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Early Rhythms: Wharton Esherick and the Gardner Doing Dance Camp

June 26, 2017


Pianist Olga Mendoza with co-founders Ruth Doing and Gail Gardner at the dance camp.

Earlier this month we opened our latest exhibition, Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor which explores a visual journal of the Esherick’s life and travels in 1919 and 1920 as the family visited (and Wharton painted) sites up and down the east coast. One such stop, in the summer of 1920, was the Gardner Doing Dance Camp, which became a family destination for many summers to come. Esherick completed many watercolors while at the camp that first summer, but as we’ll take a look at in this blog post, his creativity didn’t end there!

Wharton Esherick working on “Dance Finale” at the camp. This image was featured in a later camp brochure.

Gail Gardner and Ruth Doing opened the camp in 1916, having taken it over from Alys Bentley. The camp was located on Lake Chateaugay near Lyon Mountain in northern New York State until 1925, when they relocated to St. Regis Lake just a little further south. Gardner had found success as an opera singer before running the camp, while Doing had been a student of Alys Bentley’s, learning the rhythmic dance style that the camp would continue to teach. The Esherick’s learned of the dance camp through friend and author Sherwood Anderson and his wife Tennessee who had previously visited the camp themselves.


Esherick’s hand-carved frame compliments the dancers’ poses in his oil painting, “Dancers in the Moonlight,” 1920.

The freedom of this summer setting provided Esherick with ample time to create and the inspiration (primarily the dancers) that surrounded him took form in a wide variety of media, from the watercolors seen in our current exhibition, to oil paintings, wood and plaster sculptures, furniture and seemingly endless amounts of sketches.

Two early plaster sculptures, which now sit in Esherick’s bedroom, depict dancers from the camp, one of Ruth Doing, the other of dancer and actress Doris Canfield. Both done in 1920, these are very academic for Esherick, though the essential design elements (like the spiral) would show up again and again in Esherick’s work in progressively bolder and more modern designs.


“Doris”, 1920, is a cast plaster sculpture of dancer and actress Doris Canfield.

These summers also provided him the chance to experiment with new woodworking projects including a number of trestle tables. In 1923 Esherick designed a large oak trestle table for the camp, the top of which was relief carved with abstract motifs developed by Esherick and other students. To create these designs he and his fellow campers listened and responded to music as they drew, attempting to capture the qualities of the music in line.  This collaborative project gives us a glimpse of the experimental approach embraced at the camp.


Dance camp brochure, 1923, with “Rhythms-Opening” woodcut as the cover illustration

Gardner and Doing themselves truly enjoyed Esherick’s artistic style and used his woodcuts to illustrate a number of their camp brochures. The brochures gave a taste of what to expect at camp, including their teaching philosophy, and provided logistical information, even detailing a list of what to pack (bloomers or knickerbockers of course!) In a later brochure, advertising the winter season classes for 1931-1932, Esherick’s woodcut illustration of a dancer is particularly dynamic in its pared down use of line. The winter season, held on West 56th Street in New York, was part of an active artistic area with the American Designer’s Gallery (run by Esherick’s friend and artist Henry Varnum Poor), the Threefold Restaurant, and Theodore Dreiser‘s apartment (Dreiser was another good friend of Esherick’s) all in the neighborhood.

“Spirit Inactive”, woodcut illustration on the cover of dance camp brochure for the 1931-1932 winter season.

Esherick’s designs are full of twists, curves, and rhythms- themes from these early influences which continued through his art career to his very last artworks (Rhythms I and Rhythms II.) To learn more about the early travels and communities that shaped Esherick’s career be sure to stop by our Visitor Center to view Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, on exhibit through September 3, 2017.

Designs such as these inspired by music (and drawn by fellow students) would adorn one of Esherick’s trestle tables at the camp.

More information about Esherick’s time at the Gardner Doing Dance Camp can also be found in Wharton Esherick: Birth of the American Modern and Wharton Esherick: Journey of a Creative Mind.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.


An Artist’s Collection: Mistakes and All

May 25, 2017


Commissioned for the Curtis Bok House (shown here) this sofa was returned and can now be seen in Wharton’s bedroom.

