inspire Chester County’s own version of the “six degrees of separation.” I don’t have to read every entry of the Brandywine River Museum’s remembrance blog to know that there was something about Wyeth that made us want to come forward and share every anecdote about him.

Andrew Wyeth with his most famous model, Helga, at Hank's Place in Chadds Ford (Photo by Barbara Johnson)Wyeth certainly was not your run-of-the-mill celebrity artist, but neither was he an artist who could call his admirers “his collectors” or his fan base. His unusually close relationship with the locals and regular folk was due, perhaps, to the fact that he was the only American artist to have painted entirely in two places: Chadds Ford and around his summer home in Maine.

It made sense that his favorite writers included Robert Frost, who spoke of neighborly divisions (“He is all pine and I am apple orchard”), and Thoreau, who wryly wrote, “I have traveled much in Concord.”

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To paraphrase artist Karl Kuerner, whose family farm is now open to the public, Wyeth captured a small corner of our world and made us  appreciate its qualities. What makes his death particularly poignant (“The end of an era,” Kuerner says.) is that Wyeth was still painting nearly right up to the end. His death marks the end of a vision that evolved and changed, but kept true to his belief that he could only paint what he knew and loved. Chadds Ford is no longer the “little village with the dirt road running through it,” as he once said, but Wyeth faced change with his characteristic good cheer. Paintings of recent years, I’ve noticed, have included images of yellow yield signs, red traffic cones, the white streaming headlights of Route 1 at night, and even a dead squirrel.  

I’m not suggesting that Wyeth was one for commentary—only that he was an artist who observed the times. He was our historian of sorts, capturing those places like the Kuerner Farm and the black community of Mother Archie’s Church before the way of life they represent disappeared forever.  

Wyeth never taught nor even gave a local lecture in an informal setting. Yet nearly every artist I know has defined themselves as being with or outside the Wyeth tradition. A handful have even moved great distances to be near Wyeth. Others were aspiring local artists who learned first-hand that their famous neighbor was happy to share his artistic terrain. Those who come to mind are Kuerner, who studied with Wyeth’s sister, Carolyn, as well as the late Jimmy Lynch and Rea Redifer.

Redifer, who died last May at age 75, went so far as to trace his entire painting career back to a chance encounter he had while serving in the Korean War. On leave in Japan, he happened to see an exhibit of Wyeth’s paintings and decided on the spot to move to Chadds Ford and beg “Andy” for lessons.

The discovery that Wyeth would no sooner take up acrylic painting than consider teaching was often a minor point, my informants tell me. The exchange typically went something like this: After a ribbing and a “hee, hee” laugh from Andy, his eyes becoming half moons like Christmas cheer personified, the prospective student was quickly dispensed to the old N.C. Wyeth Studio, where Carolyn coolly gave you the once over in a cloud of cigarette smoke and decided if you were up to the task of becoming an artist.

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Lynch apparently escaped the full treatment, mainly because Carolyn had died by the time he took up painting in his mid-50s. He eventually moved away from the area, but not before asserting that his own painting career took its direction from Wyeth’s favorite and only advice: “Paint what you’re about, not what someone else is about.”

That “someone” was presumably Wyeth, though his influence was not something that seemed to register with him. He often spoke of others as being better educated or more in touch with certain subjects, having a broader view of the local landscape. Philip Jamison, whose landscape paintings could be described as very “Wyethy,” told me that Wyeth even pulled him aside once at a party to express his admiration for a wet paper watercolor technique Jamison used and that Wyeth thought he hadn’t mastered himself.

Curiously, it didn’t seem to matter if you were an artist colleague, a friend, a neighbor or merely someone who had the pleasure of having a Wyeth “sighting”—you still became part of a special group, a kind of unofficial fan club. Even Victoria Weyth, his only grandchild, was apparently not immune to the excitement of a Wyeth encounter. When NPR announced his death, Victoria recalled being taken aback when she came upon his car, front end pitched into the Brandywine Creek. Uncertain of whether he had had an accident, she sought help at the Wyeth estate and was told that it was merely “the new thing,” Wyeth’s latest means of getting a better perspective for painting—“getting to the picture,” as Wyeth saw it.

