In light of the exhibition “Wharton to Wendell” at the new Modernism Museum Mount Dora in Florida, celebrating the work of Wharton Esherick and Wendell Castle, we decided to look back at Wendell’s remarks about Wharton’s influence on his work. Wendell Castle a guest speaker at our annual member’s party thirty-one years ago and his remarks were recorded in Fall 1992 edition of The Quarterly:
Thank you, Tom [Hucker], for those kind remarks. It certainly is a pleasure to be here. At a time when cynicism and despair and indiscriminate recycling of tired ideas from the past seem to dominate what’s going on in the art world, it is particularly wonderful to be here. It is so refreshing to see honest Yankee ingenuity and all those kind of wonderful things. I wonder as I sit here what I might be today if I had never come here. I don’t know what I would be. I wouldn’t be what I am – I know that.’
In 1958, while a student at the University of Kansas, I discovered Wharton Esherick’s work in a book called ‘Shaping America’s Product’, written by Don Wallace. In addition to Wharton Esherick’s work being in that book, Sam Maloof’s work was in that book and so was George Nakashima’s. But only one of them interested me, and I was just fascinated with what Wharton’s work looked like and what little bit the text said.
In the spring of 1958, a roommate and I made the journey from Kansas to visit relatives in this area and in the area of Roxbury, Connecticut. I remembered that Wharton Esherick lived in Paoli and that Alexander Calder lived in Roxbury. We knocked on Alexander Calder’s door and told him we were art students from Kansas, and he said come in. He showed us around and we had a great time and it was a very interesting experience.
A day or two later we arrived here. I don’t know how we ever found this place, but somehow we did and knocked on the door here. Well, Wharton Esherick wasn’t particularly interested in talking to us. He was busy. So, we went away. I only had a word or two, so I would like to refer to Wharton Esherick as my reluctant teacher. But that experience and seeing the studio – what I could see through the windows and what I could see of the house from here – was enough. That was way more than enough.
Ten years later, Don McKinley and I came together, and it was a wonderful and memorable visit on a day as beautiful as this. We sat on that beautiful patio, and we had lunch and talked about – I don’t remember what. It was a very meaningful day. Wharton didn’t seem to be one to want to get into profound statements about art or ideologies or philosophy, so we had rather ordinary conversations. We talked about making things, we talked about ideas, and we talked about tools and all kinds of wooden things.
But I think that from the early experience of having just seen this place and then having started my own career in art and coming up with a lot of the ideas that I came up with, I think that in many respects I share those thoughts that Wharton had, and many things that I consider to be important in my work were important in his work.
I made a list of ten things that I think I got from Wharton Esherick even though he never was my teacher. I learned more from him than most teachers I ever had class with.
Number One: I had no idea you could make furniture by hand and sell it and get paid for it. You know I didn’t know that was a possibility.
Number Two: I had never thought that furniture had expressive qualities, that furniture could have all of the kinds of qualities that painting and sculpture had. It had passion. It had presence, and it could be narrative. That directly came from Wharton Esherick’s work.
Number Three: furniture can actually be art – not just be like art, or something related to art – it can be art.
Number Four: the fact that art and life are one. And this is certainly a living example of that, this environment Wharton made for himself. He lived with art. He was around art all the time and there was no separating. He didn’t go to work and come home from work. That was all the same.
Number Five: furniture is not a minor art, that furniture is as major as any art and it can make as important a contribution to any art movement as anything can and be absolutely just as legitimate.
Number Six: the essence of an idea in a piece is far more important than the skill or the craft or the quality of the material that goes into it.
Number Seven: these ideas for furniture are best arrived at from anywhere but getting them from furniture. Wharton didn’t borrow [ideas] from the history of furniture – he made them up.
Number Eight: I was very impressed with the fact that Wharton Esherick had power tools in his studio and I thought craftsmen made things all by hand.
Number Nine: the importance of drawing. Drawing makes it possible to keep ideas so they don’t go away. Thoughts are fleeting. Ideas on paper are not.
Number ten is really that all of these ideas add up to one big idea: the importance of creative thinking, of good old Yankee ingenuity.
I would like to end this with ten ideas of my own about creativity. Sort of ten adopted rules of thumb that I like to use on a day-to-day basis in dealing with my own work:
One: If you’re in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
Two: It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
Three: After leaning the tricks of the trade, don’t think you know the trade.
Four: We hear and apprehend what we already know.
Five: The dog that sits on the porch will find no bones.
Six: Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms it was brought to you.
Seven: If it is offbeat or surprising, it is probably useful.
Eight: If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
Nine: Don’t get too serious.
Ten: Most importantly, it you hit the bulls-eye every time, the target is too near.
