At least once a week I return in spirit to the Olson House in Cushing, Maine, near the summer home of American artist Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009). I return there via the book Wyeth: Christina’s World which we purchased in Maine in June. Each time I look at the painting on the cover, I’m stunned again by Wyeth’s “artist’s eye” – his ability to evoke such deep longing through the figure of a girl groping towards a bleak farmhouse at the top of a hill, with browning grasses making up much of the landscape and Wyeth’s characteristic hint of a road.
This summer the interpreter at Olson House emphasized that Wyeth was not a realistic landscape painter. That is, his goal was not to stand at the bottom of a hill and faithfully reproduce what he saw. Nor did he intend to literally depict the figure of middle-aged Christina Olson. Rather, his artist’s eye transformed what he saw into a canvas evoking a deep sense of Christina’s longings.
It’s not even possible in 2017 to take a photo in which a figure is seated in the same relationship to the Olson farmhouse. A large stand of trees gets in the way. The closest angle possible to the one Wyeth imagined is depicted below.
In 1948 critics lauded Wyeth’s brilliant painting technique and his ability to evoke a way of life. But he soon got caught in the culture wars, with many in the art world deriding his work as being stuck in a sentimental rural past when “real art” was moving in modernist directions.
There’s a resurgence of interest in Wyeth this year – the 100th anniversary of his birth – with a stunning retrospective of his work at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, near his permanent home.
I suspect that the 2017 publication of Christina Baker Kline’s novel A Piece of the World has also renewed interest in Wyeth. This partly fictionalized backstory of Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro and their relationship with the young Wyeth culminates in the creation of Christina’s World, his most famous painting.
Shortly after visiting Olson House and the Brandywine River Museum of Art this summer, I read a meditation by Christine Valters Paintner on discovering our own inner artist (Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics, Sorin Books, 2016). This set me to thinking about the “artist’s eye” in another way. Paintner believes that each of us has an inner Artist which enables us to see things differently, revealing “the beauty of a hundred ordinary moments.” She believes we can all cultivate “this path of vision” (p. 159).
So I’ve started becoming more conscious of times when my own artist’s eye is flourishing, and looking for that “path of vision” in others. The artist’s eye is obvious for me in craftsmen and women such as woodworkers, quilt designers, hosts who present food in a pleasing manner, and worship leaders who design services with spiritual depth.
I’ve also started seeing “ordinary” tasks, such as that of nurses, in a new way. I recently had occasion to be in a hospital emergency ward for a few hours with a friend. From where I sat I had a clear view of the central nurses’ station.
I began to see their ministrations with an artist’s eye, and later coloured this mandala. I named it “St. Mary’s Angels of Mercy – warming a cold room with blankets, dignity, calm and competence.”
The nurses in ER moved at the heart of things, and the way they went about their work startled me. It embodied something resembling beauty in an often scary environment…..
Questions for Reflection:
- When have you or others you know approached ordinary moments with an Artist’s eye?
- When has a work of music or art evoked for you the deep essence of something?
Next Week: Discovering Grandmother Maggie