“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
― Harper Lee,
As you might be aware, I’m currently taking part in the Blogging A-Z April Challenge, and my theme is Writing Letters to Dead Artists. Yesterday, I wrote to American artist, Andrew Newell Wyeth regarding his iconic masterpiece, Christina’s World.
What I discovered, has been a Eureka Moment. Indeed, I’ve not only jumped out of the bathtub, but also leaped out of my skin. You see, I live with a muscle wasting disease called dermatomyositis, and a complication which causes fibrosis in my lungs, leaving me short of breath and prone to infection. My situation is extremely rare and even world-wide, there are only a handful of people who walk in my shoes. So, it’s also equally difficult to meet anyone who gets my situation from the inside out, without having some kind of medical training. Clearly, this isn’t something you can bond over with a stranger at the bus stop.
However, then I stumbled across Christina’s World. Not only is there the connection with Christina and her muscle weakness, but very late last night, I found out Andrew Wyeth experienced a chronic lung condition. What the??? I was absolutely gobsmacked! Somehow this painting had brought about this very intense cosmic fusion between artist, subject and observer. I’m not even going to estimate the chances of this happening. They’re so infinitesimal, that you’d need a microscope to find them.
So, clearly you could understand why I was so excited about finding this work of art. It was like I’ve been travelling along the road less travelled forever, and suddenly meeting two fellow travellers, and having someone to walk with. Not that I’ve been alone, but you get my drift.
That’s why I’ve come back to Andrew Wyeth today. While the whole point of this challenge is to visit a new artist every day, I felt this connection deserved so much more than a fleeting, one-off letter exchange. That the three of us needed to sit out on Christina Olsen’s front step, or which ever step it was, and chat. Or, simply inhale and exhale the same air, and not even say a word. Me being me, I’d have to add a sunset. I’m not sure whether we’d be facing the sunset in real life, but sharing a Ginger Beer with two dead people is hardly what I’d call “living in the real world”. So, I can paint the sky any way I please, even neon if I get the urge. Well, that is, unless some of these Wyeths feel like giving me some painting lessons, or doing the job for me.
However, while we shared these struggles, we also shared our strengths. None of us were victims, who let circumstances chew us up and spit us out. Rather, we are survivors, battlers to the very end.
Despite her great mobility difficulties, Christina was out in the field picking blueberries and getting herself around without a wheelchair. She wasn’t sitting on the porch waiting to die.
As a young boy, Andrew Wyeth was frail and too unwell to go to school. However, encouraged and taught by his illustrator father and brought into his wider circle, he painted and mastered his craft trying various techniques until he found his own voice in egg tempera. Yet, his lung deteriorated further. In 1951, he had major surgery to remove a portion of his lung. He survived two near death experiences, and they even had to cut through muscles in his painting arm. This would’ve devastated many. Wiped them out. Yet, within a matter of weeks, Wyeth was back at work again. Indeed, Trodden Weed (featured image) was completed in March and if you’re familiar with Wyeth’s paintings, there’s all his usual attention to detail in blade after blade of grass. He didn’t slack off.
Of course, I don’t know for sure what Wyeth was really trying to say in Trodden Weed, which has been described as an “unconventional self-portrait”. However, based on my own experiences of medical setbacks, it could well signify that he’s back on his feet, even if he is wearing Howard Pyle’s boots. That he’s going places, and that his heath problems aren’t going to hold him back. Indeed, he certainly didn’t paint himself sitting in a chair out on the porch. No! Here is an artist, yet a man of action, much like Rodin’s The Thinker, if not so muscular.
This sense of perseverance is something I’ve experienced myself, and I’ve pushed myself in ways that defy logic. I’ve always been a writer and photography has also been an omnipresent part of me. Yet, since my diagnosis I’ve also taken up the violin, done some adult dance classes, and even gone skiing. Each of these activities defies logic. While I’m certainly better than I was, I still have days when I even struggle to walk around my house, and my lung problems aren’t trifle either. So, I’m not superhuman, but it does show that there are forces at work which we don’t understand, and it’s worth getting out of our comfort zones to stretch what is possible as far as we can. I’m just mighty grateful that Australia’s largely flat, and I’m not living in Switzerland!
So, it is little wonder that alongside Christina’s World, I also relate to Brendan Graham’s modern hymn: You Raise Me Up, in such a personal way. For, along with Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olsen, I have also conquered mountains. Mountains beyond the physical and into the spiritual realm and I know I haven’t merely done this on my own strength. (By the way, I actually had the privilege of meeting Brendan Graham when he came to Sydney.)
Anyway, the day is done and I still have to move onto today’s artist…Guo Xi, which is starting to look like a very brief encounter indeed.
So, I thought I’d let Andrew Wyeth have the last word. You see, it’s a great irony that after spending most of his life in the shadow of death, that he somehow managed to live a very long, full life and passed away at the grand old age of ninety-one. How did he do it? That’s a side to Andrew Wyeth’s genius, that I’m truly wanting to pursue further. Was it something he did? Luck? The will of God? When I get to heaven, I’ll be lining up Andrew Wyeth and Stephen Hawking side-by-side and asking questions… “Please explain!”
Have you ever had an experience like this with a work of art, or a book perhaps where the artist, writer, whoever knows your innermost struggle in such a personal way? Please share it in the comments.
PS I just wanted to mention someone who walked with Andrew Wyeth in a very personal and unique way. That is Joyce H Stoner, a Conservator who worked with him on his paintings for the last 12 years of his life. Here’s a link to her reflections http://samblog.seattleartmuseum.org/tag/joyce-hill-stoner/. She talks about him in such an illustrating, personal way that even if you’d never seen his paintings, you’ll enjoy it.
She also appeared in this this detailed interview of his works.