I think Wharton Esherick had his targets way out there. He was shooting great distances.
Thanks, everyone, for allowing me to be here today to celebrate this twentieth anniversary of this wonderful Museum.
For more information about Modernism Museum Mount Dora (3MD) please visit their website, and be sure to like them on Facebook! http://modernismmuseum.org/
You can also check out Wendell’s work at http://www.wendellcastle.com.
This month’s blog post was written by Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania.
Like so many Americans through the years, Wharton Esherick owned—and presumably read—banned books. An examination of the list of his books now housed at the Wharton Esherick Museum—and one should NOT assume that these are the only books he owned, let alone read—reveals that he had in his library books that were banned or prohibited in at least some parts of the country, if not the entire country, at one time or another. Some were by important American writers like Thoreau and Whitman, both of whose works encountered censorship at different times. Perhaps more importantly for Esherick, some of these banned books were works by friends of his, including Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, or by writers with whom he would have become acquainted through them or through his visits to Philadelphia’s Centaur Book Shop.
The Centaur Book Shop’s stock focused on modern literature, including first editions, limited editions, fine printing, and signed copies, as well as art books and an assortment of literary and philosophical magazines. The name for the bookshop came from a line (“‘Up on my back,’ said the Centaur, ‘and I will take you thither.’”) in James Branch Cabell’s novel, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919), which had been denounced by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. According to Harold T. Mason, proprietor of the Centaur Book Shop, the reference “lent an air of mild wickedness to the enterprise,” although Mason himself did not find the work particularly obscene.
However, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought a case for obscenity against the book. The printing plates were seized in early January 1920, preventing the printing of additional copies. There were protests, leading to the formation of the Emergency Committee Organized to Protest Against the Suppression of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen. A published report of the Committee, Jurgen and the Censor (1920), included contributions by Cabell and such well-known writers of the time as Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Padraic Colum, Christopher Morley, and Theodore Dreiser. The legal proceeding against Cabell and his publisher ultimately failed, and they were cleared of all charges. Ironically, suppression of this novel only generated greater interest in the book, thereby increasing rather than decreasing its circulation.
Harold Mason, in acquiring books for the Centaur’s shelves, would have occasion to—stock, import, or smuggle, you choose—and sell a number of prohibited works, including Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—under the counter, of course. On December 20, 1929, D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the United States. Even before it was officially banned, however, Lawrence himself knew there would be controversy surrounding this work, and so he had the first edition privately printed in Italy.
Lawrence and Mason knew each other and corresponded in the late 1920s, in part as a result of the Centaur’s publication in 1925 of both A Bibliography of the Writings of D. H. Lawrence by Edward D. McDonald and a book of Lawrence’s essays, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, for which Esherick did the well-known woodcut of the porcupine that graces the half-title page. D.H. Lawrence’s correspondence with Mason, McDonald, and the Centaur Book Shop and Press was acquired by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, and published as The Centaur Letters (University of Texas, 1970). Lawrence mentioned that he was privately printing Lady Chatterley in his 18 Dec 1927 letter to Mason, claiming that he is doing so because no publisher would dare, it being shocking “from the smut-hunting point of view,” so much so that “the Puritan will want to smite me down” (Centaur Letters, p 31). His greatest fear, as he expresses it later in the letter, “is your damned interfering censorship” (Centaur Letters, p 31), about which Lawrence asks Mason for his advice. In a subsequent letter, that of February 1928, Lawrence recognizes that he will not be able to get Knopf to publish an unexpurgated edition, so he says he’s “going to try to expurgate and substitute sufficiently to produce a properish public version” even as he plans to publish his own “unmutilated version” (Centaur Letters, p 32).
Lawrence writes to Mason in early July 1928 to say that the printer is mailing him a copy and tells him he’s grateful for getting him orders. Presumably some of the books did arrive safely in Philadelphia. In his letter of 6 September, Lawrence tells Mason that he believes the
publisher “shipped in all about 140 copies to America. How many are lost, I don’t know. But we know a fair number arrived” (Centaur Letters, p 35). There also appears to have been a pirated edition that Lawrence refers to in his 31 May 1929 letter, “produced in Philadelphia—& is now in second edition—& two different sources told me you were back of it—which I was very loth [sic] to believe” (Centaur Letters, p 36). The letter indicates that Mason had previously written to assure Lawrence he had nothing to do with it.
Unlike Jurgen, which Esherick knew and presumably read, even though it does not appear on the list (another Cabell work, Figures of Earth (1925) does), he clearly owned a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in a privately printed edition from 1928 (Book no. 20). Was it acquired from the Centaur Book Shop? It would seem likely that it was, given the role of Harold Mason played in smuggling copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into the country.