Someone once asked during a tour if Wharton ever made a mistake.  It just so happened the tour guide being asked this question was Miriam Phillips, Wharton’s companion for the latter half of his life. She thought momentarily and replied that she couldn’t say for sure, but sometimes she was upstairs and heard a piece of wood go clanging across the studio followed by a loud curse, and she suspected that might have been Wharton making a mistake!

Perhaps a mistake he could live with – the “J” in this Emperor Jones poster has not been reversed on the woodblock. Photo by James Mario.

Revered by Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle, honored by the American Institute of Architects with its Gold Medal for Craftsmanship and considered by so many to be a genius of American furniture design – it’s easy to forget that Wharton Esherick had his fair share of missteps along the way.  Wharton’s home, in this way, provides a valuable and unique look at the creative process – a space rightfully peppered with not only his personal, most beloved sculptures, but also the imperfections and experiments that are part of any rigorous artist’s journey. Wharton would joke that fireplaces were made for mistakes, but in truth he lived among so many of his own pieces (from returned commissions to early prototypes yet to be resolved) that were grounded in growth and exploration over perfection.


Wharton kept shortening the “nose” of this wall-mounted dinner gong, but could never find a good note!

One such piece, the gracefully curved sofa made for the library alcove at the Curtis Bok House in 1935 was returned after about a year in it’s intended home. The Boks requested that Wharton replace it with a straight one citing that Mr. Bok’s friends would only sit on the narrow ends, rather than have their feet dangle off the edge. Mrs. Bok had a complaint also – when she napped on the sofa she kept rolling off! Wharton continued to work with curved and sometimes very deep sofas, however, which would come to be an iconic design for him in the 1950’s and 60’s.


This commissioned crucifix from 1930 was deemed too unconventional.

The sofa wasn’t the only commission Wharton found himself living with. Pieces could be refused for a number of reasons, some deemed too expensive, as with his 1950 Dresser (somewhat surprising considering he often undercharged for his own labor), others for being too unconventional, as with his small Macassar ebony crucifix. Wharton’s artistic experiments, whether structural or conceptual, were not all successful, but they were an essential part of exploring how far his creations could be pushed, pulled and reinvented.

Dining Chair, 1937 and Spindle Chair, 1939 both had room for improvement according to Wharton.

Two chairs Wharton kept in his dining room are great examples of Wharton reminding himself of what NOT to do. He had three criteria for chairs – they should ‘look good, feel comfortable, and be strong enough for a man to lean back in- because he will’. The Spindle Chair met only two of Wharton’s three criteria for a good chair, as it’s straight, narrow pieces along the back were not especially comfortable. He learned from this and improved the design with future chairs like the World’s Fair Chair now seen in Wharton’s bedroom, where he used wider curved pieces for the back. The other chair, Dining Chair, Wharton designed for use around a dinner table. The woven fabric is angled at the seat, pushing the diner towards the table, which Wharton found was uncomfortable for any other use. Of course, if you were concerned about dinner guests overstaying their welcome this might not be a mistake at all!

The World’s Fair Chair, 1940, succeeded in comfort where the Spindle Chair had failed.


Wharton had a certain irreverence with his own work – a practicality.  His furnishings were not to be treated too preciously but rather to be lived with comfortably, acquiring age and evidence of use along the way. If a piece of furniture needed to be cut in half for an elevator ride and reassembled to make it into a new home (which was the case a least once!), well, Wharton would do it. A piece could always be changed, even years after it was made. The Flat-Top Desk, which was first designed with an aluminum top, is a perfect example. Wharton eventually replaced the aluminum with a walnut top, stating later, “It was too cold. Wood is intimate, it’s alive, metal is uncomfortable, plastic just won’t do,” though he had been willing to try it out as a new material. The replacement top would be a slightly boat-shaped piece of walnut which Wharton swapped out yet again with a second walnut top (using the first walnut piece for a coffee table). In this way, he allowed his forms the fluidity to adapt and change with any number of circumstances or his own artistic compass.

There are countless other examples throughout the house of Wharton’s perseverance (and pitfalls), though we don’t intend to list them all. Rather to this end, we remind ourselves (artists or otherwise) not only of the dedication required of the creative process but the willingness to exist in a space of uncertainty and invention, even if it means an occasional mistake!


The Flat-Top Desk, made in 1929 and shown here in the farmhouse, with it’s original 1/4 inch aluminum top.


