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 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 dancers, but they were all known to Wyeth, models and friends at various times in his life: Karl and Anna Kuerner, Allan Lynch, Helga Testorf, (model for Wyeth's 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 behind the dancers is the Kuerner farm near Wyeth's childhood home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Beyond are the railway tracks where Wyeth's father (noted illustrator N.C. Wyeth) was tragically killed with his young grandson in 1945. The death of Wyeth's father was the most traumatic event of his life, and he said that while he had always felt a deep emotional connection with the landscape, afterward it took on the qualities of his father for him.

Wyeth said the six merry dancers in "Snow Hill" were dancing around the winter solstice pole in anticipation of his death, noting wryly that he had always been difficult to work with. I like to think that if they are celebrating something, it is his art and his vision of the world, not his immanent demise.

Andrew Wyeth showed me a window with a fine wind blowing through it from the luminous, the magical and the wild, and they have nourished and sustained me ever since. Every trip I have ever taken into the woods with camera, 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 incandescent moment spent tracing shadows, shapes, lines and textures. 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 there 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. 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?

January 19, 2009