Theodore Dreiser’s realistic novel Sister Carrie, about a working class girl who moves to the city and pursues her version of the American Dream through the manipulation of men, was the first of his works to face censorship. Dreiser must have been aware that he had written what would be a difficult work for a major American publisher to publish. Turned down by Harper and Brothers, he then submitted it to a new firm, Doubleday, Page & Co., from whose junior partner Walter Hines Page he received a gentleman’s agreement to publish the work. However, when Frank Doubleday, the senior partner, read the typescript, he reacted negatively to the narrative, considering it “immoral,” and pushed not to publish it. Dreiser, though, demanded its publication, and upon receiving legal advice that it was bound to do so, the firm proceeded to publish it in 1900, but not before they censored the text, producing a cut and bowdlerized version of the original manuscript. In addition, to avoid bringing attention to the novel, Doubleday bound it in a non-descript red-cloth binding and then refrained from marketing it, in effect suppressing it. With fewer than 500 copies sold, it was essentially a failure.
When Dreiser himself had Sister Carrie reprinted in 1907, he did so using the expurgated Doubleday version. Harpers then republished it in this form in 1912. The cut and censored material was not restored until the University of Pennsylvania Press edition, published in 1981, went back to the original manuscript to recover as much of Dreiser’s original work as possible, thereby revealing the nature and extent of the Doubleday’s censorship. Esherick’s copy was of the 1917 Modern Library edition (Book no. 376).
Two other works by Dreiser also faced censorship, The Genius and An American Tragedy. After The Genius, published in 1916, was brought to the attention of the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and banned for being blasphemous and obscene, the publisher voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. Dreiser found a new publisher, who republished it in 1923, without challenge. An American Tragedy, published in late1925 by Boni & Liveright, was threatened with legal action in 1927 by the district attorney in Boston on the grounds that it endangered the “morals of youth.” The publisher, seeking to challenge this threat, convinced a Boston bookseller to sell the book. The bookseller was then arrested and fined. Although the famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow—hired by Horace Liveright to help in the defense of Dreiser in his fight for freedom of expression, was involved in the appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court—it was unsuccessful and the bookseller was convicted of “selling an obscene, indecent, and impure book.” While Esherick had many of Theodore Dreiser’s works on his shelves and likely had read these as well, neither of them are on the list of books currently at the Museum.
On a final note, Esherick’s good friend Sherwood Anderson also encountered censorship in the publication and dissemination of Winesburg, Ohio, a work that challenges the mores of small town America. John Lane, who published Anderson’s first two novels, refused to publish Winesburg, Ohio and it was banned in the public library in Anderson’s own town of Clyde, Ohio. Not surprisingly, Esherick had a copy of the first edition, published in 1919 (Book no. 423). So, it would appear that Esherick was very much part of a world in which censorship was alive and well.
For more information:
On Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
On Sister Carrie:
On censorship and banned books:
On banned book week:
Note from the author Lynne Farrington:
When considering censorship, it’s important to recognize that censorship comes in many forms. There is pre-publication censorship. This includes authorial self-censorship, that is, authors limiting what they write to avoid having their works suppressed by the authorities as well as publisher censorship, in which someone working on behalf of the publisher edits out or rewrites passages that might be construed as offensive or problematic or in which the publisher tries to suppress the entire work simply by being unwilling to publish it. The requirement at different times and in different countries that a work receive a license or privilege before it can be published is yet another form of pre-publication censorship. Works deemed inappropriate not only for reasons of obscenity, but more often because of specific political or religious content, are banned from publication and their authors are sometimes even imprisoned or put under house arrest for incitement, treason, or corruption charges, essentially as a way of stilling their voices.
There is also post-publication censorship, that is, the kind of censorship that prevents a book from being acquired, let alone read. This includes publishers not marketing the book; public libraries not acquiring the book; bookstores not carrying the book; and newspapers and periodicals not reviewing the book, all of which make a particular work virtually invisible to the reading public. The more vocal form of post-publication censorship happens once the book is out there in the world being read. These include public outcry from specific groups attacking book; requests to remove the book from bookstores, libraries, and schools; and a more general condemnation by religious authorities and public officials. All forms of censorship create an environment in which authors and readers alike find themselves stymied by outside forces attempting to control what they think, let alone write and read.
