I remember driving a winding road up a hill.
The blue sky opened with a Cheshire-like grin of expectation. At the end of the road I faced an edifice — a gray weathered box of windows, doors, and chimneys — with a ladder splayed prone on the roof. Shadows meandered around corners, peeked from eaves, and sunlight shimmered across panes of glass. On each windowsill were vibrant red geraniums, a breath of life inside a house that longed for life’s return.
It was the Olson house in Cushing, Maine — a place I learned about Andrew Wyeth.
When spring eventually shows up in Down East Maine, I think summer is not too far behind. I also think of red geraniums, Andrew Wyeth and the many artists that work in and around this special place I now call home.
Down East is saturated with talent. Artists work in paint, clay, textiles, pixels and words. They work in studios of wood and stone, in spare bedrooms, basements, attics and alcoves, or sometimes “en plein air”. Wherever they and their tools fit, the artist knows that purpose will arrive, sit for a bit, and something wonderful will bloom.
It was that way for Wyeth when he was painting in an upstairs bedroom at the Olson house. He looked out the window one summer afternoon and saw Christina wearing a pink summer dress, sitting in the grass, looking as if she was a chess piece waiting to be moved. As some know, that scene led to Christina’s World, Wyeth’s most famous work.
I found art late in life. In my early school days, I struggled in art class and, quite frankly, didn’t see the point. I have since righted that wrong and realize art makes all the difference in the world.
A college class is where I first encountered Wyeth. It was a single painting among others by artists I cared nothing about. When it appeared on a screen, it felt like a 19th-century English school teacher grabbed me by the collar and loudly bellowed, “Snap lively there, what do you think you’re doing, sleeping?” I wasn’t asleep, but it felt like I had just awakened by being plunged into an icy bath and then hearing someone whisper loudly in my ear, “Isn’t it wonderful, just look at it.”
The painting was Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea, with curtains blowing in an open window at the Olson house. It spoke to me at that moment. It’s a rare feeling, but no matter the circumstance or where or how it comes — in art, song, literature or even hearing a child’s laugh — when it happens, it’s eternal.
From then on I sought to learn and see more of Wyeth’s work. Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, just minutes from the college I attended, was where he lived and worked; when he was not there, he was in coastal Maine. For Wyeth, those two worlds were bookends placed down by his father N.C. Wyeth many years before, and where Andrew and then his son, Jamie, would follow. Between those bookends are wondrous works of art, a plethora of creative moments that bloomed, captured on canvas.
As I walked the Olson grounds, five years after that freshman year art class and well before it was acquired by the Farnsworth Art Museum, I could see vestiges of Christina and her brother, Alvaro. I could sense Wyeth paintings and drawings everywhere and feel its essence as a place and the impact it had on a young artist. More than 300 works by Wyeth came from this former farmhouse in Cushing. Wyeth is this place, I thought.
Since then, I have been back numerous times. I also have walked through the Pennsylvania field to the Kuerner farmhouse where Wyeth spent many of his days painting. The mill, spring barn and Kuerner’s kitchen now are famous. Everywhere there is a Wyeth painting. When you are there, it feels as if the artist is tugging at your sleeve saying, “Isn’t it wonderful, just look at it.” I never met Wyeth in the physical sense, but feel I did get to know him through his work.
At the Farnsworth in Rockland, there was a recent exhibition of paintings completed by Wyeth before he died in 2009. The show included his very last painting. This one, too, called to me.
Entering the gallery, it felt like I was back at college, only older, a few pounds heavier, certainly wiser, and again seeing Wyeth for the very first time. It reminded me that life is better when you take time to see it, feel it, and engage it — the same feeling that I had in that Pennsylvania classroom.
In this painting — named by his wife, Betsy, just as all of his paintings had been since they met in the 40s — he captures vestiges of a past and the world he inhabited behind egg-washed paint. In all of Wyeth’s paintings the strokes are his breath, the paint and color his emotion.
The painting shows a white house with many windows, set upon a slight hill, with the tide coming in as a small sloop heads out, pushed by a current of air. All of it — the boat, the house and the life around them — moves quickly past, waves its collective hand and quietly whispers, Goodbye, My Love.
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.