The Flat-Top Desk with it’s final walnut top from 1962. Photo by Mark Sfirri.


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Learning on the Job: Joseph Esherick Recalling Wharton

April 17, 2017

Joseph Esherick and Wharton Esherick working on a windowsill for the Curtis Bok House, 1937.

Visitors to the Wharton Esherick Museum often hear about two famous architects – Louis Kahn, who worked with Esherick to design the 1956 Workshop and George Howe, Esherick’s collaborator for the New York World’s Fair exhibit. But there was another remarkable architect in Esherick’s life that is not to be forgotten – his nephew, Joseph Esherick.

Joseph Esherick’s accomplishments are numerous. He was awarded the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1989. He was a professor at the University of California Berkley, College of Environmental Design for over 30 years, at one time serving as the Chairman of the department. Joseph Esherick was celebrated for his unassuming approach to design, valuing a sensitivity to function over architectural grandeur. As quoted in a NY Times article from 1998, the year he passed away, ”Beauty,” he said, ”is a byproduct of solving problems correctly.” These two Esherick men seemed to share common principals in their respective practices – to be direct and unpretentious in their designs. To illuminate Wharton Esherick’s influence on his nephew, we’d like to share the following excerpt of Joseph Esherick speaking at an Annual Members Party here at the Museum.

The following excerpt was originally published in the Wharton Esherick Museum Quarterly from Autumn 1990, entitled “Joseph Esherick, FAIA, Speaks at Annual Members Party:”

When I was asked by Bob if I would speak at this meeting, I accepted immediately because, first, I would have to come here to do it; and second, it would give me a chance to recall an almost endless string of things that have been enormously influential on my life and what I try to do.

It is over time and through reflection that we learn what is really useful. We, I at least, also learn from trying to explain or clarify what we’ve learned. So this is to me a pleasant opportunity – to be here and to recall Wharton and what I’ve learned from him.

I began learning from Wharton very early on. I suppose I was eight or ten when he told me to always keep my left hand behind the end of a gouge and never let it get in front. More than once, I have proved to myself the wisdom of this advice.

I recall frequent weekend visits to the farmhouse down below and almost as many visits by Wharton to our house in Mt. Airy. Wharton often brought with him models of what he was working on and would discuss at length with my father (an engineer) problems of construction. I remember with particular clarity his bringing a model of the Bok spiral stair and long discussions about how to build it without prop supports or hangers. The model was made so that the individual treads were loose and one could put it together and apply forces to it – with one’s fingers – to see how it would collapse. I especially recall Wharton’s complete openness to my questions and to my guesses as to what might work. In the end it was built Wharton’s way and it worked. One might suggest that it was his great intuitive sense that led him to the right answer. I would agree if you admit into intuition an extraordinarily open and imaginative mind, great perceptive skills plus years of experience getting it right – and probably some experience having it go wrong.

Later when I was at Penn I worked for Jim House – a sculptor friend and great admirer of Wharton – on a very large oak sculpture. He had bought a tree from a farmer down in the Great Valley, we felled it in the winter, trimmed it down to a single massive log, and then dragged it on an improvised sled over the snow to a truck. Somehow we got it on the truck and took it down to John Schmidt’s barn on Jug Hollow Road where he had an enormous band saw driven by an old Packard engine. The lower wheel and the engine were in the bottom floor of the barn, and on the upper floor were the upper wheel and a little flat truck on tracks on which one put the rough logs to feed into the saw. Somehow we wrestled the log onto the truck and rigged up a chain hoist from the ridge beam to position the log. Then we hauled and hauled on the hoist, but the log didn’t move. Finally someone looked up and found all we had been doing was to pull the barn down onto the log. Just before the whole barn collapsed, the log moved and the day was saved. John Schmidt never even blinked.

The summer after I graduated from Penn I worked for Wharton on the Bok house. There I got to know Ed Ray and Bert Kulp and John Schmidt better. It was a wonderful group – Wharton clearly the leader, but still very much a part of the group – working on everything. It was a real lesson in team work, in the pleasures and virtues of shared work as opposed to the problems of the divisions of labor. I’ve tried to work Wharton’s way ever since.

