Welcome to my series of Letters to a Dead Artists, which I’ve put together for the 2018 Blogging A-Z April Challenge. For the past month, I’ve been steadily moving through the alphabet and after writing to Leonardo Da Vinci yesterday, today I’ll be writing to Andrew Newell Wyeth, an American realist painter.The music I have chosen to accompany Andrew Wyeth is Celtic Woman singing You Raise Me Up
Wyeth was born on July 12, 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and passed away at the age of 91 on January 16, 2009…a very long way from Sydney, Australia.
“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
Andrew Newell Wyeth
Prior to setting out on this challenge, I had never heard of Andrew Newell Wyeth, and to be perfectly honest, I only found out about him on a Google search trying to fill up the vacant letters. It’s a problem I face every year, where I’m forced to leave something out because certain letters are bombarded with choice, and I’m left desperately scrambling to find anything for others. However, my criterion for choosing every single one of these artists, whether I knew them before, or whether they popped up in the Great Google Lucky Dip, was that I needed to experience some kind of emotional, psychological and even spiritual connection. It couldn’t just be a case of: “She’ll be right mate”, or any artist will do.
As it turned out, Andrew Newell Wyeth’s iconic painting Christina’s World (1948), grabbed me by the throat and almost stopped me dead. This artist I had never ever heard of before, had never met, and lived on the other side of the world, had miraculously captured my suppressed, desperate, clawing frustration of battling against the muscle weakness brought on by dermatomyositis.
“To be interested solely in technique would be a very superficial thing to me. If I have an emotion, before I die, that’s deeper than any emotion that I’ve ever had, then I will paint a more powerful picture that will have nothing to do with just technique, but will go beyond it.”
When I first saw the house on top of the hill, and Christina groping her way up through the grass, I could feel her struggle in my own body. Yet, it didn’t occur to me straight away that Christina also had some form of muscle loss. Rather, I thought the painting simply portrayed human struggle, and that clawing desperation to make it up the top of the hill. Indeed, I felt a sort of chill or goose bumps, as soon as I saw the painting. There was that instant recognition of myself, and of course, it helped that I also have long dark hair and there could well have been quite a likeness once upon a time. Of course, it helps that he painted her with her back to the world and we can’t see her face.
Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olden 1947
Indeed, seeing Christina’s World, I was swept into a horrific vortex of memory, reliving when I simply tripped over a broom at home. Much to my surprise, I was literally swept into a blood-chilling nightmare, when I couldn’t get myself up again.
There I was a 36 year old Mum home alone with my two young kids. Mister was about three and a half and at an age where, like a scene out of Dead Poet’s Society, he’d climb up onto our back shed to get a better look at the “mountains”. He was somewhere when I fell, which usually meant mischief, danger or a combination of the two. Meanwhile, Miss was only 16 months old, and Mummy’s little shadow. However, that also meant that when I fell, I knocked her over on the way down. She was crying and this was no ordinary cry either but had that same chilling sensation of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, which travels right under your skin. Of course, I’d normally pick her straight up. Comfort her. Kiss it better. However, I was weighed down like a sack of lead potatoes, and couldn’t move at all to reach her and just had her cry in my ear.
Instead, there I was lying face down on the tiles and couldn’t get up. Moreover, at this point of time, I didn’t have a name for the horrific monster which had invaded my body and my bloodstream. Not having a diagnosis, in a way, meant that it didn’t exist and that I was just “tired”. It was just part of being a Mum with very young kids… having a baby. Sleep deprivation and utter exhaustion are par for the course, aren’t they? However, this was different…something nasty, sinister, a monster. While I hurt my knee in the fall, why couldn’t I get up? For somebody with normal mobility, this was so surreal and strange. Quite unlike the sort of panic that comes, when you can’t feel your legs. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason I couldn’t get up. I was just tired, rundown although there was something funny going on with my blood tests. Eventually, I was able to lift myself onto my bottom and I shuffled into the kitchen. For once, the cordless phone was there when I needed it and I rang my husband who was at work a two hour train trip away. Clearly, he couldn’t just pop home and magically save the day. Meanwhile, my call filled him with a sense of dread, absolute powerlessness and horror. Clearly I was very unwell and needed immediate help, and he couldn’t do a thing. In fact, I don’t think either of us even considered calling an ambulance. That was for emergencies and I’d just simply fallen over…
All he could suggest was levering myself up with a chair and that worked. It took a further six weeks for me to finally receive a diagnosis and then I was in a combination of hospital and rehab for about 8 weeks.
