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Wharton Esherick at the South Philadelphia Free Library: Rhythms and Rhythms II

November 20, 2017

Rhythms II on display in the forest of Esherick sculptures that is the main gallery.

Among Wharton Esherick’s final sculptures is a pair of tall, graceful cottonwood forms known as Rhythms and Rhythms II. The latter we see here at the Museum all the time. Rhythms II stands near the center of the main gallery, its flowing curves enjoyed by many visitors over the years. The abstract form is open to interpretation (alluding to waves, water, boats, movement) though Wharton was likely inspired by the dancers that were such an important part of his life and career. Most visitors, in fact, may not realize there is a companion for this piece, Rhythms, which lives down at the South Philadelphia Free Library. Both Rhythms and Rhythms II were carved from the same large eastern cottonwood tree which was cut into two logs once it was felled by Ed Ray, Wharton’s dear friend and expert logger.

Rhythms in Wharton’s workshop where it was sanded and finished.

Made from the larger of the two logs, Rhythms was initiated thanks to Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program. Established in 1959, the program requires a percentage of the cost of new buildings and development be allocated to install public art. In 1965, a percent for art meant a percent for Wharton! The new South Philadelphia Free Library board selected Wharton Esherick to create a large sculptural piece for the building’s atrium (despite the fact that when asked for at least a thumbnail sketch from the board, Wharton wryly submitting a very large sheet of paper with a sketch literally no larger than his thumbnail). The resulting piece was the over 13-foot tall cottonwood abstraction Rhythms.

(L to R) Bill McIntyre, Ed Ray and Wharton Esherick at work on Rhythms.



By the mid-1960s, Wharton found he was a little too old to sculpt with an axe, which had always been his favorite. Instead, Wharton enlisted his two workers, Horace Hartshaw and Bill McIntyre, to help with Rhythms, carving away with chainsaws what Wharton delineated with his chalk. While his “thumbnail” joke could have ruffled a few feathers, Wharton knew the freedom his process required. He needed to be responsive to the wood and the grain, knowing his compositions could and would change as the piece came into being. Rhythms II changed as well. Initially conceived as a prismatic form, Wharton found the second log worked best with similar flowing curves.

In both sculptures Wharton captured the graceful movement of organic forms while leaving them open to interpretation, sparking the imaginations of Museum guests and library goers alike – as with one child who thought Rhythms just had to be a dinosaur’s toenail!


Rhythms greets visitors at the South Philadelphia Library, Community Health and Literacy Center.


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


Wharton Esherick’s Animals Move Indoors

October 26, 2017

Fall is a time of fresh air and striking foliage, and a time when nature’s critters try to find their way indoors. While keeping an eye out (and an ear out) for mice and squirrels who would like to live in Esherick’s house, this month we found ourselves recognizing all the animal faces and forms that exist in Wharton’s work.  Ceramic monkeys, bronze pelicans, wooden apes – we’ve got a veritable zoo within these studio walls!

Left: “Cheeter” and “Jeeter” on display at Hedgerow Theatre c. 1935-56. Right: “Cheeter” inside the Studio today.

A few of these animal friends were initially designed for the outdoors. Cheeter, the blue horse sculpture which stands in the gallery of the studio is well known to our museum guests. Cheeter and his pal Jeeter stood outside of the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, PA from the time of their creation in 1934 until 1956 when it was determined they should be brought indoors. While Cheeter is blue now, he and Jeeter have been many colors, getting a fresh coat and fresh color as the years went on. Naturally, the pair became beloved by the neighborhood around the Hedgerow Theatre and when it came time for them to be removed, a full-size casting of Cheeter was installed at the School in Rose Valley just across the road. Children there still continue to climb up onto Cheeter’s back! Jeeter, on the other hand, made his way to Florida and is now in the collection of Modernism Museum Mount Dora.


Top: “Darling” in the woods outside the Studio. Bottom: “Darling” on display at Wharton’s 1958-59 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

Cheeter and Jeeter were both made from pieces of wood brought to Wharton by his friend and wood supplier, Ed Ray. While running his logging business Ed would find sections of trees in which he could envision an animal, maybe seeing a suggestion of a leg or two, and bring it to Wharton to carve. This was the case for a sculpture entitled Darling from 1940. Darling, carved from a section of white oak, depicts an elegant and alert looking deer, something we see plenty of in the woods surrounding the Museum. Having stood out in the elements, Wharton did have to make some repairs on this sculpture (which he playfully referred to as “dental work”) replacing a rotting section of the sculpture around to nose of the deer’s face. Darling was initially exhibited outside the Hedgerow Theatre and was later among pieces featured in Wharton’s 1958 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City. The piece is now part of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ collection.