Although the many now famous pieces produced by the Bauhaus faculty and students, and the pieces that came out of Esherick’s Paoli studio differ greatly in their use of materials and approach to mass production (Esherick’s wholly one-of-a-kind, unique pieces compared to the Bauhaus’ embrace of mass production), their design techniques similarly focused on achieving a complex degree of utilitarianism and an overall aesthetic informed by the materials in which they worked. Opened in 1919 in Dessau, and ultimately moving to both Weimar and Berlin, the Bauhaus asserted a progressive curriculum focused on a modernist reinterpretation of the Arts and Crafts tradition. The school boasted such influential artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as members of its faculty, until the Nazi Regime closed it in 1933 . Both Esherick and the Bauhaus sought the creation of an environment in which all the arts commingled, the distinctions between artistic mediums collapsed, and students could develop a new, democratic approach to the creative process that would revolutionize how society and the individual would interact with art.
Esherick played a key role in leading the first generation of an American modernist Arts and Crafts movement that was rooted in the earlier revivals of the European Arts and Crafts tradition happening in Germany, England, and France during the mid-19th century. In the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution, which reorganized every aspect of an antiquated European society that still functioned on ancient economic and manufacturing practices, some artists refused to sacrifice the incomparable quality of a handmade object for the efficiency of a machine-made product; particularly English Arts and Crafts movement founders John Ruskin and William Morris. Ruskin and Morris developed the artistic philosophy of working with natural materials, paying close attention to unique aesthetic details for each piece, and retaining the knowledge of master craftsmanship without the aid of new technologies. By time the 1920s rolled around, and Esherick and the Bauhaus had begun their work, the prior had adapted his principles to embrace possibilities allowed by stocking a modern workshop, and the latter had modified its vision as a means to retaining craftsmanship in modern industrial society. Still, both kept the original Arts and Crafts ideology at the core of their styles, with Walter Gropius, the first director of the Bauhaus, even citing Ruskin and Morris as primary influences in the establishment of the school.
Gropius’ 1919 “Bauhaus Manifesto and Program” begins with the line: “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building!” This sentiment emphasizes the school’s interest in the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, roughly translated as the “total work of art,” in which every aspects of a structure, from its walls to its decorations and furniture requires the insight of artistic craftsmanship. As far as an American reinterpretation of this concept, perhaps no building succeeds in achieving that aim as well as Esherick’s studio, in which the artist’s hand has left its mark on every detail. From the sloping external lines of the studio’s structure to the autumnal fresco on the 1966 addition, the individually painted window frames to the purple stained pine floors of the 1926 portion of the studio and the handcrafted furniture and sculpture that inhabits the building, Esherick created a truly organic structure atop Valley Forge Mountain that would have satisfied Gropius’ call for the ultimate visual art. Beyond their shared interest in Gesamtkunstwerk, many parallels exist within their artistic philosophies as well.
When asked by a woodworking class for advice from the master when visiting his studio, Esherick infamously said to “ditch your teacher”, an idea Gropius also shared and expressed in the manifesto, writing: “Art… in itself it cannot be taught.” Both viewed the workshop as the optimal environment in which to gain experience and hone the artistic craft: Gropius hoped that the Bauhaus workshop would absorb any kind of classroom space and Esherick learned his craft skills within his workshop and the carpentry studio of his friend and neighbor John Schmidt. In their minds, art and craftsmanship required the use of one’s hands and materials, informed by skills that no textbook had the ability to impart.
When viewing the relationship between Esherick and the Bauhaus, one can imagine a spectrum displaying the modernist interpretations of the 19th century Arts and Crafts revival, with Esherick at one end favoring local, natural materials and the Bauhaus at the other, applying craft technique to innovative technologies and materials. Both ultimately achieve similar degrees of utilitarianism with compositions emphasizing ingeniously functional forms that are fluid, curvilinear and highly aesthetic. Although the Bauhaus usually favored new materials such as steel and iron, an early piece by architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, the 1922 Slat Chair, uses unmodified prefabricated wood slats in a minimalistic design to achieve a wholly functional chair, extremely similar in conception to Esherick’s famous Hammer Handle Chair (see Figures A and B). Furthermore, the similarities in design between Esherick’s spiral staircase for the Curtis Bok House and the spiral staircase in the foyer of the Weimar Bauhaus, both with floating stairs appearing to cantilever out from the wall display vivid artist camaraderie (See figures C and D). More than anything, the early modernists attempted to define and defy the boundaries of each artistic medium in order to create a higher degree of total art, and in the first half of the 20th century, no institute developed a more successful process to achieve that than the Bauhaus, and no artist succeeded more in manifesting that vision than Wharton Esherick.
Post written by WEM volunteer Mike Cavuto.
In honor of National Poetry Month, we took a look at the poets found in Wharton’s library. On the shelves we found works by Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Gavin Maxwell, Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams and more. What stood out were two volumes of poetry by Wharton’s friend Ford Madox Ford — New Poems, and Collected Poems of Ford Madox Ford.
