After making my way into Washington, DC with a classmate and finally finding a place to park (no small task on a Friday morning), we headed to the National Gallery of Art to see the “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” exhibit, which focuses on his watercolor paintings of windows. During his lifetime, the artist produced more than three hundred pieces involving the subject, making me feel a bit less silly for what I refer to as my “door period.”
For a short time, I took pictures of doors everywhere I went. I can’t say why because I don’t know. One day while on vacation in New Mexico it started spontaneously and didn’t stop for solid year. I never knew what was behind those doors and maybe that was the point – possibilities.
It appears that Wyeth knew exactly why he was painting windows (and doors). Unlike my “door period” where the doors were mostly closed, his were open. What was behind them mattered.
“You can have the technique and paint the object,” Wyeth said, but “it’s what’s inside you, the way you translate the object — and that’s pure emotion. I think most people get to my work through the backdoor. They’re attracted by the realism and sense the emotion and the abstraction — and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.”
So there we were – my classmates and instructor – walking towards the exhibit for our field trip sketchbook assignment. We had grouped in the Rotunda for our instructions – to study “in person,” art techniques by a museum-quality artist and use this assignment as preparation for the next class project – painting a reproduction of a master artist’s work.
After arriving at the exhibit, we had ninety minutes to do ten sketches including examples from a list of watercolor techniques (sgraffito, wet on wet, dry brush, monochromatic, cast shadows, etc.). Twenty-five years had elapsed since I last produced live sketches in public. The feeling of exhilaration was almost overwhelming until I did the math. We had nine minutes per sketch. And this was an Andrew Wyeth exhibit. Uh oh.
Instead of starting immediately on my assignment, my mind wandered. I thought about how surreal these past eleven weeks had been – being led to this class by a synchronistic series of events that had me now standing just feet away from an original Andrew Wyeth painting.
I wondered why, out of all the gallery exhibitions in DC my instructor chose this one. My family has a connection to the Wyeths. My great-grandfather was a photo-engraver who worked for The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, etc. For a short time, he worked with Jimmy Durante, who was a photo-engraver before entering the entertainment industry. He was also acquainted with N.C. Wyeth, Andrew’s father and well-known illustrator. N.C.’s first commission as an illustrator was a bucking bronco for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1903. In 1921 N.C. was commissioned to produce a series of paintings for a Scribner’s publication, The Scottish Chiefs. After the paintings had been printed, N.C. gave one of them to my great-grandfather and it has remained in our family ever since.
The Wyeth family had been on my mind more than usual due to the recent death of my father, having to deal with transfer of ownership of the N.C. Wyeth painting and other mind-numbing estate settlement issues. How strange, then, to be standing in a room full of paintings produced by the son of a man who painted the image I’d been dealing with at the county courthouse just weeks before. The man who knew my great-grandfather.
I haven’t been able to help but to contemplate death recently and the change of seasons, moving towards winter, was reminding me how fragile we all are. How exposed to the elements we are. But also how much of ourselves we are afraid to show. Wyeth loved to paint winter scenes, referring to them as “skeletal earth.” He liked old, dilapidated houses claiming he liked to see the “bare bones” of the buildings. As I looked around, deciding which ten paintings I would sketch, I began to feel that in many of the works, the importance was in the things that were NOT there.
“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.” ~Andrew Wyeth
With ten percent of my precious sketching time spent in contemplation, I decided I had better get started. I think part of my hesitation was because the exhibit was crowded, and when you’re standing there with a sketchbook drawing Andrew Wyeth paintings, people get curious. So curious that more of my precious sketching time was used up by total strangers asking me what I was doing, giving me advice on which ones I should sketch next, and complimenting my sketching skills …all of which made me uneasy.
“I’m a secretive bastard. I would never let anybody watch me painting… it would be like somebody watching you have sex – painting is that personal to me.” ~Andrew Wyeth
Back at home, Newt checks out my sketches. Everybody’s a critic.
After the exercise, we met as a class in the East Garden Court outside the exhibition for final comments. We noted how the compositions and colors appear simple but there is a depth and feeling in the work you can’t quite name.
Memory, elapsed time, curiosity, gloom with a hint of light, moments of hope, longing, missing out, loneliness, reclusiveness.
These are some of our attempts but they still don’t completely capture the feeling.
A few of us stayed for lunch at the Cascade Cafe, discussing our observations, our sketching experiences, and the importance of art in society. After lunch the photographer in me kicked in and I was compelled to revert to my comfort zone – snapping photos of everything I see.
We are all connected in some way. Windows and doors are a representation of that, I believe. Those images invoke a universal feeling. We may not be able to verbalize it completely, but we feel it. And isn’t that the sole reason for art? There are some things that can’t be said in words.