“Garden Horse” by the Studio door.

Garden Horse was another wood animal sculpture to stand outside the studio. Made in 1935, only a year after Cheeter and Jeeter, Garden Horse has a simplified approach. It’s primarily vertical with broad planes to define the form, notably similar to the posts which Wharton designed for the Curtis Bok house around this same time. Unlike his companions Garden Horse was functional too – he marked the gas fill for Wharton’s kitchen stove! Spotting these sculptures in our photos and archives remind us of the fluid movement that once took place here, with sculptures coming and going, both inside and out!


The Studio in 1947, with “Garden Horse” outside marking the gas fill. Note the trees in the distance which were “topped” by Wharton to keep the valley view.




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

Capturing the Spirit of Esherick: Memories of a Member

September 24, 2017

The road to Paoli circa 1914.

We hosted our Annual Members’ Party with extra fanfare this month, in celebration of our 45th anniversary as a Museum. Our program featured some wonderful speakers, who helped us take stock of our journey since 1972.  Running through the event was a theme of continuity, a passing of the touch between those committed to preserving Wharton’s creation. We heard from former Director, Rob Leonard, and our current Director, Julie Gannaway. We heard from Joyce Stoeber, who has volunteered for the Museum since its inception and Lisa DiCarlo, who is new to our volunteer team this year. The afternoon was full of laughter and stories being shared both in the program and among friends. With this in mind, we found ourselves thinking about the important first-hand accounts we’ve been able to gather from those who knew Wharton Esherick, stories that enrich and breathe life into our understanding of his humor and creative spirit. One such source of anecdotes was David Wilson, who will always be remembered among the Museum’s most dedicated volunteer docents. And we don’t say that lightly! Dave was still guiding fantastic tours here at the age of 97 – sometimes giving 100 tours a year!

The Eshericks’ neighbor, Dave Wilson, eager to share his memories of Wharton.

Dave Wilson knew Esherick from the time Wharton and Letty moved to the farmhouse in 1913.  Dave was born and raised in the Great Valley. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting, having been inspired by Wharton’s work, and later returned to the area to run a dairy farm. His stories and memories were as invaluable then as they are now, so, in the spirit of sharing stories from past and present, we’re reposting an article from our very first newsletter (dated 1983) where Dave Wilson recounted his memories of Wharton for all to enjoy.

“Memories of a Member”

It was quite a novelty in this community to have a young artist and his bride settle here. It was real country at that time. The people were mostly farmers and were very conservative, but Wharton and Letty were soon absorbed into the community.

Wharton and Letty with one of their new neighbors, Isaac Clothier, c. 1914.


Having lived in the city all his life, Wharton was thrilled to be in the country. He helped his neighbors take in hay and with other such activities whenever they needed additional hands. Wharton joined the local farmer’s grange and made the scenery for one of their stage shows. Wharton often came to our house to play chess with a group of local men and during World War I my mother would invite Letty to talk to her Red Cross unit about ways of cooking to conserve food.

It was my custom as a youth to ride my horse about the Valley and surrounding hills. The back road up Diamond Rock Hill and through Esherick property was one of my favorite routes. I remember when Wharton remodeled his barn into a studio. I was particularly taken by the carvings on the supports for the little roof over the entrance, an eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve. One day, riding up their lane, I was surprised by an owl. Carved from a large hunk of wood and mounted in a hoop hanging from a tree, it was swaying in the breeze.

“An eager Adam eyeing a coy Eve” as Dave Wilson put it. These carved supports once adorned the entrance of Wharton’s barn.

Letty had an interpretive dance class – young girls dancing in thin flowing veils – that met out on the lawn at about the same hour each day. Colonel Cassat would try to time his daily horseback ride to pass the Esherick house at that particular time.

At one time Wharton had a Stanley Steamer which broke down quite often. Later, he bought a horse and a yellow two-wheeled cart. After our first real snowfall that winter, Wharton borrowed a sleigh and drove to our house for a visit. Mother invited Wharton to join us for a warming cup of coffee. “Get out of this sleigh, I should say not,” responded Wharton. Then, turning the horse sharply, as he would in his two-wheeled cart, he started off. The sleigh overturned, dumping Wharton in a snow bank.

After Wharton had made the dining table and chairs he decided that all the mid-Victorian furniture, contributed by his family, had to go to make room for his own work. The secondhand dealer had bought the lot and hauled it away – the day before Wharton’s mother came to call.

Later I married and had a farm on North Valley Road. Wharton would stop by for fresh eggs and raw milk, giving me the privilege to know him better. One day he gave me this advice for fixing up a set of old chairs I had found in the barn, “make them comfortable to your hands, round all those sharp corners and lace the seats with baling twine, which you have plenty of.”

