I was flattered recently when my friend Charles said that my artwork reminds him of the work of Andrew Wyeth - wow, one of the artists I most admire! If you are not familiar with the three generations of the Wyeth family of painters, they are foremost among American artists. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), father of Andrew, was a highly successful artist and illustrator, creating over 3000 paintings, illustrating 112 books, painting historical murals for noted public buildings, and supporting his family with his commercial art work and commissions. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his siblings grew up mentored by their father and stimulated by his art, his collections of props, costumes and artifacts, and his visits from other creative artists of the day, such as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and actress Lillian Gish. Andrew, the youngest child, began many years of intensive art training with his father when he was 15. His first one-man gallery show in New York in 1937 brought him acclaim. Andrew's most famous early work was "Christina's World" (1948), which depicted his Maine neighbor Christina Olson, who was paralyzed from polio, shown sprawled in a pasture, pulling herself back toward the distant farmhouse where she lived with her brother Alvaro. Andrew Wyeth's art career was given a boost when the painting was quickly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and it since has become an American icon. Andrew's son Jamie (b. 1946) established himself in the art world at a young age; his success in portraiture resulted in a portrait of President John Kennedy when Jamie was in his early 20s. Andrew's sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews have had successful art careers as well.
In response to Charles' compliment, I told him the story of how my artwork became connected with the Wyeth family. It's a story I've shared often, but never recorded it, so I'm taking this opportunity to do so.
Rick and I were visiting our good friends Becky and Bob in Maine in May 2001. Their summer place was not far from Cushing, Maine, and they suggested a day trip to the Farnsworth Museum, which had an extensive collection of Wyeth family art, and to the museum-operated Olson House, the setting of many of Andrew's paintings. I had previously attended two fabulous museum shows of his work which left me in awe of the detail and emotion he incorporated as well as of his mastery of watercolor and egg tempera.
"Dudley Within Christina's World" and posted a photo of it in my online gallery.
Fast forward a couple of years.... one day I received an email from a woman from New Hampshire named Ruth. She said her husband had been doing an internet search for his grandfather, Dudley Rockwell, and my painting came up in the search results. She said they loved the painting and the way it captured Dudley so well. I responded to Ruth that I had the original painting available for purchase. Our email exchanges continued; she said she was a teacher and her husband James worked for a printer and they were raising young daughters Rachel and Emma - circumstances which didn't leave much extra money for purchases like fine art. I told Ruth I fully understood; years earlier I had been an art teacher as well as an employee of a print shop (where I first learned commercial art), also in New Hampshire, and my income had been nothing to brag about at the time! She asked where I taught and my reply included my final teaching stint, for grades 7-12 in Bristol, NH. Ruth sent me another note right away. She said she had read my email and quickly fetched her junior high yearbook, discovering that I had been her art teacher! What a small world. Long story short, I priced the painting to make it affordable to Ruth and James and I will always be honored to have it in their home. It's my little claim to fame to have a connection to the Wyeth family.
Over the years, Ruth and I have continued our exchanges and she has shared some interesting stories. When her family went to Dudley's 90th birthday celebration she wrote:
"There were a few hundred people at the party. It was pretty informal - people came and went. A tent was set up on the field near the Olson House (right where Christina sat in the painting) and he soaked up all the attention he got. For days after he was still smiling and adding up all of the people who were there…. I was trying to take a picture of Dud and Busy Bee (his wife) as they sat in their guest-of-honor chairs, and I was interrupted by this man leaning over and talking to Dud. I just sort of sighed and thought, 'Get out of the way, buddy!' Then I realized that those skinny legs looked vaguely familiar. I remembered who owned those legs, too. I had been anxiously waiting for Andrew Wyeth to get his butt out of my picture! Needless to say, I didn't mind him standing there after that. In fact, I ended up having the PERFECT spot because he and his wife Betsy stood right there facing me during all the speeches and I was clicking away like crazy!!!!"
"What the Farnsworth [Museum] ended up doing for Dud was wonderful. First of all they gave him lifetime membership (he was very happy - he had been complaining about the fact that the annual fee was going from $65 to $85 a year!) and then they told him that they're raising $1 million in his name. That will go toward funding a curator to oversee the Olson House in his stead (his big concern was that once he was gone no one would have the interest in keeping it going like he has).... he's thrilled to pieces about it!"
Dudley Rockwell died on October 1, 2006, at the age of 93. Up until 2 weeks before his death he still went to the Olson House and presented his lecture on a regular basis, drove himself around town, enjoyed life with his wife, spent time in his workshop, and loved doing crosswords and watching Jeopardy. He was buried in a coffin which he built himself, inscribed with the words 'Handmade by Occupant.'
I am grateful for my memories of a sunny afternoon in May, walking in the steps of Andrew Wyeth, sitting on a bench by the flowering lilacs outside the Olson House, and chatting casually with Dudley Rockwell.