Throughout his life, Wyeth was the gonzo artist. He bore the stifling heat of attics and barn lofts and, even in his 90s, worked outdoors in freezing weather. I was told that he had a fall this summer and broke some ribs. Where he fell, I don’t know, but I believe that was the first accident he’d had in all those years of doing things like clambering over the sea rocks of coastal Maine.

Sadly, Victoria’s story brings home the fact that the family’s typical bemused “What’s he up to now?” response is in the past. At the risk of sounding disrespectful, I hope they can be consoled with the idea that Wyeth is off somewhere, on a cloud, looking down to “Earth,” as he would put it, doing his high-pitched laugh at the thought of all those people who are now right: He is dead.

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Indeed, variations of the question “He’s still living?” became almost a family joke after Victoria came on the scene and began to lecture at area venues and give tours at the Brandywine River Museum. It was a question she heard again and again. Judging from my interviews, Wyeth himself loved telling stories about those who assumed he was dead or someone else entirely—an old codger “taking a leak,” as he put it, not an artist sketching by the side of the road.

Wyeth also relished the idea of an anonymity that allowed him to go largely undisturbed on the streets or in museum galleries. In a Philadelphia Inquirer story published on the occasion of his 2006 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I wrote that he went unnoticed as “he made his way through the galleries, passing a small group listening intently to a tour guide.”

I think Wyeth would have enjoyed the idea of returning, Tom Sawyer-like, to check up on what his friends and critics really thought of him. At least he has Victoria, whom I’m sure he appreciated as a spokesperson. Her insights and wonderful storytelling abilities help to explain her grandfather’s contradictory nature—to be both intensely private and the man about town.

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In some ways, Wyeth was rendered invisible with the help of neighbors or friends who typically went out of their way to lie about his whereabouts. I’ve always liked the story about the camp of reporters who descended on Chadds Ford when the news of Helga broke. Little did they know that, as they drank coffee and shared maps of the area at Hank’s Place, the Wyeth estate was practically a stone’s throw away.  The lips of Hank’s staff were sealed.

George Heeber, a man I came to think of as the former “bouncer” of the Wyeth estate, once told of Wyeth’s tendency to ditch reporters, leaving them with their tape recorders and notebooks in hand at the door. Then it was up to Heeber to take over, and lessen the blow by squiring the jilted reporter around the property. According to Heeber, “Andy” took one look at the bearded Alan Toffler, then a writer for Life, and decided that he was a raging intellectual, and it would be a very long afternoon of “art speak.”

For my first interview—when I first got “the call” from Wyeth’s people—I was invited to sit with him at his home, purportedly for what my editors hoped to be the breakthrough interview. (I can still hear them saying, “Don’t forget to ask him about his affair with Helga.”) One editor suggested I not sit down at all, but try to have an informal talk, strolling the grounds of the mill complex. At the time, I was a relatively inexperienced reporter, and I fretted that I would not ask the right questions. To prepare, I must have read a filing cabinet’s worth of information.

I was fearful that, when the day arrived, Wyeth would be a “no show,” and I’d be forced to return to the obit beat. Of course, when the time came, Wyeth was there, looking like a spry and expressive favorite uncle.

Once the story was published, though, it didn’t seem to matter if it advanced my career or earned me the respect of my editors and colleagues. Meeting Wyeth and writing about him seemed—as it still does—more of a personal duty, a promise: I was to be the faithful recorder. Without exactly saying so, he managed to convey the idea that the interview was not about him but about me, and my ability to connect him with his true admirers: the ordinary people fame now kept away. In fact, I suspect that Wyeth had granted that first interview only because I agreed to preview the Helga exhibit and to secretly jot down the comments I heard in the galleries.

At the risk of sounding trite, I imagine Wyeth’s death will bring to light the true meaning of Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

I see the loss as the end of possibilities—the delight in discovering a new Wyeth work at the Brandywine River Museum, or the thrill that, just this one day, I might miraculously select the exact time Wyeth has to brave a public lunch and I’ll find him ordering a sandwich, Helga alongside him, at Hank’s.

Wyeth gave people a sense of community, a sense of history, and even a feeling of belonging and purpose.

Now that he’s gone, it makes little difference whether or not you had the privilege of knowing or meeting him, however briefly. At least we can share the bragging rights: Andrew Wyeth once lived among us.

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