The Wind From the Sea

I was very young when I saw Andrew Wyeth's "Wind from the Sea" for the first time.  The image was in a magazine, and I sat looking at it for quite a while, captivated by the tattered lace curtains blowing in the unseen wind, by the old window and bleak (in conventional terms anyway) landscape beyond. A colleague once said that Wyeth could paint the wind. He could, and he did.

I wasn't old enough to grasp many of the words in the article, and I had no idea what the painting was called or who the artist was.  What I did know beyond the shadow of a doubt was that I held something extraordinary in my hands. The image called me out of my child self and somewhere else entirely, over the hills and far away. It was chock full of wonder - it was wild, liminal and absolutely magical, and it stayed with me. I have carried it around in my thoughts ever since.
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 pole crowned by an evergreen and surrounded by snow. We cannot see the faces of the six 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 Helga paintings), Bill Loper and Adam Johnson. On the hillside below is the Kuerner farm near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a place known and loved by Wyeth in his childhood. In the distance we glimpse the railway tracks on which Wyeth's father (noted illustrator N.C. Wyeth) was killed with his young grandson in 1945. Wyeth once said jocularly that the subjects of this rather surreal painting were dancing around the pole in anticipation of his death because he had been so difficult to work with. The dancers certainly appear to be in a festive frame of mind, but if they are celebrating anything at all, it is Andrew's long and fruitful life and his art, not his imminent demise.

To Andrew Wyeth, I owe my early engagement with the grandeur of life and the natural world, with the luminous, the magical, the wild and the fey which have sustained me for more than sixty years. Every trip I have ever taken into the woods with camera (or notebook and pen) had its genesis in my encounter with Andrew Wyeth's 1948 masterpiece - every moment of wonder, every exposure, every entranced moment spent tracing shadows and shapes and textures in the wild. If we had ever been able to spend a few minutes sitting on a hillside together, we might have had much to talk about, but we probably would have just sat silently, drinking in the light.

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. He gave me the world and the eyes with which to truly see it. Thank you, Andrew.

January 19, 2009