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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.

Wharton at the World’s Fair

November 9, 2016
The Trylon and Perisphere at the center of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Image source: New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World's Fair 1939-1940 Records.

The Trylon and Perisphere at the center of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.
Image source: New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Records.

Few events leave such a legacy of wonder and spectacle on the national psyche as a World’s Fair. A beacon of hope and potential, 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair undoubtedly left its mark on America and we are excited to highlight Wharton’s contribution to this iconic exposition in this month’s post. To say the fair was expansive would be an understatement. Pavilions sprawled across Flushing Meadows Corona Park covering over 1,200 acres, effectively erecting a temporary city dedicated to the future. Nestled in between the Great Depression and the start of World War II, the fair was themed “The World of Tomorrow” and trumpeted the promise and potential of American ingenuity.

A map of the fair - "America at Home" can be seen next to the information booth (owl icon) circled here in red.

A map of the fair – “America at Home” can be seen next to the information booth (owl icon) circled here in red.

The fair included themed zones and attractions too numerous to list here, including everything from international exhibits at the ‘Lagoon of Nations’ to American industry giants like General Motors and RCA. Over 44 million visitors would attend, marveling at the Trylon and Perisphere (the great spire and orb at the fair center) and all the wonders of technology that surrounded them.

However, it soon became apparent that for all the electricity and aerodynamic cars the fair offered, it neglected to represent the future of domestic spaces. What would our daily lives look like? The “America at Home” pavilion, added to the 1940 season would correct that – and that’s where Wharton comes in!

Photo by Richard Garrison

“A Pennsylvania Hill House” included architecture by George Howe and furnishings by Wharton Esherick.  Photo by Richard Garrison.

A total of 16 architects and designers were commissioned for this exhibit, each producing a distinct room. One such architect was George Howe, who took the opportunity to collaborate with Wharton. (Perhaps Howe’s most well-known building is the PSFS – Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, the first International style skyscraper in the U.S.) For the fair, Howe designed the surrounding structure, while Wharton created a room display both modernist and rugged, which they called “A Pennsylvania Hill House.”

Blueprint illustrating Howe and Esherick's floor plans.

Blueprint illustrating Howe and Esherick’s floor plans.

The display included some particularly iconic pieces, many of which you see on our tour here at the museum – the oak spiral stairs, the Curtis Bok sofa (now in Wharton’s bedroom) and the cherry walls that now surround the dining room, to name just a few. One of Wharton’s newest designs on display at the fair was a five-sided hickory table with black phenol top and a set of chairs derived from his earlier hammer handle designs. These marked a new direction in Wharton’s work, shifting from expressionist lines to lighter, curving forms. As a whole, Wharton’s arrangement was strikingly theatrical, especially when compared to the neighboring rooms. The images that remain reveal a layered, textural space heightened by dramatic light and shadow, and a sense for the warmth and emotional richness possible in design.

Wharton also took the opportunity to include other artist’s work (June Groff and Hannah Fischer are among the names that may be familiar to Esherick fans) and books on consignment from the Centaur Book Shop. A price list Wharton submitted to the fair provides us with a thorough inventory of the room – notably, Sock, the wooden dog footstool which Wharton made for his daughter Ruth on her eleventh birthday, was “Not for Sale.”

Price list for the "Pennsylvania Hill House".

Price list for the “Pennsylvania Hill House”.

The World’s Fair was the first exhibition of Wharton’s work to reach a national and international audience, and seems to have been well received (although the advent of WWII turned America’s focus on things other than art buying). In a letter to Wharton from the America at Home Publicity Director, Lousie V. Sloane, she remarked that, “The ‘Pennsylvania Hill House’ is a very popular room with visitors… and the stairway continues to bring forth exclamations, questions and comments from those who go through the building.” (Sounds pretty familiar to those of us introducing the spiral stairs to visitors today!) Elizabeth Rae Boykin, writing for the Philidelphia Bulliten in 1940, noted how the room recalled Pennsylvania’s “pioneer tradition that translates well into a modern idiom.” It certainly seems to have stood apart in its simultaneous representation of a rugged past and a modernist future, asserting the enduring relevance of the handmade.

Howe and Esherick featured alongside contemporaries from "America at Home".

Howe and Esherick featured alongside contemporaries from “America At Home” in the New York Herald Tribune.