“There’s a quote from Hamlet that is my guide… He tells the players not to exaggerate but to hold a mirror up to nature. Don’t overdo it, don’t underdo it. Do it just on the line.”
So, while it was sensational to find Christina’s World and to see my struggles depicted and represented on canvas, there was also an enormous sense of sadness. You see, like Christina, despite pushing myself beyond breaking point so many, many times, I still haven’t made it to the top of the hill. I haven’t made it home. Not only am I adrift, but there’s also that intense frustration better known as angst where I can see where I want to go. Where I’m meant to be. Yet, I’m constantly clawing through the mud and getting nowhere.
“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future-the timelessness of the rocks and the hills-all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape-the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
Yet, ironically there is also great strength in persevering through weakness. Indeed, there’s that old adage: “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger”. That’s so true and these days they’ve even called this fighting comeback…resilience. Indeed, resilience is now considered one of the key ingredients for getting through life. So, for those of us who received more than their allocated glass and a half, we must be powering all the way to the moon. Well, if only we could make up that darn hill.
By the way, after spilling my guts about how Christina’s World touched me so personally, I had to laugh as these prophetic words of Andrew Wyeth’s:
“I get letters from people about my work. The thing that pleases me most is that my work touches their feelings. In fact, they don’t talk about the paintings. They end up telling me the story of their life or how their father died.”
I guess it’s not surprising that Wyatt knew and had experience intensive suffering and loss himself. In 1945, Wyeth’s father and his three-year-old nephew were killed near their home, when his car stalled on railroad tracks and was struck by a train. Wyeth has often referred to his father’s death as a formative emotional event in his artistic career. Shortly following the tragedy, Wyeth’s art consolidated into his mature and enduring style, characterized by a subdued colour palette, highly realistic renderings, and the depiction of emotionally charged symbolic objects.
Christina’s World was painted a year after his father’s death.
Although this introduction is very rushed and feeling incomplete and inadequate, I’m going to get moving and start writing my letter to Andrew Wyeth.
A Letter to Andrew Wyeth
For the last month, I’ve been trying on the shoes of so many artists and tried to see the world through their eyes, before I take a huge, audacious step and actually write them a letter. As much as it’s been a lot of fun in a heavy research searching for the meaning of life kind of way, it’s also been very challenging, especially as it seems that almost every artist without exception, has experience incredible suffering. I don’t know whether it’s this understanding and empathy with suffering, which has given their paintings added depth and emotional insight, but there’s definitely that common thread.
Do you think artists suffer more than others, and their grief inspires their art? Or, does their art become more of an antidote, a way of releasing the anguish trapped inside?
I have asked God myself why there’s so much suffering, especially at one point where I felt he’d channelled centuries of wrath in my direction and afflicted me with the dermatomyositis. However, ever faithful, he replied and said: “if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.” I didn’t challenge him on that front again. He’d made his point.
Anyway, I’d like to thank you for giving us Christina’s World. While everybody who sees the painting could well have their own interpretation, her story obviously has a very personal connection for me. Trying to get up hills is particularly hard for me these days. Not so much due to the muscle weakness but due to the associated problems I have with my lungs, which are currently not much over 50% capacity. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, but you seem like the sort of people I could simply talk to. That you care. That no one’s experiences or struggles are too small or insignificant. Each of us matters.
Before I head off, I’ve enclosed some leftover egg yolks, which I thought you could use to make up your tempura paint. I made a pavlova yesterday and I hate wasting the left over yolks. By the way, I’ve attached my recipe for Betsy. I understand she made a lot of meringues in her time.
Andrew Wyeth: Wind From the Sea.
A Letter From Andrew Wyeth
Thank you so much for your letter and the egg yolks. I’ve already started on a painting. This one depicts Andy Warhol’s reaction when I received your letter and he missed out. Dad, ever out to compete and do things bigger, bolder, brighter has splashed oils all over the biggest canvas in stock. Mine is more subdued, but you’ll have to wait.
I was rather taken aback to read that you have lung troubles, my friend. You see, I had lung troubles from a very young age and even had one of my lungs removed and the other one wasn’t that good either. So, I was living on less than half a tank never expecting to grow up, make it through middle age and it was the most confusing things after being so terribly ill, to actually see most of my friends pass away before me like Autumn leaves.
So, my friend, there is hope for you yet.
Sorry, I forgot to thank you for the Pavlova recipe. Betsy loved it and everyone’s grateful for a change to meringues!
By the way, I highly recommend Dan Schneider’s Video interview with three experts on Andrew Wyeth: