Last week I paid brief tribute to Andrew Wyeth who passed away on January 16 at age 91. This week I want to share a few more parting words for this great American artist.
The day after Andrew Wyeth’s death I found myself on the road in northern New England, planning to travel through western Maine on my way to some snow-trekking above the notches in northern New Hampshire. It was a frigid early morning as I flew from Baltimore to Manchester, New Hampshire, and it was a cold and clear day as I motored to the coast near Portsmouth where I crossed the Piscataqua River into Maine. I stopped in Portland for lunch and while I was eating I read the Portland Press Herald’s front-page tribute to Wyeth. Then and there I decided to change my plans and detour my route. Instead of driving immediately north to the headwaters of the Connecticut River, I headed up the coast of Maine to Cushing and Port Clyde, two locales long and intimately associated with the Wyeth family, particularly Andrew Wyeth who continued to live there during much of the year.
Leaving Portland I drove up US Route 1, winding through pleasant riparian coastal towns. Approaching Wiscasset I spied two signs along the highway that have been there since I first visited this area. One of them advertises "Maine Art" and "Wyeth Prints" for sale, while the other announced "New Wyeth Prints Here oday" [sic] just as it has every day for the past 20+ years. These signs have served as a constant reminder to all who travel up the coast of Maine of the long connection the Wyeth family has had with this area.
When I arrived at South Warren, I drove south along the western banks of the frozen St. George River, past the old saltwater farms of Cushing. Traveling these back roads it felt like I had directly entered into an Andrew Wyeth painting. I eventually arrived at the end of Hathorne Point Road as dusk began to settle on this quiet winter landscape. "I thrive on nothingness," Wyeth once said. "And Cushing is one of those things that almost isn’t." I have been coming here for awhile and I know what he means. For Wyeth, Cushing represented a transition from the bucolic rural farmlands of the Pennsylvania of his youth to the raw, wild and unknown coast of Maine. And there stands the ancient Olson House where Andrew Wyeth came to paint as a young man, and where he found inspiration for "Christina’s World" (1948), unquestionably his most famous painting.
Andrew Wyeth often rowed his boat down the river from his home at Bradford Point, on Broad Cove, and he would wander the rooms of the old house, always seeking new subjects to paint. It was from an upstairs room that he observed the badly crippled Christina Olson as she crawled across a wide field from the family cemetery back to her house. Wyeth would paint here on and off for the next two decades. "There’s a haunting feeling there of people coming back to a place," Wyeth admitted. "The whole history of New England was in that house - spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic - dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea . . . It’s a doorway of the sea to me." From there he could look down river to the Georges Islands and the Gulf of Maine beyond. He was looking directly into his future.
And so there it was. Its graying clapboard and shingles appear much as they did when Wyeth began painting here 60 years ago. I could almost imagine a revenant Wyeth having now returned to the darkened and lonely upstairs rooms shuttered against the cold winds blowing off Muscongus Bay. Down at the end of the point, across the field where Christina once crawled toward her home, is the small family cemetery where Christina now lies buried. I have gone down there on previous visits, but in the winter it is encased in a deep mantle of snow; very much like it was 41 years ago when Wyeth returned to this point to bury Christina. I would not go there this time; the sun was dipping below clouds on the southern horizon, a harbinger of a snow storm expected along the coast that evening. The skies were turning dark and the temperature was beginning to plunge.
I left the Olson House and eventually crossed the St. George River at Thomaston, and from there I drove south again along the eastern bank of the river, down through the villages of St. George and Tenants Harbor, where Andrew’s son, James Wyeth, now lives and paints, and finally, as dusk arrived, to Port Clyde and land’s end guarded by Marshall Point Light. It was here, at nearby Horses Point, in the 1920s, that N.C. Wyeth established a summer home and studio for his family - a converted sea captain’s home he christened "Eight Bells" after a painting by Winslow Homer. And family members, especially Andrew, having been coming back every summer since.
Andrew Wyeth loved this area as much as he did his native Chadds Ford, but for different reasons. Here in Maine he experienced new qualities of light. Rural Pennsylvania was static - ancient farms and fields which he came to paint at Kuerner’s Farm. His Pennsylvania paintings are often dark and ominous, painted in the autumn and winter when he was in residence there. In Maine there was the restless sea with constantly changing weather and tides. Wyeth wandered these shorelines and offshore islands for years, always looking to paint the harsh realities of life in these landscapes and seascapes. This was different even from the saltwater farms he found in nearby Cushing. There was always something new in Maine and Wyeth would continue to search for that moment of revelation.
At Port Clyde I found myself once again on the edge of America looking toward Portugal but seeing only the Georges Islands, including Brenner Island that has been Andrew Wyeth’s summer home for many years, and adjacent Allen Island, also owned by the Wyeth family. And farther out to sea, on the horizon, the headlands of Monhegan Island, it’s familiar lighthouse a solitary tick of quicksilver as the storm clouds gathered and moved closer to shore. The day was ending and it was time for me to turn inland where I hoped to find a good meal and a warm bed.
Before I went to sleep that evening I reflected on Andrew Wyeth’s long life and how he continued to paint at his father’s studio at "Eight Bells." There was a rather taciturn warning posted on the door. "Notice: If it is the second coming of Christ, call me out. Otherwise let me alone." And the folks around Port Clyde honored his wishes. After all, Wyeth was one of them. They will miss him like the rest of us, maybe more. But I guess we should not grieve too long or too loudly, for Andrew Wyeth is in a better place." When I die, don’t ever worry about me. I don’t believe in being there for the funeral. Remember that. I’ll be flying far away, off on a new tack. Something new that’s twice as good."
NEXT WEEK: Reflections on an Approach: The Importance of a Road Trip
NEXT WEEK: Reflections on an Approach: The Importance of a Road Trip