Eventually I ended up in San Francisco after the war. Wharton visited once, but couldn’t be persuaded to stay very long – he had to get back to the work which was his life. Later I visited here occasionally – once staying here over a weekend and he asked if I’d like to see anyone and I suggested Lou Kahn and Jean Francksen. They came to dinner Saturday night for steaks that Wharton cooked and whiskey that I suppose I poured. It was a typical evening with Lou – much talk until quite late, probably three.

The next morning I wandered into the kitchen where Wharton was cooking breakfast. We probably grunted or groaned some greeting and set to breakfast in dull silence. Finally Wharton broke it and said, “You know Lou would be a helluva good architect if he didn’t talk so damn much.”

Wharton and Lou were great friends and sometimes they agreed on things. I always thought Lou got his good aphorisms from Wharton, like “How would a farmer do it?” I’m inclined to doubt that Lou ever had the foggiest notion of how a farmer would do anything, but the question sounded good.

I don’t think Wharton was the source of other questions Lou liked to ask, like “What does a brick want to be?” Still, Wharton and Lou were great friends. It may tell us something that Wharton had only two architect friends, Lou, and George Howe, but he couldn’t have had better ones – either as friends or as architects.

Originally I thought I would talk about what architects can learn from Wharton, but that began to get too particular so I decided to try to talk about what we can all learn from his life and work. The way in which his life and work came together, were integrated, forms a model of a life increasingly difficult to lead. But because it is difficult is no reason not to try or to assume it can’t be done anymore.

What was so important about what Wharton did? Certainly he made beautiful things that we have come to love, and certainly he made an enormous variety of things that are beautiful or useful and if useful also beautiful – paintings, prints, sculpture, buildings, gardens, bowls, implements, furniture, tools – indeed anything he touched. But these are the products. In his work he spoke as an individual, but not in a private language, with the result that he and his work speak to everyone – not to some narrow elite, self-appointed or otherwise – but to all of us.

He had a powerful commitment to his work and a personal, but not private agenda. He had no axe to grind for any movement other than honesty – he was the antithesis of the media slave.

One of my strongest recollections is of Wharton’s railing against appearances – and I think he meant by this formalism, especially doctrinaire formalisms. His work is always about the issue at hand, whether the grain of the wood or the comfort of the chair or the curve that best expressed an emotion he felt. The fluidity and movement of his work is the product of intention and not style – and thus, stripped of the identifying trappings of style, it approaches a reality without the limits of time. It is from his devotion to a higher reality within and beyond himself that we can learn.



Sea Ranch House designed by Joseph Esherick, 1966.


More information about Joseph Esherick can be found here:


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

Finding Wharton Esherick’s House (Before GPS!)

March 23, 2017

If you’ve ever had trouble finding the Wharton Esherick Museum, you are not alone! Making your way to the Studio has always been a bit of an adventure, as captured in this wonderful open house invitation from Esherick’s early career. The invite rests unfolded in our collection now, but if you look closely you can make out the creases and begin to imagine opening the invitation to discover the delightful map inside.

Open studio invitation designed by Esherick

The invite is likely from the early 1920’s, well before Esherick constructed his “castle on a hill,” the building which is now our Museum. We should imagine instead, visitors arriving at the farmhouse property just down the hill (known as Sunekrest) with Esherick’s work on display in the barn, which he used as his studio in these early days. Surely not by accident, Esherick’s open studio was scheduled to  coincide with his wife Letty’s peony garden coming into bloom. Esherick even carved flowers on his invitation that dance around his artwork list.


Esherick’s map of the route from Paoli to Sunekrest in the early 1920’s.

Esherick began his mapped route with the Paoli train station.

Made up of three woodcut blocks, the most exceptional part of Esherick’s invite is the map. The route from the Paoli train station to Sunekrest is articulated with fun and functional detail, including the two freight lines and two streams crossed on the way. If you’re using this map to find us today be warned that a few things have changed! Route 202 and 76 were yet to be, of course, and the northernmost freight line (on the right in our view) is now the Chester Valley Trail.  Another significant difference is the existence (or disappearance) of Ashenfelter Road. The farmhouse had stood at the corner of Ashenfelter and Diamond Rock Road (which Esherick efficiently denotes here with a diamond shape).  In fact, when the Esherick’s bought the property the barn was on one side of Ashenfelter Road, the farmhouse on the other.

