I paid a visit to Olson House in Cushing, where Andrew Wyeth painted many of his great works over the course of decades. It’s a straightforward drive to the midcoast of Maine, and one peninsula south from where my wife, Dana, a fine pastel artist, and I were staying in Port Clyde.
We had avoided Olson House for years – tourist trap, we assumed. Not because we dislike Wyeth – just the opposite – but because we know how unsatisfying the experience of the “Famous Subject” can be. Too many Sunday artists plant themselves in the footsteps of the masters, hoping to relive the thrill of another’s vision. But whenever I’ve traced the journey of artists I admire – and I have paid my homage at Taos, at Yosemite, at Point Lobos and more – the experience always seems desiccated. The juice has long ago been squeezed from these places. Re-creations seem trivial or transparent; one is struck most by what is now lacking. The present seems inadequate in the face of such freighted past significance.
I believe every generation has to discover its own power places, for the power most definitely does not linger. Port Clyde, a power place in my current circuit of exploration, is an exception for me because I discovered it before knowing of the famous Wyeth presence. But I had thought Olson House belonged to the past.
I’m not normally a diarist, but I felt compelled to record a remarkable day.
Morning dawned clear and windy, cool – a bit of a surprise for summer. The alarm clicked on at 4:30 AM, but no station was broadcasting. Still, the click was enough to awaken me. I looked outside, spent a few moments summoning the will to arise, and finally determined that I must. Dana and I drove down Horse Point Road to look at the channel entrance to Port Clyde Harbor. Then it was a flurry of shooting – painting for Dana – decent material for me, good but not as interesting as my visit here last year. After a few false starts the sun came out seemingly for good. OK. Shoot. Back to the cottage to nap.
After a long, middle day lazy, we decided it was finally time to go to Olson House. We arrived there about 2 PM.
At first blush my lowered expectations seem justified; almost all the original furnishings are gone. There is a museum office with freshly painted floors in the old dining room. The living room has a flat panel TV playing a video presentation about Wyeth and the Olsons. The kitchen still has the big stove, but the coffee pot on it is shiny and new, everything carefully styled in a museum tableaux. It’s hard to find any sightlines without explanatory cards tacked on the walls.
People flock to Olson House like a visit to the fountainhead. Hushed and awed they stop at each window, each informational sign and reproduction, as though they were Stations of the Cross. How could any place justify such intensity? Yet, anyone with even a glimmer of artistic sensibility senses how close the intersection of private and shared universes is here. Wyeth is a guide into a world of isolation and transcendence, where the the human condition and its underlying tragic nature is uplifted through a conscious, loving art. Yes, love. Love is the current running through his paintings; not romantic love or youthful passion, but an all-encompassing love for each temporal moment exquisitely lived. In Wyeth’s heightened universe there is significance in small things, spirit lingers despite time and decay, light delicately constrains an underlying darkness. One senses the darkness beneath the light in his paintings, though it’s only an unconscious awareness to the casual observer. Without the love breathed into each brush stroke, if there were only darkness or only light, his paintings would never have struck such a universal chord.
A number of professional critics dislike Wyeth, who worked when Modernism was all the rage to make or break a reputation for artist and critic alike. Wyeth refused Abstract Expressionism for what is commonly called realism, though almost all art is inherently an abstraction; refused oil for tempera and watercolor; and, most importantly, refused Modernism’s cerebral dispassion. Many critics are suspicious of popularity, suspicious of any emotional currents in art; validating only pure intellect, they mistake emotion for sentimentality, interest in specific human experience for a regionalist’s naiveté. The guardians of Post-Modernism mistakenly regard the weak copies of Wyeth churned out by legions of Sunday painters as the distillation of the original vision, and then heap upon it their disdain.
Much has been written debating Wyeth’s place in modern art history and reviewing it in detail now is beyond my day’s musing. But even a cursory look into Wyeth’s process shows he carefully constructed, formally, his paintings.
And so, despite my initial misgivings, my visit began to unfold into something marvelous, invigorating, mesmerizing – something completely unexpected.
I walked the house, looked at the Wyeth reproductions and read the curators texts. The pathos of the Olson’s existence and the transcendence of Wyeth’s vision became palpable. I had expected to shoot nothing – the cynicism of prior experience tracing footsteps. Instead, I felt compelled to make photographs. I looked for details on the first floor, especially around the areas I was most drawn to: the kitchen and the tool shed.
I found myself transfixed in the pantry before a remnant of original vision: a lamp, glassware on shelves and a crock pot on the counter. Whether the glassware was original Olson or modern simulacrum, it mattered not; the light from the window was lovely. A rope and hanging sign across a doorway in the background nagged at my vision. Should I take it down surreptitiously or use Photoshop later? Photoshop later, I determined – I would be respectful and a good guest. No tripods are allowed inside, it’s strictly hand-held cameras only. Well, how little do the worried curators of the Farnsworth understand the impressive high-sensitivity capabilities of today’s digital cameras.
I understand the crock pot was the only item left unpurchased when the house contents were auctioned.
Then I stood at the rope barring access to the tool shed. Again, lovely light raked over a hanging basket, tools beneath, ancient wood all around. I shot in a breath-hold moment.
These views were probably painted by Wyeth in some form or other, but the appeal to me in making them is that I have not seen those particular originals. I’m not interested in duplicating compositions. These photos I made are most definitely homage to his vision, though, and I think that’s OK.
Most startling to me as I reviewed my shots was the color– the parched plaster walls and dry wood were alive with Wyeth’s subtle palette, penetrating and enveloping each small scene. Wyeth was a keen observer of color. Green bounces up from the lawn and trees into the corners and ceilings, blue washes sky lit counters and the lower part of walls, and the windows are diffused with decades of dust.
The din of past lives echoed powerfully across the weight of years to my present in that house. I felt the unflinching truth of Wyeth’s vision, the transcendence of his art. It was powerfully manifest as I walked the corridors and peered into the same corners so long ago studied. Wyeth breathed unrelenting clarity and compassion, godlike, into such little things – latches, drying corn, pieces of string and wood.
Late that afternoon I walked to the Olson graveyard and read the stones. I was moved by the largeness and the smallness of death, found my own heart aching as I peered into both past and future toward the fate all face and almost all avoid. My thoughts went to my parents, my father dying now so slowly. I imagined what it would be to stand at their graves and feel the same consuming sadness. Graves of young children crushed me. It had all ended, the line ended for the Olson name – now forever memorable for the art that was created from the dust of their lives. The smallness of each life’s single existence came over me, and I could affirm the only solution I could see – we must love one another, give meaning to life with love and friendship, make the world less burdensome, love with overwhelming conviction.
Dana joined me, happy and energized, and I felt overcome for a moment with how much our family means to me – but I was chastened in silence.
As the day went on we struck more and more to the heart of being artists, carried by our own visions and joy in creating. At dinner I shot some marvelous dusk photos of Port Clyde from the docks around the General Store. It was a spectacular evening, the energy was infectious, and both tourists and locals alike were drawn to see the previews on the back of my camera, which I happily shared at their request. It was fun.
And most spectacular of all was the last shot, glowing clouds backlit by the full moon, a long exposure capturing windswept movement, flowing water, a few distant houses and the twinkle of stars. 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 200 – like all moments, unique in eternity.