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), a native of Britain, was born Ford Hermann Hueffer on December 17, 1873 in Surrey. Early in WWI, Ford worked for the War Propaganda Bureau where he wrote two propaganda books. After their publication, he enlisted in the Welch Regiment and was deployed to France. His experiences on the war front and with the propaganda department inspired Parade’s End (1924-1928), which was recently made into a BBC mini-series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. It was broadcast on HBO in the United States early this year. In his lifetime, Ford would write over 50 books and count among his friends many of the literary giants including James Joyce, Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser and Jean Rhys.
Wharton was introduced to Ford through Theodore Dreiser, who sent Ford and his lover Janice Biala, to visit Wharton after they had visited Dreiser at his home in Mount Kisco, NY in the fall of 1934. While they were there, Wharton taught Biala how to carve woodcuts, and she painted a study of Wharton’s daughter Mary that is currently on display in Wharton’s bedroom. While Biala painted and learned to carve, Ford worked on his novel Great Trade Route; he wrote sitting at Wharton’s 1929 Flat-Top Desk (the Sawhorse Desk). Ford included a description of his visit to Wharton’s studio in Great Trade Route:
“A dim studio in which blocks of rare woods, carver’s tools, medieval looking gadgets, looms, printing presses, rise up like ghosts in the twilight while the slow fire dies in the brands…Such a studio built by the craftsman’s own hands out of chunks of rock and great balks of timber, sinking back into the quiet wood on a quiet crag with, below its long windows, quiet fields parceled out by the string-courses of hedges and running to a quietly rising horizon…such a quiet spot is the best place to think in.” You can read more of his description from Great Trade Route in the front of Wharton Esherick Studio and Collection (available in our gift shop and online store).
Wharton’s daughter Ruth remembers Ford’s visit. He was a gourmet cook, and her mother, Lettie, encourages her to learn from Ford. Wharton sketched Ford serving everyone.
On the title page of Collected Poems of Ford Madox Ford, (printed in 1936), is an inscribed message: “Mr. Mrs. Esherick for New Year MCMXXXVI-VII with all good wishes from Ford Madox Ford New York, N.Y.”. The volume is made up of 112 of his poems, including quite a few he wrote while on active service during WWI. According to the introduction of Collected Poems, “Mr. Ford professes to be ill-read in English poetry and not to care much about it. This is partly an attitude. He is a born romancer.”
Perhaps his best known poem is called Antwerp, which was written in 1915 (before he changed his name) about why the Belgians resisted the invading German forces making their way to France during WWI; it is included in this volume. We discovered an original publication of the poem tucked in the front cover, perhaps by Wharton. T.S. Eliot said this poem was “the only good poem I have met on the subject of the war”, it is also Ford’s favorite poem written during active service.
An October like November;
August a hundred thousand hours,
And all September,
A hundred thousand, dragging sunlit days,
And half October, like a thousand years…
That then was Antwerp…
In the name of God,
How could they do it?
Those souls that usually dived
Into the dirty caverns of mines;
Who usually hived
In whitened hovels; under ragged poplars;
Who dragged muddy shovels, over the grassy mud,
Lumbering to work over the greasy sods…
Those men there, with the appearances of clods
Were the bravest men that a usually listless priest of God
And it is not for us to make them an anthem.
If we found words there would come no wind that would
To a tune that the trumpets might blow it,
Shrill through the heaven that’s ours or yet Allah’s
Or the wide halls of any Valhallas.
We can make no such anthem. So that all that is our
For inditing in sonnets, pantoums, elegiacs, or lays
‘In the name of God, how could they do it?’
Thanks for stopping by, continue Reading Antwerp here.
More poetry by Ford Madox Ford.
Post by Assistant Curator, Laura Heemer.
The Wharton Esherick Museum celebrates Women’s History Month by featuring Consuelo Kanaga and Marjorie Content, two important photographers, clients, and friends of Wharton’s.
Consuelo Kanaga (1894–1978) grew up on the west coast and became a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle. There she discovered photography and began work as a photojournalist. After seeing the work of Alfred Steiglitz, she tried to bring more artistry into her journalism, bay area photographers, including Dorothea Lange, encouraged her in her work. In 1924, she moved to New York to meet Steiglitz and found work for the New York American. After a few years in New York, she moved back to California where she became part of “Group f64,” which included Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, among others.
After years of travel, she settled in New York City, and married painter Wallace Putnam. She was moat likely introduced to Wharton through her friend, Marjorie Content. She photographed Wharton, his family, his studio, as well as his furniture and sculpture. Consuelo and Wallace acquired a number of Esherick pieces over the years.
Politics played a major role in Kanaga’s life and her art. She photographed for radical publications like The Masses, Labor Defender, and Sunday Worker. Her photographs of African-Americans are among her most famous images. In 1955, two of her images were included in Edward Steichen’s famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She continued to be a strong female voice in photography until her death.