Diamond Rock Rd. and Sunekrest are both cleverly designated by Esherick. The octagonal schoolhouse on Diamond Rock Rd. is also depicted.

Over time, the roadway coming up the hill was redesigned and this end of Ashenfelter Road was no longer used. The current driveway to Sunekrest and a path through the woods beyond the farmhouse is all that’s left of the old roadway.

Just above the aerial view map, Esherick has illustrated a cross cut view of the Great Chester Valley, with Paoli on the left and Sunekrest, designated by the rising sun symbol, on the right. This sun symbol also adorns the farmhouse itself. Esherick carved this symbol into the shutters, hammered into the copper hearth, and even added it to the chimney and the doorknocker – wonderful early examples of an artist whose creativity could not be contained!

Ashenfelter Rd. and the Esherick’s farmhouse, Sunekrest (note the sun symbol on the chimney).

Next time you’re on your way to visit us, keep Esherick’s map in mind and you’ll start to piece together the landscape of the past. An invitation like this leaves little doubt that the adventure to find Wharton Esherick’s house has always been worth the trip!

If you are looking for directions to the Wharton Esherick Museum that are a little more up-to-date you can always find them here!

Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.




Black History Month Spotlight: Jean Toomer

February 13, 2017
Jean Toomer in New York, 1934. Photo by Marjorie Content.

Jean Toomer in New York, 1934. Photo by Marjorie Content.

In an earlier post we highlighted the achievements of Marjorie Content (photographer, friend, and client of Wharton’s) in which we made brief mention of her husband, Jean Toomer. After the recent reemergence of Toomer’s “prohibition briefcase” in our museum collection during off-season cleaning we felt compelled to revisit this connection!

Jean Toomer (1894-1967) was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His most well-known work, Cane, is a collection of thematically linked character sketches, prose poetry and short stories revolving around the complexity of African American life from North to South. Published in 1923, Cane received critical acclaim and is now considered a classic of Modernist literary experimentation. Interestingly to those of us following the Esherick thread, Toomer listed Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio among his influences (Sherwood Anderson and Esherick were longtime friends).

Esherick's copy of Cane, published in 1923.

Esherick’s copy of Cane, published in 1923.

Snooping through the shelves in Esherick’s bedroom one can find two copies of Cane – the 1923 edition and a 1969 reprint that revived interest in Toomer’s lyrical vignettes. In both copies Esherick had stuffed newspaper clippings about Toomer highlighting the re-release of his most famous work. Esherick had come to know Jean Toomer through Marjorie Content who married Toomer in 1934.

We should note that the complex nature of highlighting Jean Toomer for Black History Month is not lost on us. Toomer, who was multiracial, resisted being categorized as an African-American author and was determined to transcend these definitions. He considered himself the personification of the “New American,” neither black nor white, and was far more concerned with achieving internal spiritual harmony. This spiritual journey eventually led him to join the Quakers.

Toomer's Mill House Pamphlets feature an Esherick woodcut on the cover.

Toomer’s Mill House Pamphlets features an Esherick woodcut on the cover.

The Toomers had moved to Mill House, a farm on the outskirts of Doylestown, within a year or so of their marriage and joined the Quakers soon thereafter. Esherick was enlisted to help convert a barn on the property into their home, with Esherick and Content working together on the project. Toomer’s interests had shifted by this time in his life, and he was withdrawing from the public eye. Toomer and Content began a philosophical press from their home, Mill House Press, to publish his writings and ruminations on the nature of humankind. These pamphlets, which feature a woodcut of a water wheel by Esherick on the cover, are also marked by Toomer’s return to his “full” name – Nathan Jean Toomer, signifying to many the departure from his earlier work. (It’s worth noting his name was actually Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer – so he had plenty to pick from.)

Toomer's "prohibition briefcase" hides two large flasks for smuggling liquor inside.

Toomer’s “prohibition briefcase” hides two large flasks for smuggling liquor inside.

