When Silence is Borne: Andrew Wyeth’s True Work
Naptime in the late 70’s meant the kind of deep silence found underwater. Just barely above the quiet, one could hear the creaking of the house, the movements of our Siamese cat, the wind whistling past the hayfields that looked like a camel’s back, and the crickets out my second-story window. In rural northeast Ohio, I became aware of another kind of window. It was to the quiet world not very different from mine. The framed print of a painting that had a small farmhouse with an accompanying barn on a hill in the background with a woman in a simple white dress seated in the field. Back then it seemed to be just the way things were, nothing remarkable, living in a sea of grass and old outbuildings. The window was a print of Andrew Wyeth's Christina’s World painting, and it didn’t look much different from what I saw all around. It could have been a painting of our rented farmyard. And for all I knew it was.
Moving into town, we lost the hilly hayfield view and new sounds came through the windows, the swishing sound of cars speeding down our street and the rumble of semi-truck air brakes managing the hill. A library program lending framed prints brought Christina’s World back again. Like an old friend of my parents, she would come and go for months at a time, but I never learned her name or the painter or title, just noticed that solitary figure of the woman looking away.
She was part of that landscape, she was the land, the home, the fertility of the field. This was not a conscious thought, just an intuition. Through my painfully insecure middle school years, she was there, inviting me to join her on the grass and soak in the quiet air of the farm, without need to prove anything, just to sit in the grass, feel the ground and just be quiet. The image conjured a fragrant mix of the farm grasses and pollen along with the couches in that house bearing the burden of too many teenagers.
A middle school art teacher was impressed with my independent drawing and offered me a scholarship to a workshop led by the watercolorist Bill Whitsett. I found myself once again on the same farm we had rented when I was a small child, only this time I was in the converted chicken coop, with a live model in the middle of the space filled with retired folks painting and drawing. Bill sat me uncomfortably close to the model and asked me to draw her portrait. I spent most of several days struggling to place facial features where they actually were in relation to each other and began to draw from life. I began to see with a pencil what was there versus what my brain told me should be there.
On nice days we set up outside by the pond, some people painting, some drawing, a single model in the landscape, overlooking the woods, and feeling the breeze over the lake. The silence was the soundscape with interjections of scratching and scrubbing and sometimes the voice of Bill with a student in hushed tones.
In high school, Christina was there on the wall in our living room as I frantically filled my days with extracurriculars. Sometimes perhaps the image now haunted me, terrified me that I would never get out, never explore and travel the world like Indiana Jones across the globe. Maybe the sea of dried grasses would drown me, tangle around my legs and not let me go?
Studying art in college, I came across Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth in a textbook. It felt like a chance meeting with an old friend. I learned about Andrew Wyeth, his naturalism in the midst of the abstract expressionism of his day. Taking a trip with the art department we visited the studios of NC Wyeth and Andrew, walked around the buildings, breathed in the air of eastern Pennsylvania, saw the quiet fields and farmhouses reminiscent of Christiana’s home in Maine.
I was struck by the contrast of the heavy narrative storytelling quality of NC’s Treasure Island paintings and the poetic stillness and subtlety of a haiku that Andrew created. There is no busyness, no noise. It is almost like the existential quiet of a Georgio De Chirico, but in the clothing of a naturalistic landscape built upon the repetition of a Philip Glass score, the texture of blades of grass that accumulate into a unified ground, a living sea upon which Christina floats. Side by side with NC’s work, Andrew’s has a monastic austerity evoking a sense of the sacred through an experience of the bare bones. To enter his painting is akin to visiting someone on their deathbed, stripped down to the bare essence, a breath and a weak heartbeat, allowing you to see the miracle of animated flesh.
Later in life, I found myself working overseas with marginalized children. Rosa, maybe late 20’s, was placed to beg and nearly always looked beat up and bloody along with her twisted legs that barely allowed her to locomote in a way that could be called walking. Bloody from falling or getting beaten by someone, she lived in a basement apartment shared with a dozen other people. She usually had an icon of the Virgin Mary and a place to collect coins.
Andrew’s Christina, I learned from A Piece of the World by Kleine, may have had a similar degenerative disease. Christina may have had marks on her face from frequent falls from the refusal to use a wheelchair. Rosa was placed in front of a cathedral, begging the penitent to see something sacred in her, to pity the beaten twisted humanity as they entered the sanctuary to beg for divine mercy. Andrew placed Christina in front of the field, the home, the barn, begging us to see the sacred vitality in her beyond her ailment. He untwisted her degenerative disease by placing her in a position that looks almost natural and turned her face away, that the viewer might not get hung up on a damaged face, as if to say of her essence, she is a god, she has no flaw, his version of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
In eastern Europe where I met Rosa, we visited a village home for children and then took a walk among the fields. In the pauses in conversation, the silent chorus of the open fields would return. The unhurried pace and long stretches going from nowhere to nowhere were like being in a Tarkovsky film. The helplessness I felt in the face of Rosa and others suffering found the grandeur of the open fields calming. They roll with a calm, the quiet of a mother soothing a child at her breast.
As a child, I never knew Christina was having to crawl across the field to do chores. Wyeth saw her essential overcoming power, Virgin Mary nurturing the land, recognizing the sacredness of the land, the frailty of life. For Christina, there seemed to be something elemental to the land, a sense of belonging and safety.
In the painting, her arms not only hold her up, but seem to cling with clenched fists to the land like a child to her father’s shirt. She fought beyond reasonableness to continue to get the eggs, feed the chickens, and maintain the garden. Though she could fit into diagnostic categories of disability, Andrew sees her as an arch matriarch enthroned on the golden fields of Maine. She is both a clinging dependent child and a steady mother, the one nurtured and the nurturer.
Devoid of all religious baggage, no cross, icon, or sermon, Andrew was teaching me how to see the sacred. The sacred for Andrew seemed to be found in the ordinary and the quiet overlooked places. He would not have overlooked Rosa on the cathedral steps or the magnificence of the open fields of Romania. I noticed this principle, especially in the forgotten, the small, the marginalized, the lonely, the desolate, and the disabled. To see Rosa as holy, one who smiles and can exchange small talk one must get quiet and listen and look carefully beyond the disguise. To encounter the sacredness of the land, one must exit the car, walk it, be uncomfortable in the cold or heat, and spend the day painting it and picking the gnats out of the paint, bearing the silence of the space, the portal to illumination.
In the end, there is no disability, there is only accepting and belonging, nurturing and being nurtured, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen. There is only a meeting of gods though veiled like Zeus and Hermes visiting Baucus and Philemon. It is in the silence that these most profound realities can be perceived. As Andrew Wyeth shows us, it is not our frailty that matters, but our divine dignity. We can get to it if only we can slow down, get quiet, hear the crickets and the cat, and see it cracking through the ordinary-extraordinary places and the people it nurtures.
Christina’s World by Wyeth did astound me in its precision of vision, details that give way to inner essences. He not only saw the humanity of Christina but the living breathing, vibrating dignity of the land upon which she clings. The land is not an object in the painting, but the outer skin of a great beast, an elephant with a child riding on its back. In silence, we learn to see what matters, the dignity of the land and her people. When silence is borne patiently facing our fellow humans and the land that holds us, all forms of abuse become unthinkable. The artist's greatest work of bearing silence offers sympathetic viewers a path. The work of art in the end is a boiled down concentrate of silence.
And now, sometimes the nostalgia arises, and I find my hard-bound sketchbook and sit and scratch out the landscape before me. Entering into the silence again is like crawling back into bed on a cold morning in that small rented farmhouse with the field like a camel’s back out the window.