Marjorie Content (1885-1984) was a child of privilege, but leaned toward the more radical social, political and artistic movements of the early 20th century. She was the business manager of The Sunwise Turn, the first bookstore owned and operated entirely by women. The bookshop was a hotbed of artistic and political radicalism. When her first marriage to poet Harold Loeb ended, she moved to New City, New York, where she was a neighbor of Henry Varnum Poor. Poor introduced Wharton and Marjorie, and they became fast friends. After the death of her second husband, Michael Carr, she returned to New York City, and commissioned Wharton to create a bedroom suite that remains one of his finest creations. He wrote to Theodore Dreiser, “It is one of the biggest & most complete things I have done. The new corner chest of drawers which also acts as a headboard to the bed I think is my best piece.”
Marjorie took up photography and her work caught the attention of Alfred Steiglitz. She traveled to the Southwest often, sometimes as a photographer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and sometimes to visit her friend Georgia O’Keeffe. She told interviewers of her trips to the Southwest, “I always stopped at Wharton’s… we never seemed to think that we were on the road until we took off from Paoli.” She brought back Navajo baskets for Wharton which are on view in his Studio.
She photographed Wharton and his work; most notably the furniture he made for her. Her portrait of Wharton is currently on display in the Museum’s visitor center, as part of our exhibition on the friendship between Wharton and Sherwood Anderson. Wharton gave the photograph, in an Esherick frame, to Sherwood to hang in his “Rogues Gallery” at Ripshin, his home in Virginia. Marjorie knew Anderson from her days at Sunwise Turn – the gallery had exhibited the painting Sherwood made (under Wharton’s tutelage) in Fairhope, Alabama.
In 1935 she married poet and author Jean Toomer, one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and they moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Wharton helped them convert a barn into a home. Content was also a furniture maker and worked with Wharton on the construction; in the kitchen, the family is not sure where Wharton stopped and Marjorie took over. Under Toomer’s influence (many say domination), Marjorie gave up photography. But she left many lasting images.
You can find more about Consuelo Kanaga in Barbara Head Millstein’s Consuleo Kanaga:American Photographer, published by the Brooklyn Museum. Jill Quasha’s Marjorie Content: Photographs is a great place to learn more about Marjorie Content. Look for more images from both photographers this month on our Facebook and Pinterest pages.
Post written by Executive Director & Curator, Paul Eisenhauer.
While the Museum is closed to tours during the winter months, the staff still reports Monday – Friday to work of various projects like exhibit installation, archival/collection work, preservation projects and much, much more. Who are these staff members exactly? You may have met one or two when you’ve come for a tour, but read on and let us introduce you to the crew (or as we refer to ourselves: Team WEM)
Paul Eisenhauer, Executive Director & Curator
Paul started as a docent in 2003, became the Program Director in 2005, the Curator in 2008 and the Executive Director in 2010. Before WEM, Paul was an Associate Professor of Sociology at Chestnut Hill College. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania where he specialized in prison history. He entered the museum field doing volunteer work at Eastern State Penitentiary in its first years open to the public (it’s also his favorite site to visit, besides WEM of course). Outside of work, Paul works with prisoners at SCI Graterford through Temple University’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program. Paul is an amateur woodworker, which is what first brought him to the Museum. He enjoys carving spoons and bowls and enjoys music and folk dancing.
His favorite parts of working at WEM are giving tours and researching Wharton and his fascinating life. Spoken like a true Executive Director, Paul’s vision for the Museum is to keep it moving forward as we go through the many changes that are occurring. Paul also plans to continue to spread the word about Esherick until his reputation matches his influence in 20th century American furniture and sculpture. He also plans to continue to bring Eshericks’s work to the public through exhibitions and publications.
When asked what Esherick piece he’d like to own, Paul couldn’t choose just one. His favorites included Oblivion, Reverence, the Library Ladder, the olive spoon in the kitchen, Babbie & Colt, the Fischer Corner Desk, the Dannenberg Dining Room, Twin Twist and Wharton’s Memo pad. He encourages everyone who envies his job to become a volunteer – you never know where it will lead.
Laura Heemer, Assistant Curator & Program Director
Laura started working at WEM as the part time Museum Assistant in 2010 and was promoted in 2012 to the full time Assistant Curator & Program Director. Laura holds a BA in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington with a focus on Museum Studies. Before working at WEM she interned at the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, VA and hopped from one Chester County site to the another starting at The Mill at Anselma, then on to The Chester County Historical Society, Historic Yellow Springs and Valley Forge National Park. During her internship at Ansemla she picked up a brochure for WEM noting the “awesome staircase” on the front and planned to come for a visit but never did. Seeing the job posting for the Museum Assistant finally got her here, and she’s been hooked ever since.