Toomer’s later booklets, from the 1940’s, focus heavily on his interpretations of Quaker faith and worship. Esherick had several of Toomer’s publications from this period on his shelves as well, warmly inscribed “to the one and only Wharton” or “From one old salt to another, Jean.” How Esherick came to own Toomer’s leather briefcase remains a bit of a mystery. However, it certainly highlights the unusual path that Toomer’s life took. After all, these Quaker pamphlets are a long way from the raucous and roaring 1920’s when Toomer was breaking ground with his experimental prose.





Check out our March 2013 blog post for more info on Marjorie Content and her connection to Wharton Esherick.

More information on Jean Toomer can be found at


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.


Philly Touch Tours Training: Developing Tours for Visitors with Vision Loss

January 23, 2017
Testing our verbal description skills at the Penn Museum.

Testing our verbal description skills at the Penn Museum.

At the Wharton Esherick Museum we encourage you to reach out and feel the edge of the Drop Leaf Desk or the elegant post of the Spiral Library Ladder.  The connection that happens through touch is unique. We regularly see our guests’ faces light up when they can feel and experience Wharton’s forms for themselves, bringing them closer to understanding his creative brilliance.

Well, this isn’t a new policy, so why am I waxing poetic about the power of the kinesthetic experience? Last month a small group of staff and docents from the Wharton Esherick Museum participated in Accessibility Training with Philly Touch Tours and the experience was unforgettable – and it made total sense with what we value here at WEM.

As stated on their website, Philly Touch Tours provides accessibility consulting, sensitivity training and instructional workshops for cultural and educational institutions and inclusive, sensory tours and experiences for people with vision loss in and around the Philadelphia area. Our training took place at the Penn Museum led by the refreshingly good-humored and authentic Philly Touch Tours staff (Trish Maunder, Austin Seraphin and Katherine Allen) and their wonderful volunteers.

Philly Touch Tours Co-founders Trish and Austin leading the training.

Philly Touch Tours Co-founders Trish and Austin leading the training.

Essentially, training with the Philly Touch Tour group gave us the tools and the foundation for envisioning a Touch Tour here at the Wharton Esherick Museum.  Our training included a discussion on sensitivity (everything from verbal, body language and other etiquette, to misconceptions and stereotypes) and then shifted into Sighted Guide and description techniques.  There are more steps to go, but we are now on a path towards offering tours designed for visitors with vision loss.

In the final stage of the training we headed to the Egyptian Gallery, donning goggles designed to simulate a variety of vision conditions, and help us stay focused on our sense of touch and on the cues from our Sighted Guides. We explored hieroglyphs and cartouches with our fingers and trying to keep up with the brilliant docents. The exercise was humbling and I felt keenly aware of how much I default to my sense of vision and shortchange the rest.  Sight is fast information (or at least it can be), but a Touch Tour doesn’t work that way. We covered four objects in two hours, just four, and that was enough- the process was so engrossing.

Getting a sense of volume!

Getting a sense of volume!

I was also struck by the value of physical memory, which Trish Maunder (Creative Director and co-founder of Philly Touch Tours) drew our attention to. The volumes I was experiencing (or hugging as it were!) had become connected to my own scale and existence in the world, making it memorable in a more immediate way. The training was a reminder in the importance of tactile experiences and the transformational potential they can have. It was a reminder of the strengths of what we have to share at the Esherick Museum and how to build upon them. It was a reminder to give artworks the time and meditation they deserve.

Wharton Esherick Museum Curator, Laura Heemer, embracing the experience!

Wharton Esherick Museum Curator, Laura Heemer, embracing the experience!

Foremost, the training was a lesson in the power of diversity to enrich all of our experiences. All of us at WEM are excited to create a universally accessible environment and share Wharton’s work with as many people as possible, in as immersive a way as possible.  As Philly Touch Tours likes to say “Seeing might be believing, but when you touch, you know!”


Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.

A Closer Look at the Holiday Notecards

November 20, 2016

We  can’t imagine talking about the holiday season without talking about traditions, and here at the museum we have a few of our own. The staff office will soon be twinkling under the glow of Christmas lights, Wharton’s leather Santa decoration will hang by the kitchen door, and our museum store shelves will be stocked once again with our holiday notecard packets. Each packet of cards holds some combination of three of the following five woodcut prints, and what’s uniquely wonderful about them (aside from being beautifully crafted) is that each is a window into Esherick’s story. So whether they are on your wish list or not, we thought they deserved a closer look!

