Andrew Wyeth Offers a Master Class in the Literary Arts
By Beth Kephart
Beth Kephart, a National Book Award finalist, teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of twenty-two books. A partner at Juncture Workshops, she has recently published the illustrated memoir workbook, Tell the Truth. Make It Matter. More about Beth, Juncture, and the workbook can be found here.
All photos taken by Kephart of Andrew Wyeth’s studio, at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Andrew Wyeth would have turned one hundred this year, but I like to think about him young. Planting his toy soldiers in the battle-scarred hills of his childhood home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Covertly sketching in the shadows of the Kuerner farm. Scrambling up from the creek as a cartoon Robin Hood, his band of followers in mud-sloshing pursuit.
Physically fragile, imaginatively robust, Wyeth had a wild appetite for the summoned up; he placed an antic trust in fantasy. As the youngest of five in the N.C. Wyeth clan, he was famously left mostly to his own intense devices—occasionally tutored, never formally schooled. It was Peter Hurd, according to Richard Meryman’s Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, who discovered the cost of such liberation. On the verge of becoming Wyeth’s brother-in-law, Hurd was, Meryman writes, “the first person in the family to notice or care that Andy was not entirely literate. When Peter asked him to look up something in the encyclopedia under F, Andrew was helpless.”
Andrew was twelve years old at the time. He would eventually learn the hooks and squiggles, crosses and dots of the American alphabet. But he would always prefer, Meryman tells us, the sound of a story being read out loud to the labor of personally deciphering the letters on the page. He would also never forget the felt shame of knowing less.
And yet—perhaps ironically—there is much to be learned about the literary arts from Andrew Wyeth. There are, to begin with, the stories delivered to us through his pencil, charcoal, watercolor, drybrush, and tempera. The stories on paper and canvas and boards.
Recently, on a storm-slung day, I lived (it seemed I lived) many of those narratives while standing in the darkened rooms at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, which, together with the Seattle Art Museum, has produced Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect (through September 17, 2017). There’s the window through which the breeze is blowing—lifting up, absconding with the seasons of a long, stark friendship (“Wind from the Sea”). This painting is a pause, I imagined; it is an interlude, it is a secret start of something.
There are the deadly hooks above the steely head of a former German soldier—and not just the hooks, but the fault lines, the cracks in the past of the man (“Karl, 1948”). Each crack a chapter, I imagined. Or a verse. What would it be to write the verse?
There are the flurries of snow that refuse to die white on the brown-bruised earth (“Snow Flurries”), and when I asked myself why the snow refused to die, I had, it seemed to me, a story. But it’s when we read what Wyeth said—to his wife, to Thomas Hoving (in Andrew Wyeth: Autobiography), to Meryman, to Edward Hopper, to anyone who could persuade Wyeth to step, for a moment, out of the shadows he preferred and into the concentrated light of reminisce and explanation—that we discover the painter who might have offered a master class on the asterisk arts of literature. The necessary unseens. The rites of passage. The principled purpose.
Advice on where the story might be found, from Wyeth: “I’ve often thought that I’ve built my career on happening to find things that are suddenly unusual. Of course, it’s what you seek and what you grasp as an opportunity and follow up on again and again that really does it.”
Advice on when to set the story in motion: “I may be walking from the bathroom down to the kitchen. Or I may be walking over the hill. I may be driving the car too fast. And I’ll get this idea, this emotion that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, perhaps something has sparked it off, it’s a feeling that I’ve always felt about something, and I’ll say ‘Jesus, this is terrific.’ And I may hold it back, purposefully for a while, before I even put it on a piece of paper or on a panel. I think timing is very important in this thing.”
Advice on complexity: “I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be.”
Advice on the story, pursued: “The only thing I want to search for is the growth and depth of my emotion toward a given object. In that way I free myself from the bonds of routine technical quality.”
Advice on the narrative ideal: “I would like to try to paint so nothing is at rest in my work. Nothing is frozen. I would like people to sense even in those paintings with brilliant passages of sunlight, that the sunlight is not really still but that you can really see the passage of the sun.”
Advice on revision: “I obtain great excitement in the changes. Because with them, the painting begins to discover itself. It begins to roll. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill.”
Advice on fighting the demoralizing flavors du jour, the hyping critics, the numbing public: “I do not feel we should make our cause by letters or protest but should strengthen it by better painting.”
Wyeth was a man of secrets and distortions. He cherished the dirty page, the already smudged or time-scuffed canvas. He had learned painterly technique, at last, standing at his famous father’s side—the fall of light, the roundness of a shoulder, the pliable anatomy of a spine—only to discover that it’s the emotion of the thing that matters most, the private ideals and fantasies you invest in every stroke, the story you are desperate to tell yourself…and not the given rules of the trade.
Reality plied with mystery: that’s what Wyeth discovered and that’s what he teaches. Mystery pushed past careful equanimity, toward the danger of finding out, of actually, inexcusably knowing: Why does the curtain lift? Where do the cracks begin, and do they end? Why won’t the snow finally die?
A year ago, I piled every book I owned onto the family room floor and made a choice about which would stay and which would go. Eliminated: the memoirs that dishonor the form, the bypassed histories, the novels I never did choose for myself, the volumes that seemed to grow more pale, obtuse, self-congratulatory, market-primed, or turgid with every page I turned. Returned to their shelves: The books whose streets I’ve walked, whose people I’ve fiercely loved, whose poems have tamed my migraines, whose pages I read to my son and still, in the early morning, wish to read to myself.
Looking now at what remains I am struck by a deep abiding sense that Andrew Wyeth would approve. That he would wish to be read to by these authors—Michael Ondaatje, Alice McDermott, Kent Haruf, Louise Erdrich, Fae Myenne Ng, Paul Horgan, Willa Cather, Helen Macdonald, James Baldwin, Sallie Tisdale, Chloe Aridjis, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jane Mendelsohn, Toni Morrison, Anthony Doerr, Jack Gilbert, Terry Tempest Williams, Olivia Laing, Paul Lisicky, Patti Smith, W.G. Sebald, Seamus Deane, Nell Leyshon, Elizabeth Strout, Alyson Hagy, Wallace Stegner, Eudora Welty, Ian McEwan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marilynne Robinson, Colum McCann, Alison Bechdel, Stefan Hertmans, Terrence Des Pres, Stacey D’Erasmo, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Kim Echlin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Haddon, Raymond Carver, Abigail Thomas, Annie Dillard, Chloe Honum, Colm Tóibín, Megan Stielstra, Gerald Stern, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Haddon—who found the quick startle of an idea and then held back until the story or the poem commanded its first sentence. These authors who have built their tales from the simple, complex web of the barely sayable, the crushingly true, the innately grasped for, the lift in the curtain. These authors who hold their own amidst the tyranny of common desire and uncommon generosity. These authors who choose the time-scuffed page to put down things as they are because soon (look, the moment is gone), they will never be again.
Find a ruined canvas, and ruin it more, Wyeth teaches. Tip the story out of balance so that it will be more true. Write from the urgent place of your most terrible love, your most delicate secret, your anger and your gratitude for having been neglected so that you might be set free. Teach your heart to see what your eyes cannot. Make the people in your stories vulnerable to the places they come from, the places they leave, the places they return to. Come back to it, come back to it, come back to it, then leave it. Done. You will be exhausted. You will be a writer. You will find the picture in your thousand words.