Laura couldn’t choose just one favorite part of the job – working at a small museum you get to do so many wonderful things! As a self professed “museum geek” she loves working with the collection, cataloging and photographing it; working that close with Wharton’s work is a real treat. She loves the physical location of WEM and watching the weather change the look and feel of the hillside, she has a great view from her desk in the Visitor’s Center. She also enjoys interacting with visitors and the wonderful team of docents. Laura would like to see WEM do more demonstration days with the printing press, it’s always fun to see Wharton’s press in action. Wharton’s “Washington Press” is one of her favorite pieces in the museum, but of Esherick’s own work, her favorite is Babbie and Colt.
Outside of WEM Laura loves to go “museum hopping” (she recently started a blog: Making Museums Matter). She loves to go hiking & kayaking; is a youth leader and sings on the worship team at her church. She’s a diehard Red Sox fan and enjoys going to baseball games. Her favorite historic site to visit: Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa May Alcott is her favorite historical figure and “Little Women” her favorite book, she said visiting Orchard House felt like going home.
Ashley Harper, Business Manager
Our newest staff member Ashley, grew up in Wharton’s front yard, attending high school in Malvern and upon graduation set out to see the world. She received a degree in the History of Art from the University of Michigan then moved abroad and lived in England, France and Italy. She received a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from the University of Manchester then lived out of a suitcase for awhile, traveling through Europe and India. She worked in finance for a year but has spent the past few years working at various local historic sites including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Bartram’s Garden and the Penn Museum where she has worked on digital archives projects, grant writing and programs. One thing she likes about her role at WEM is that it draws upon the accumulative strength of all of her experiences. WEM’s gardener Nancy Long is the one who encouraged Ashley to apply for the job knowing she’d be a perfect fit!
Ashley has been at WEM for a short time and when asked what her favorite part of the job and what her personal goals for WEM were responded with: ask me when taxes are finished! Her favorite part of the WEM collection is Wharton’s library. She says that as someone who likes to work creatively, she enjoys figuring out the influences and context around how a beautiful piece of art is made. Not just the physical crafting techniques but the mental exertions – the personal triumphs and tragedies. That way, when she finally figures out what her talent is, she can utilize all that knowledge and retire on a nice commission.
Outside of work Ashley likes to do a lot of things from “the real to the random”. For example: cult practices, Pirate watching, conundrums, reading books (especially on history/art history related topics). She enjoys sports such as biking and playing ultimate Frisbee and she likes to knit and do photography (sometimes at the same time). She also enjoys blogging about Philadelphia’s First Fridays (http://larevegauchearts.com/) and has recently been working with a friend to help organize the development of an Artist’s residence in Downingtown, PA. She couldn’t choose a favorite museum or cultural event as there are too many to choose from, but said chatting with Bob and Ruth here at WEM might be her favorite.
She says to anyone out there reading this, she’s happy to have been invited on board and looks forward to getting to know everyone better. There’s never a bad time to stop in and say hi, otherwise, keep an eye out because you never know when she will pop up.
Coming up next: meet our part time staff, followed by a glimpse into the friendship of Wharton Esherick and Sherwood Anderson.
Post written by Laura Heemer with contributions from Paul Eisenhauer and Ashley Harper.
We’d like to apologize for not writing a new blog post for this month, it has been a very busy December here at WEM with lots of visitors coming to see Esherick’s studio before we close to tours for the winter. All month long we have been exhibiting a portrait of Wharton Esherick painted by his good friend Henry Varnum Poor, that was recently donated to the museum by Henry’s son, Peter. The portrait is oil on canvas and was painted in 1932; Wharton was 45.
Wharton Esherick and Henry Varnum Poor were close friends for nearly 50 years. They were born the same year and they died in the same year (1887-1970). Each influenced and supported the other in their similar careers. Both were trained as painters but in 1920 moved into the decorative arts to augment their incomes — Esherick into wood, Poor into ceramics.
Recent research suggests that they met through the E. Weyhe Book Store which also served as a gallery for up-and-coming progressive artists. The bookstore had commissioned Poor to make decorative tiles for its storefront in 1923; Esherick began exhibiting there — paintings, woodcuts, a chess set — by 1925. Our knowledge of the two men’s earliest association was Marjorie Content’s recounting of being introduced by Poor to Esherick at a picnic on the banks of the Hudson River in the summer of 1926. Both artists had infant sons named Peter: Peter Esherick born in February, and Peter Poor in May. Both artists also had young daughters about the same age: Mary Esherick and Poor’s adopted daughter, Anne. Wharton and Henry both shared a rich sense of humor.