Christmas Snows, 1923, woodcut print by Wharton Esherick

Christmas Snows (Dorothy Cantrell’s House), 1923, woodcut print by Wharton Esherick

Three of the prints are from 1923 – Christmas Snows, December and January. Stylistically, they belong together. Each depicts a snowy scene, though Christmas Snows feels more like a blizzard! The sky is made up of countless stippled marks and fine lines which sweep diagonally across the image. The house is defined with a fury of diagonal sweeps as well (which also cross in front of the trees) masterfully setting the house beyond the storm, hiding it in the swells and gusts. Thank goodness for warm fireplaces! The full title of this print is actually Christmas Snows (Dorothy Cantrell’s House). We hope to one day find the exact location, which we suspect would have been close to Wharton’s own home.

"January", 1923, woodcut print by Wharton Esherick

“January”, 1923, wood engraving by Wharton Esherick

Sometimes called January- Blankets of Snow, this print depicts a calm hillside (also somewhere near Wharton’s home though we can’t say where for sure). Wharton was often capturing the changing landscape around his farm from season to season, titling prints after the various month (possibly with hopes of publishing a calendar). In January one can spot a house, or maybe two, in the distance at the edge of the field, that perhaps the lone figure is returning to. With a wonderfully economic use of line Wharton achieves the voluminous quality of the snow covering the fence which leads our gaze out over the hillside.
These prints represent some of Wharton’s earliest recognition and success as an artist. January was among one of Wharton’s prints published in The Century Magazine around this time, which would have been distributed nationwide. His woodcut prints were also published in other magazines of the period such as The Dial, The Forum, The New Republic and Vanity Fair.

"December", 1923, woodcut print by Wharton Esherick

“December”, 1923, woodcut print by Wharton Esherick

December portrays another snowy day – (those blankets of snow really lend themselves to woodcut grooves!) but in this case a house with snowfall softly covering the steps, brush and branches fills the picture plane. It’s Wharton’s own home, the 19th century farmhouse which he and Letty purchased to begin their life together, and which they lovingly named “Sunekrest.” In 1923, when this print was made, the family was still young, Mary was all of seven and Ruth still a baby (and Peter a few years away!)


"Winter Play", 1928, wood engraving print by Wharton Esherick

“Winter Play”, 1928, wood engraving by Wharton Esherick

Flash forward five years and we see Ruth depicted in Winter Play, sledding down Diamond Rock Hill Road. Ruth would later recall the thrilling ride, including the little “ski jumps” made along the road by shallow trenches intended to divert rainwater, and of course, the long hike back. In the image we can see that Wharton’s style has evolved, moving closer to abstraction and further from the more traditional, representational techniques – really pushing the potential of the high contrast medium.

"Alabama Magnolia", 1929, wood engraving by Wharton Esherick

“Alabama Magnolia”, 1929, wood engraving by Wharton Esherick

Alabama Magnolia, completed the following year, is part of a series of Alabama Tree prints conceived during Wharton’s second trip to Fairhope, Alabama in 1929-1930. (Incidentally, Wharton also worked on a series of animal garden sculptures during this trip, in collaboration with the Alabama-based potter, Peter McAdam. Wharton and Peter’s Winnie-the-Pooh is one wonderful example of their creative partnership.)

Cast aluminum version of Winnie (Winnie-the-Pooh) watches the seasons come and go. The original ceramic Pooh was a collaboration between Wharton Esherick and Peter McAdam in 1930.

The cast aluminum version of “Winnie-the-Pooh” (ceramic original by Wharton Esherick and Peter McAdam, 1930) watches the seasons come and go! 

Always a fan of trees, Wharton spent time on this trip sketching the trees of the region, including live oaks and pines, and the quintessential hanging Spanish moss. Working from these sketches, Wharton carved the blocks when he returned home to his studio. This print, as well as Winter Play and January, are actually wood engravings (the carving is done on the end grain) which allows for finer lines when carving. In Alabama Magnolia, Wharton continues with the bolder, more modern style we see in Winter Play, detailing the closest of the magnolia tree’s showy leaves, and leaving the rest silhouetted in the background. And of course, any Esherick fans down south know that wreaths made from magnolia leaves are a staple of Southern holiday decor, and make a fine edition to our notecard pack!



Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.