Philly Creative Guide

Here's the Thing

Bill Haley

Andy Wyeth Was One of Us
by Bill Haley, 1 Feb 2009

Bill Haley is President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (www.AlliedPixel.com), an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He is also an evangelist for PhillyCreativeGuide.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


Bill Haley is President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (www.AlliedPixel.com), an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He is also an evangelist for PhillyCreativeGuide.com. He can be reached at [email protected].


If you cut through the woods behind my house, cross a meadow and go down a hill, you''ll come upon an abandoned road. It runs through Frolic Weymouth''s Big Bend Farm, along the Brandywine River. Weeds long ago overtook the road but it is one of our favorite places to hike.

Abandoned road that runs through Frolic Weymouth''s Big Bend Farm.

My wife and I were walking our dog there one spring day when we saw something we''d never seen before: A vehicle coming up the trail. It was a big truck and our first thought was that we were about to be reprimanded by one of Frolic''s farmhands for trespassing on his land. The truck pulled up and came to a stop. The window rolled down. And there in the passenger seat was Andrew Wyeth, blue eyes twinkling and a wry smile. He sensed our apprehension. In the driver''s seat was Helga Testorf, his secret model who spurred cover stories on Time and Newsweek twenty years earlier. "That''s a handsome dog you have," he said. "What''s his name?" I told him the dog''s name was Buckley. He thought that was hilarious. We named him after our favorite bar, up on Route 52 in Centerville.

Buckley, the handsome dog.

I live in Chadds Ford, the little township that Andrew Wyeth put on the map. When we moved here, we did what most people who move here do: We trekked down to the Brandywine River Museum and bought a bunch of Wyeth prints. Nearly every room in our house has a Wyeth, and when I walk by them lately, I think of how fortunate we were to have had this man, this national treasure, in our midst.

Every day on my way to work I pass the Kuerner Farm. The farm was the subject of hundreds of works of art by Wyeth for more than 75 years. Think of that! Can you imagine getting inspiration from one thing, for so long? Passing by the farm, you might not guess it could tell so many stories. That was Wyeth''s genius. He saw stories where the rest of us just saw fields, or trees, or barns.

View of Karl Kuerner''s farm.

I cross over the tracks where his father, N.C. Wyeth, was struck and killed by a train in 1945. I think of how, as a kid, I would revel in his fanciful illustrations of my favorite book, Treasure Island. How fun must it have been for young Andy to go into his father''s studio, take those props down from the shelf and become a swashbuckling pirate for a day.

Wyeth changed after the accident. "I had always had this great motion toward the landscape, and so, with his death... the landscape took on new meaning, the quality of him," he said. I pass the hill where that following year he painted Winter 1946. In it, Andy as a young boy is running down the hill. He said it was catharsis for the remorse he felt for never having painted his father''s portrait.

Site of the accident where N.C. Wyeth, was struck and killed by a train.

People in Chadds Ford were protective of Andy. If you pulled into the gas station and asked for directions to his house, you''d be greeted with some variation of a dumbfounded look – though just about everyone in Chadds Ford knew exactly where he lived. At Hank''s, you would see Andy at the counter every now and then, enjoying a muffin and a cup of coffee. The locals gave him his space, but he was always happy to say hello and shake a hand. The Chadds Ford Tavern was his favorite place for lunch. He''d usually get mushroom soup. The owner, Tom Drane, told me that Andy once left a $500 tip for a cup of soup. It says much about Tom that he refused to take it. That''s the way Chadds Ford is.

Andy did funny things. A local couple had given him the keys to their house and in the middle of the night he would come in, tiptoe up the stairs and set up his easel in their bedroom doorway. He would paint them for hours as they slept. And he loved pumpkins. Every year, he would buy the biggest pumpkin at Pocopson Hardware and contribute it to Chadds Ford''s annual pumpkin carve contest.

He did portraits of many of the townspeople of Chadds Ford over the years. I had secretly hoped that someday I might get to know Andy well enough that he would do a portrait for me – of my kid, my dog, whatever. But I do feel like I got to know Andy Wyeth in some small way, which is gift enough in itself.

Andrew Wyeth - Photo by Bruce Weber

There is a painting of the Kuerner farmhouse that I''ve been thinking of lately. It is a winter evening, and just one light is on. It is Karl Kuerner''s bedroom. Though you can''t see it, his old friend Karl was in bed dying while Andy painted it. What feelings he must have had as he brushed those strokes onto the canvas.

A lot of Andy''s work seems to center on loss, loneliness, desolation. But look deeper and you will see the flip side – the precious fragility of life, the quiet dignity of hard work, the sweeping beauty of nature. Andy called his approach to art "seeing a lot in nothing."

His palette of muted earth tones reflected how he saw the world. "I wanted to capture this country as it really is instead of making a picture out of it. I wasn''t consciously draining the color out, but I began to see things simpler," he said.

I''m trying to see things simpler these days, too.

Location of Wyeth''s 1989 painting, Snow Hill.

I pass the place where in 1989, he painted Snow Hill. It depicts all of his models over the years, dancing joyfully because they have no longer have to sit still for his paintings.

Andy Wyeth lived to the ripe old age of 91 and he was painting nearly up to the end. He was a kind and humble man with a special gift. Somehow I doubt another one like him will pass our way soon.

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