Last month, Steve and I visited the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
to see a closely guarded exhibition of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings.
In the museum gallery, as we admired one of Wyeth’s large, detailed paintings, Steve motioned me closer to the painting and, with his index finger, pointed to a wooden table in the picture. He wanted me to notice that the painted wood’s grainy, uneven surface looked so vivid it seemed that if you ran your hand across it, you’d risk a splinter.
As I leaned toward Steve’s finger and the painted tabletop, a talking human head bobbed between our heads, “Don’t get so close to the painting, Sir,” a museum guard quietly commanded.
Steve and I both startled.
Until that moment, we hadn’t noticed the guards who stood, unobtrusively but alert, throughout the room. They watched, ready to spring in polite intervention should a visitor attempt to touch, or do anything else that might mar the value of a painting. Like snap a picture of it.
I know this because the guard who told Steve not to touch the painting noticed the smart phone in my hand. She pointed to the small, posted signs that hung next to some of the paintings and launched into an explanation, “You may not snap pictures. The paintings have been borrowed and one of the lending conditions is: no snapshots.”
After the guard’s rebuke, properly sheepish, our cell phones tucked deep in our pockets, Steve and I continued our tour of the exhibit that featured about 100 Andrew Wyeth paintings.
We had traveled to see the display for two reasons. Over the years, my interest in Andrew Wyeth’s work has been piqued. My mother’s maiden name is Wyeth and occasionally she supposes that we are distantly related to the famous Wyeth painters (there are three of them). Wyeth is not a common name.
And, last spring, I read a book by Christina Baker Kline called “a piece of the world” which is based on Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World.
Christina’s World was painted in 1948. The painting shows Wyeth’s Maine neighbor, Christina Olsen, who suffered from a debilitating illness, crawling on hill near the farmhouse where she lived. Wyeth said his goal in painting Christina crawling in the field was to show that while she endured physical limits, she was not spiritually limited. Wyeth wrote:
The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do.
The artist spent months creating the painting, but I have read that he didn’t like the finished product. When he sent it off to be purchased, he called it “a flat tire.” Despite his assessment, the painting was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art for $1800 dollars (Which, sources say, was a substantial amount for a painting at that time.)
And I believe the artist did what he set out to do. When I look at the picture (in my case, a print that I purchased in the museum gift shop) I feel strongly that while many aspects of life hamper us—circumstances, lack of perspective, lack of foresight, apathy, distraction, skewed ideas about the value of work—like Christina, we can forge our way back to our spiritual home and from that base, our spirits can soar.
I have read that art critics debate the value and contribution of the painting. Some scorn it. However, the painting resonates with many people and, as a result, the painting, still displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is currently considered priceless.
I’m intrigued by the discrepancy between Andy Wyeth’s original bleak assessment of the painting’s value and the positive, sustained public response to the painting.
Often, I hope there’s a discrepancy between my immediate assessment of my work’s value and its ultimate value.
I find that it’s so easy, after working diligently on a task, to conclude: That didn’t go very well.
As a blogger, sometimes, as I press publish, I think, Here goes nothing.
As an instructor of required college writing courses—mid-semester—let me tell you: I don’t need guards to keep students from engaging too intensely with the material I introduce. I need lurking assistants, standing unobtrusive, yet alert, ready to snatch cell phones and prod students to contribute to discussion with, at least, a mumble.
It’s easy to complete a task or finish up a class and conclude that my work is lackluster.
However, sometimes, I learn quickly that my original assessment is not accurate. A story that I despair over becomes the story that speaks to many readers. Or the student I think is inattentive and unresponsive surprises me with stellar progress.
So even when my original assessment is that my work is so-so, I commit to doing it, putting it out there and working again.
People say that they like Andrew Wyeth’s paintings because he shows people enduring. One of the things we endure is that there is not always tangible evidence that our work matters. And while there is a certain energy that comes from having others recognize the value of our work and a certain bleakness that sets in when our work’s value not recognized, we have to keep working believing that the work is valuable.
I know it’s difficult. In class, when I’m talking about something I value like the power of stories or apt comma placement and I look out at my students and see yawns—not even politely stifled—and energetic, secretive texting, sometimes, I consider announcing, “If you all gave me a standing ovation, just once…”
One time, I actually did announce that. And you know what? They all clapped. They didn’t stand, but they clapped. Of course, I realized the applause was prompted because I have the power to assign a value to their work by doling out the almighty grade.
In one way or another we all want to do valuable work. And we want to be recognized for it.
From the stories told about Andrew Wyeth, it seems that he figured out how to work with or without recognition. In a book called “Wyeth People”, Gene Logsdon reports a story told by one of Andy Wyeth’s friends. While appearing at one of his exhibitions at a museum, Andy Wyeth reached to touch a painting he had created. Not recognizing the painter, the museum guard scurried over and said, “Don’t touch the painting, Sir.” According to the story, Wyeth didn’t clarify that he actually had a right to touch the painting.
There’s value in recognizing our work and doing it well with or without recognition.
Do we all have the opportunity to do priceless work? Yesterday, I told a student we do. Not that I expect to do work that will be worth millions of dollars, but on my good days, I think I’m doing work that matters for someone else for awhile. Work that will last because I’ve done it to the best of my ability and it is excellent work.