Though they had much in common that brought and kept them together, they had very different personalities. Esherick was raised and educated in Philadelphia and strayed no more than 25 miles to set up his household and studio. Esherick was determined from childhood to be an artist. Poor was raised on a Kansas farm and headed 1,500 miles west to study economics at Stanford University. In his junior year, he switched his major to art, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1910.
While Esherick was content to live a somewhat reclusive “organic” life in rural Pennsylvania, Poor, a more public person, preferred the big cities — San Francisco and New York — making contacts that would help his career. A talented painter, his work was selected for exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as early as 1913.
After serving as “regimental artist” in an Army Engineer unit in France during World War I, he spent the spring of 1919 in Paris. Following a brief stay in San Francisco, he moved to New York where he soon met an influential dealer of books, prints and drawings, Mary Mowbray-Clark. At her suggestion, he moved to a well-established artist colony at New City, New York, on the west bank of the Hudson River just north of New York City.
In 1920 he bought land there, built his home and studio “Crow House” and began making decorative ceramic tiles. By the mid-1920s he was creating plates decorated with still lifes, allegorical scenes and portraits. Five such plates, including portraits of Wharton, Mary and Ruth, hang in Wharton’s studio in the dining room and kitchen.
Museum founder Bob Bascom traveled to Crow House many years ago to interview Anne and Peter Poor. Bob recalls that, “although the outside of the stone house seemed typical for its period, in the style of a picturesque French farmhouse, the interior surprised and shocked us. For here we saw elements that had surely influenced Esherick’s later work: a curving stone stair carried on an arch to an upper chamber with a side door halfway up; a stone fireplace too similar in design to the wood surround for the dining room fireplace in the Curtis Bok House to be coincidental; a slit of a window deeply recessed in the stone walls; floor levels a step up here, a step down there. Poor had built this house with his own hands, working with the local workmen, as Esherick did in remodeling his barn in 1921 and building the Studio in 1926.”
Poor introduced Esherick to other artists in New City, including textile designer Ruth Reeves, for whom Poor had designed and built a house in 1922. The WEM collections contains one of her paintings, depicting the Esherick and Poor families at play together – the children in various stages of nudity, climbing trees and swinging. Nudity was popular among artists at that time. Three tiles by Poor over the fireplace in the house he built for Maxwell Anderson show Poor at work fully clothed, while the Andersons sunbathe in the nude.
In 1928, Poor, Reeves and other decorative artists founded the American Designers’ Gallery in New York. Poor exhibited a bathroom decorated in his ceramic tiles, including a life-size nude in the shower, which brought commissions for three more. Esherick joined the group in the spring of 1929, but the gallery soon folded. Poor’s 1929 installation was “Elements of a Dining Alcove” with a new emphasis on wood, perhaps influenced by Esherick. The walls were vertical rough sawn yellow poplar boards of heart and sapwood. The dining table was of similar boards, supported by a pair of inverted, handsomely made, saw horses — the conceptualization of Esherick’s 1929 Flat-top Desk (also called the Sawhorse Desk).
At this stage, a major difference developed in their art. Esherick abandoned decorative, representational surface treatments as unnecessary “literature”, relying thereafter solely on form. Poor made the decision to continue the pictorial, explaining, “For lightness sake I like a storytelling design. Far from subtracting, it adds one more quality to the complex that makes up enjoyment. The storytelling and humor involved must be purely visual.” Another difference came with Esherick’s abandonment of painting early in the 1920s for sculpture, while Poor continued to paint throughout his career.
In 1932, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one of Poor’s paintings that had been exhibited earlier that year at the Museum of Modern Art. He was commissioned to create ceramic vases and lamp bases for the new Rockefeller Center — good enough to be stolen in the first few weeks. He was invited to join a gallery in New York that exhibited Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh and other prominent painters of the time. He also painted portraits of his two friends: Theodore Dreiser and Wharton Esherick. The Dreiser portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Esherick portrait is part of the collection here at WEM. Year after year, Poor won prizes and his paintings were purchased by museums around the country. He created frescoes and ceramic murals for public and private buildings and served on art commissions and juries. *
Happy New Year from all of us here at the Wharton Esherick Museum! Wishing you all the best for 2013, come visit WEM when we re-open for tours March 1. Look for a new blog post in January!
Learn more about Henry Varnum Poor and how you can help the preservation efforts for Crow House by “liking” them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfCrowHouse
*All but the first paragraph of this post was re-posted from the Spring 1993 edition of the Wharton Esherick Museum newsletter “The Quarterly”. The Quarterly is mailed out four times a year to our member’s; considering becoming a member today!