As a dairy farmer, I always had a surplus of cow manure. One day Wharton telephoned and ordered a load of it. “Where do you want me to put it?” I asked. “I’ll leave you a sign” was his reply.


The sign Wharton left was a large wood carving of a cow’s rear end and an arrow underneath with the phrase “David Here.”  The manure would be right where it belonged!


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


Wharton’s Cape Cod Watercolors

August 15, 2017

“New England Cottage”, watercolor, 1920.

There are just two weeks left to check out our latest exhibition, Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, which highlights paintings completed by Wharton Esherick between 1919 and 1920 while he traveled with his family up and down the east coast. Many guests to the Museum are surprised to learn that Wharton began his career as a painter, since he is best remembered for his creations in wood. In fact, he studied painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (which later became the University of the Arts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where he studied under distinguished painters including Thomas Anschutz, Cecilia Beaux, and William Merritt Chase.

Wharton’s Schmincke Horadam watercolor paint set accompanied him on many trips.

Impressionist style painting, which Wharton studied, encouraged the artist to take their paints out of the studio and paint en plein air (outdoors). Wharton loved to paint from nature, often taking his painting supplies and wandering the area near their home, as well as on their family travels. Ultimately, Wharton would leave PAFA in search of his own unique voice, but he would always maintain his love of nature and the inspiration it brought him.


“Chatham Lights”, watercolor, 1920.

There are 18 watercolors on view in the exhibition, several of which were done while visiting Cape Cod. Wharton depicted the seaside cottages, gulls, and fisherman at their daily tasks with care.  One painting, “Chatham Lights”, is particularly striking, perhaps because it is the only nightscape in the show. Wharton captured in this painting the twin lighthouses at Chatham with their lights glowing brightly under a full moon. The palette is deep and moody, placing emotional tone over the capable draftsmanship we see in the “daytime” paintings. In fact, without the twin lights, it would be difficult to identify the site at all.

The Chatham Twin Lights in 1919. Photograph courtesy of National Archives.

Chatham, which is right on the “elbow” of Cape Cod established twin lighthouses in 1808 as a way of distinguishing it from Highland Light in Truro, MA further up the arm of the Cape. In 1841, due to coastal erosion, new brick towers were constructed further inland, though continual erosion caused the south tower to fall in 1879. New, cast iron towers were then constructed even further inland, and these are the towers Wharton saw during his visit in 1920. Three years after Wharton’s visit, the northern tower was moved 12 miles north to become Nauset Light in Eastham.

Wharton made several sketches of the Chatham Twin Lights in the summer of 1920.

While Cape Cod’s sandy shores have drawn beachgoers for hundreds of years, it’s views have called to artists. In 1896, Charles Hawthorne, who had also studied under William Merritt Chase, opened The Cape School of Art in Provincetown, which would become one of the largest art colonies in the world. Over the years, many artists painted Cape Cod, including Edward Hopper, William Paxton, and Childe Hassam. Others continued to establish schools of their own on the Cape, like Hans Hoffman’s Summer School of Art, or the Fine Art Work Center, both breathing new life into Provincetown’s artistic community.

Charles Hawthorne instructing a painting class in Provincetown, c. 1910.






Esherick, of course, would find his own haven for making art in the solitude of the Pennsylvania woods. Just months before he painted “Chatham Lights,” he had received a set of carving tools and was making his first forays into woodworking. These tools were given to him at a different sort of artist colony, a single-tax community in Fairhope, Alabama, where artists, writers, educators and all sorts of progressive thinkers were coming together to exchange ideas. It was there he began carving frames for his paintings – which he soon found got a bigger response than the paintings themselves! The story of Fairhope is one for another time (and another post) but it reminds us of the way these early adventures change and inform one’s life. While Esherick would find his voice in wood, those early years as a painter shaped him, as he observed and studied the world around him. As Edward Hopper wisely put it, “In every artist’s development, the germ of the later work can be found in the earlier. What he was once, he always is.”

A young Esherick setting off for Europe by cattle boat in 1906 – one of many adventures to come!


More on the history of artists in Provincetown can be found here:


Our current exhibition Wanderlust: Wharton’s Travels in Watercolor, curated by Laura Heemer, is on view through September 3, 2017.


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

Wharton Esherick’s Sculpture Tree (From Start to Finish)

July 22, 2017

On the mahogany sideboard in the Wharton Esherick Museum’s main gallery sits a model, a piece that could easily be mistaken for a small abstract sculpture in itself – the model for Esherick’s Sculpture Tree.  The model is comprised of a solid three-sided base, tipped just slightly off its vertical axis, with three propeller-like shelves at staggered heights. Often passed over on tours (we have more material than could ever be covered in an hour!) the Sculpture Tree commission is well documented in a series of archived letters. This month we’d like to follow this thread and illuminate the collaboration and conversation needed to make a commission come together, and Wharton’s habit of building friendships along the way!


