Wind From the Sea

Many years ago, I encountered Andrew Wyeth's "Wind from the Sea" in a magazine and sat rapt with the issue in my lap for quite some time, entranced by the tattered lace curtains blowing in the unseen wind from the sea, the old window and the bleak (in conventional terms anyway) landscape beyond the window.

At the time of my encounter with the painting, I wasn't old enough to read, and I had no idea what the painting was called or who had painted it.  What I did know, was that here was something special, that the moment was a watershed and the image would be with me all the days of my life. A child doesn't have the vocabulary to describe such things, but the painting was haunting and magnificent, and it called me out of my child self, into its flowing depths and somewhere else, over the hills and far away. It was compelling; it was stark and somber and poignant beyond words - it was liminal and absolutely magical. I never forgot it, and I have indeed carried the image around with me ever since, all the days of my life.

The subjects of Wyeth's much later (and dreamlike) "Snow Hill" are dancing merrily around a beribboned pole, not a May pole as one might think at first glance, but a winter solstice pole crowned with an evergreen and surrounded by drifts of snow. We cannot see the faces of the six merry dancers, but they were all known to Wyeth as models, and they were friends at various times in his life: Karl and Anna Kuerner, Allan Lynch, Helga Testorf (model for the legendary Helga paintings), Bill Loper and Adam Johnson. There are seven streamers attached to Wyeth's "midwinter pole", and the seventh streamer is reserved for the artist himself.

On the hillside below the pole and dancers is the Kuerner farm near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a place known and much loved by Wyeth in his childhood. In the distance we can see the railway tracks where Wyeth's father (noted illustrator N.C. Wyeth) was killed with his young grandson in 1945. Wyeth said that his father's death was the most tumultuous event of his life and artistic career, and that afterward, the landscape he loved so much took on the qualities of his father for him.

Wyeth also said that the dancers in "Snow Hill" were dancing around the pole in anticipation of his death, noting wryly that he had always been difficult to work with and pose for. The dancers in the painting are in a festive frame of mind to be sure, but I like to think if they are celebrating anything at all, it is Andrew's long and fruitful life, his art and his vision, and not his imminent demise.

To Andrew Wyeth, I owe my early understanding of the grandeur of life and my love of the natural world, an appreciation of the luminous, the magical, the wild and the fey which has nourished and sustained me for almost sixty years. Every trip I have ever taken into the woods with my camera or notebook and pen (or without them) had its genesis in my first encounter with "Winds From the Sea" - every scrap of wonder, every exposure, every entranced and incandescent interval spent tracing shadows, shapes, lineaments and textures in wild places.

A few days ago, Andrew Wyeth died peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of ninety-one, and I never had a chance to thank him. How I wish it had been otherwise. He gave me the world and the eyes with which to truly see it. What child could ask for more? Thank you, Andrew, from the bottom of my heart.

January 19, 2009