Thursday, March 04, 2021

Book Review: Wyeth People

I am not particularly an "art" person.  I took an art history class in college as my mother recommended it to broaden my horizons (and it did), but frankly I never got or took to modern art:  I like realism and beauty and determining the meaning of the painting, not abstractness and having the art dictated to me.  As a result, my artistic delights tend towards the realistic of the 18th and 19th Century, Orthodox iconography, and the Japanese woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e

Somewhat to a lot of people's surprise, Gene Logsdon - The Contrary Farmer - was an art person.

Logsdon was a fan of the arts - in fact, he published a entire book about the impact of agriculture on the arts: The Mother of All Arts:  Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse in 2007.  But long before this, Logsdon was a farm magazine journalist inspired by Andrew Wyeth.

This was not a surprise to me:  Wyeth and his paintings figure prominently in many of his books, and a few of them have interviews with members of families that Wyeth painted.  What I did not know - until I read it - is that once upon a time, Logsdon actually met Wyeth.



The story reads almost like a mystery:  A young reporter, idealistically enamored of a childhood hero whose art he admires, sets out to meet the artist.  He actually manages to meet the artist at a local diner, and tries to have an interview, but it goes nowhere.  He still has an article to write, but has nothing novel to say.  His solution:  find a way to connect with Wyeth when an interview is not sufficient.

And so Logsdon goes on an adventure of sorts through New England, in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania  and Cushing, Maine (apparently pronounced "Cushin") look for the people and places that Wyeth paints (at one point, he spends the better part of a day trying to locate Wyeth's house in Maine, only to find himself lost on a beach at the end of the day).

And he finds them.  And the book becomes a series of stories about people and places that make up both a small world and a world beyond imagination.

We meet Karl Kuerner, a German from the old country whose farm and cattle figure into many of Wyeth's pictures; Adam Johnson, handyman and last keeper of Mother Archie's church; Willard Snowden, Wyeth's handyman.  In Maine, we go to the place where Christina's World (below) was painted, and meet two Maine men who were subjects of his paintings, Forrest Wall and Ralph Cline.  This is the 1960's, before the deluge of the paparazzi, where individuals who had been painted by the famous were still willing to talk with a young reporter, still willing to invite him into their house for dinner or pie and a story.

(www.moma.org)

Each of the stories - vignettes really, they do not go more than a few pages each - are not only about the individual, but their interaction with Wyeth.  In sparse linguistic strokes, Logsdon attempts to draw with words a relationship and a feeling of the individual, in a way reflecting what his hero did with paints.

Finally, Logsdon goes home, somewhat defeated by his encounters.  He went seeking someone who inspired him; he comes home feeling that he has discovered nothing new.  Presenting his manuscript to his sister Jenny, he asks her for her opinion:

"Well, we - all of us living around here, at least - are the kind that Wyeth paints.  What is in his subjects is in us.  But we take it for granted.  After he paints them, we suddenly realize there are many, many people in America who are like us."

"You discover that you have a culture" I suggested.

"Yes, maybe that's it." She smiled.  "A Silent Majority culture.  But that tag rankles in me because it lumps us all as ultra-conservative.  A mistake.  If conservatism we have, it's not the kind that politicians understand."

"It's endurance that we have.  Ingrained in our culture is the patience to endure.  Each day I stand here and look out my window and watch the season's pass - life coming, going, coming again.  We live every day with this truth.  We are the ones that learn to resist change least of all.  Is that conservatism?  To take comfort in endurance?  To know that endurance is better than change?   Change runs in circles, repeats itself.  We are the rock; the wind blows one way, then another.

"That is why Wyeth is our artist.  He paints people who have learned this basic lesson in life:  to endure.  Critics who claim that paints only the sentimental past miss the point completely.  He doesn't just paint the past.  He paints endurance.  He paints eternity.  Or rather each painting shows an instant in time so utterly real it becomes eternal.

"That sounds corny, but that's what I decided I'd tell you.  And that's all I have to say on the subject, too.  If you have to worry and work for a living every day, you understand what Wyeth says in every painting.  We endure!""

I will be honest.  I have many of Logsdon's books, but put off purchasing this one because this seemed so far afield from what he usually writes on and what I read him for.  Frankly, I was wrong to delay as long as I did.  

This book is as much a labor of love as it is a story.  It is the quest of a young man - Logsdon would have been in his early thirties during the writing of it - who is seeking out a childhood hero to meet and write about.  When confronted with the inability to truly understand his hero, he goes to the next best thing:  the things his hero loves, the people and things his hero paints in hopes of finding in those things the answers from his hero he could not find in speaking to him.

Was he successful?  Successful enough to me that I would actually be interested in going to Wyeth's studio - now a museum - in Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania, and the Olson House in Cushing, Maine.  

And maybe actually, for once, buying a piece of art.

Andrew Wyeth Museum

Olson House Museum

6 comments:

  1. I grew up with parents that liked art. My maternal aunts and grandmother were artistic. A tree succumbing to a flash flood in the Red River was on the living room wall (grandma). A covered wagon trip from Fort Worth to Altus in 1904 (grandma). A frozen landscape with a barbwire fence corner post and gate (aunt)...

    Dad loved Charlie Russel. We had a huge slick page book with this art in it.

    Like you, I like the real stuff. Not a headache on canvas, or squirted paint stains...

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    1. Glen, I really do not remember that much art in our house growing up except a large picture of vase with flowers, the sort of thing that you would buy at a home decor show. Since they moved, they have filled their house with paintings of barns and the West - and yes, Charles Russell.

      It is not that I object to them making it. I object to the insistence I must pour only their meaning into it.

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  2. Artists can be incredibly difficult to understand. Some see light and wind and motion through eyes that perceive it differently.

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    1. It can, Glen. It reminds of Temple Grandin, whose autism allows here to see things the way animals see them.

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  3. I'm not much of an modern art enthusiast either, preferring realism. But when it comes to sculpture, I really do like the modern versions along with the realism versions.

    Probably not quite 40 years ago, I met a great aunt and uncle whom I had never met before from the hills of LA. They gave me a book of paintings by Wyeth that I leafed through and then put on the book shelf. Many years later when I was off on my own and my parents were looking for a guest bedroom, I took the book and I'm fairly certain, I still have it somewhere in my collection (because it had a personal inscription to me inside) but I have not seen it in decades. This post makes me want to go digging through the corners of my bookshelf to see if it is still there.

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    1. Ed, I will be fair. I do not know I have been exposed to enough sculpture to have an opinion.

      It is odd - after reading about Wyeth, I went and looked at some of his paintings. I knew more than I had anticipated.

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