Model for “Sculpture Tree”, pine, 1961.

In this case, the rumblings began in 1960 with a Trustee of The George F. Little Memorial Fund reaching out to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy to support art and design from the domestic realm. The director at that time, Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., had a clear interest in the elevation of craft fields and mediums in the art world, a line which was actively being blurred when this project began. In a letter to the fund trustee, Hayes stated his case (and it is interesting in itself that the case needed stating as one could take it for granted today), “A contribution could be made for the purchase of modern crafts, furniture and useful articles, exhibiting those qualities of design possessed by utilitarian artifacts of the ancient world whereby they have found their way into museums. In other words, we don’t hesitate to consider useful artifacts of the past as works of art, but somehow museums would hesitate to include the articles of the present age in this way. I think this is a mistake.”

Hayes had occasion to meet Esherick, likely calling on him at the studio to see examples of his work (though in a letter dated December 9, 1960 Hayes thanked Esherick not only for his time but “especially for the bourbon to send me on my way.”) It was Hayes who initially proposed to the trustee that Esherick be commissioned for a unique artwork. Perhaps it wasn’t too hard of a case to make – Esherick had certainly gained recognition, having exhibited at the then newly established Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City a couple years earlier (later called the American Craft Museum and now known as the Museum of Arts and Design).

A letter from Esherick “in the midst” of the project.

With funding in place the project could begin, the task being to design a sculptural display stand for the top of a staircase, upon which potted plants or small stone and metal sculptures could be placed, something they found could best be described as a sculpture tree or plant (or pedestal, or What-Not or even ‘the CANNOT WAS’ depending on the letter you choose!). Wharton set to task making the model which now resides here at the Museum. Esherick carefully planned the dimensions of the piece, at times requesting specific measurements of the intended location. He described the flexibility with which he conceived the piece in a letter to Hayes which accompanied the model, showing an eagerness to have the piece fit naturally in its surrounding. “The base,” Esherick explained, “is a corner cabinet – one side longer than other, – it may be turned up-side-down to put the long side where wanted. Three top boards or shelves which also may be reversed, depending on where it is used.” He went on to suggest a cherry base with walnut shelves, the model, of course, being made only of pine. Wharton confessed in another letter to Hayes, “The thing that scared me a little about all this plant—sculpture multi-level figure was that I don’t want it to appear anything like those silly whatnots that we used to have in mother’s lace-curtained parlor. However, it is a nice problem…” I would say he succeeded in distancing himself from such a dainty, familiar style. According to Hayes, when the model arrived at the gallery he “found a small circle of people standing around it as if it had come from Mars.” Mission accomplished, Wharton!

“Sculpture Tree” in it’s final form, poplar, 1961.

The letters between Esherick and Hayes continued and the commission evolved over time, with the final form being significantly different from the model. The “cabinet” aspect fell away, and the final wood chosen was poplar. While the silhouette of the base remained similar to the original design, Esherick removed the volume of the base (or trunk if you prefer), creating a lighter, linear form to Sculpture Tree. The letters are by no means strictly business, however. Wharton was eager to have Hayes see his other exhibitions – namely an upcoming exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, Masters of Contemporary American Crafts. He was equally eager to invite Hayes to catch Miriam Phillips (Wharton’s dear companion in the latter half of his life) in “Evenings at Chekov” at the Key Theatre in New York or in numerous other plays at the Philadelphia Playhouse–in-the-Park. While Hayes managed to attend at least one play, it seems he was forever bouncing around to various speaking engagements leaving Esherick asking, “Can’t you get stuck in the mud some place and stay with us for a decent visit?”

With Sculpture Tree completed (which also included a patience-testing six weeks of oiling to achieve the proper finish) the final task was to of transport the piece to Massachusetts. Esherick built the piece so that it could be broken down into sections, but putting it back together again required skill and he debated going himself or sending one of his men for the install, to say nothing of whether to use a shipping company or crate the piece (he preferred not to). The solution found couldn’t be more appropriate for 1961. Hayes (who was lecturing in the Poconos) was able to swing by in his Volkswagen bus and pick up Sculpture Tree (along with Wharton and possibly Miriam too!)

Though not permanently on display, the piece remains part of the Addison Gallery collection – and you can always keep an eye out for the Sculpture Tree model next time you visit us for a tour!

Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne. Special thanks to our Volunteer Docent, Al Trapuzzano, for sharing his avid Esherick research!

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.