I woke up the other day with trees calling me. I think it was a holdover from the Wyeth exhibition. His visual vocabulary was so rooted in the places he loved, and for me, aside from Memphis and its environs, it has always been about the trees. It was a drippy day, as you can see on a couple of the sketches, but not truly raining, so I headed to Rockport State Park and did the longer trail with my sketchbook easily reachable in my rain jacket pocket. I've been doing a lot of indoor painting lately as I finish up the Mr. Darcy book, and it felt marvelous to get out and draw from life again.
There's a lovely article in the Presbyterian Mission about the upcoming Book of Common Worship that I spent a lot of last year doing illustrations for. It's coming out in May in three different editions, all with my Tree of Life linocut stamped into the cover. I am beyond excited and can't wait to hold it in my hands. I'm going to have to get the smaller personal prayer edition as well as the desktop one. The third is for pastoral use during hospital visits, weddings, etc. -- also smaller to carry around.
I went to see this exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum yesterday, and it was a beautifully done show. Well arranged and documented with a spread of works across Wyeth's career. I learned more about him, which made me want to know even more. I had loved the Helga exhibition years ago but hadn't seen much more of his work in person. It truly repays up-close examination, with the minuteness of his brushstrokes. The thing that truly struck me was the radical nature of some of his compositions and viewpoints. It's easy, in this age of minimalizing realism, to discount Wyeth as the safe art of dorm room posters. That would be a mistake. Many of the strongest pieces had truly unexpected and dramatic viewpoints or compositions, the kind that make you reconsider how you see the world.
Below is one of those. I loved the almost absence of sky with the strong abstract nature of the land and the water it held. The layers of darkness and detail in this piece are far greater than I could capture with a brush pen standing up in a crowd and balancing sketchbook and watercolor kit in my left hand. But I wanted to spend a little time with it and look more deeply, and sketching a painting helps me do that.
The piece I was most gobsmacked by was the top one here of the home with drifting feathers. It struck me as Wyeth's version of Redon's drifting flowers or Chagall's pair of lovers in the sky. Mysticism within the artist's own recognizable language. I've been drawn to the surrealists the last couple of years, but without much idea how to make that work within my own vocabulary. This piece really stayed with me, and I hope it will help me see a new way to do this in my own work.
The show was a mixed bag for me. The best were transporting, with the exquisiteness of texture and detail adding to the subject. Some, however, I found to be lifeless, drained by the too painstaking style. The watercolors, with a bit more freedom, were more successful to my eye than the tempera ones (to make a broad generalization). There were several early and loose watercolors in the show that took my breath away. I loved his color and style, and they reminded me of the looseness and lushness of Sargent's watercolors. Apparently Wyeth, in spite of a huge success with them in New York, found them to be insufficiently challenging to make a career of, and he moved to the much more detailed style instead. That grieved me a bit, but it was also heartening to see a realist making a successful career in the midst of an abstract age.
Landscape painting gets little respect these days, and while he painting many people as well, I loved seeing how he took his home landscape, unremarkable by the standards of dramatic landscape beauty that seems so common in art, and translated his love of his place and his vision of the earth to others. It was encouraging to see him make such a respected career out of the bones of his home spaces. Coming as I do from a visually unremarkable but much loved place of my own, I always hope to be able to translate that beauty for others to see and appreciate.
His wife Betsy helped tremendously on the marketing and selling side of things. Any artist would be lucky to have such a helpmate, since business sense and creativity are not necessarily paired talents, but it was still encouraging to see him be able to be so successful on his own terms.
I had a marvelous Christmas after the rush up to it, including commissions and home sale. Afterwards, which is my favorite part of the end of the year, I was able to start doing the work that’s been calling my name through all the business craziness. I’m deeply grateful for all the business craziness, but I’m also grateful for the place where I can quietly get up each morning and do actual art that I’ve been dreaming of. This year that is the Mr. Darcy book. I am really ready to get this finished and see if and where the world takes it. To that end, I packed it all up (see above) and brought it out to Washington State with me. I’ve got a couple of weeks to really buckle down on it every morning and see if I can shepherd it along to a finished state. I can’t show the individual pages here, since I’m hoping to get it published (which sounds very familiar from my summer work), so I’ve been quiet here about my work lately.
Through this period I have also been missing my sketchbook, though, and here is a sketch I just did this morning. It’s the more distant view (across housetops) from my work table here in Washington, and the mist was too beguiling to pass up. I took a break and did this quick sketch. Now back to work...
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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