Check out these sites for more information about the 1939-1940 World’s Fair:


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






The Annual Members’ Party

October 25, 2016
A great turnout at the 2016 Members' Party.

A great turnout at the 2016 Members’ Party.

Last month the tents went up, we brought out the tablecloths and packed Horseshoe Trail with the cars of museum friends, family and docents as we hosted our Annual Members’ Party! This event is held each September, but the excitement around it extends far beyond, and for good reason. It is often mentioned to new visitors as the one day a year they can go inside the 1956 Workshop designed by Louis Kahn (and that is worth it!) – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a gathering of old and new friends, a chance to reconnect with the community Wharton’s work has inspired and we thought this was a good time to shed a little light on where this party has been and where it’s going!

Miriam Philips and guests in 1987.

Miriam Philips and guests in 1987.

First of all, this party goes waaay back.  Basically, the museum was incorporated in 1972 and we’ve been partying ever since.  Of course things have changed over time – looking back through our photos it seems we’ve tried facing the chairs in every possible direction, to say nothing of the polyester plaid pants.  More substantially, the Members’ Party has come to serve as the opening reception and award ceremony for the Annual Woodworking Competition, hosted in our Visitor Center exhibition space.

Established in 1994 (thanks to Morton Weiss – a founding member of the museum who both conceived of the event and provided the funds) the goal of the competition has always been to encourage imaginative works that merge the sculptural and the functional. The theme this year was frames, and our exhibiting artists did not disappoint! The pieces on view achieve a range of styles from the delicate to the hearty with exceptional skill. This component of the afternoon is a wonderful opportunity for our museum community to meet with artists and support ongoing woodwork and design.

Our Board President, Larry Liss, enjoying the exhibition.

Our Board President, Larry Liss, enjoying the exhibition.

Members present at the party also cast their votes for the frame most deserving of the Member’s Choice Award, while the jury deliberates who gets First (the Dr. Henry Jordan Best in Show), Second, Third and the Horace Hartshaw Award (an award for best High School entry named after the last apprentice to work under Wharton). You can view a full gallery of the exhibition on our facebook page.

John Schmidt, Wharton's friend and collaborator.

Expert cabinetmaker, John Schmidt, Wharton’s friend and collaborator.


The day’s program also includes a guest speaker, and we’ve had many brilliant ones over the years – check out our previous blog post “Wharton to Wendell” for Wendell Castle’s remarks at the 1992 Members’ Party. This year Mark Sfirri (renowned woodworker, teacher and Esherick scholar) shared with us his recent research on John Schmidt, the cabinetmaker who was such an integral part of Wharton’s studio.  Mark had established correspondence with Schmidt’s granddaughter, Margie Cooke, who was graciously able to provide photos of Schmidt – and who we were happy to have in attendance at the party!

Mark Sfirri sharing images from Cinagro.

Mark Sfirri sharing childhood images of Ruth from Cinagro.




Mark also took this opportunity to flip through a yearbook entitled Cinagro from the Marietta School of Organic Education, the progressive school which served as the impetus for the Esherick’s first trip to Farihope, Alabama, a trip which certainly changed the course of their lives. Cinagro (organic spelled backwards) will also now be part of the museum’s collection – thanks Mark!

Margie Washington volunteering at the auction tent.

Margie Washington volunteering at the auction tent.


The newest edition to the party program, put into full force this year, was the silent auction. With over twenty items and gift packages donated from artists, local museums, art organizations, restaurants and more the auction proved a great success. This year’s hot item was a beautiful slab of walnut donated by Hearne Hardwoods. Fundraising activities like these are exceedingly important in helping us steward this treasured place.

This year’s party was distinct in that it was dedicated to Ruth Esherick Bascom, Wharton’s daughter and co-founder of the Museum, who passed away in 2015. Mansfield “Bob” Bascom, Ruth’s husband and Museum co-founder, closed the event this year by sharing a few warm stories in her honor. A bulletin board on display collected photos of Ruth brought by friends over the course of the day allowing everyone to share their fond memories. Bob also announced the official donation to the museum of a number of Wharton’s sculptures that have been in Bob and Ruth’s personal collection. To end the evening friends of the Bascoms were invited in for beer and chocolate cake, Ruth’s favorite way to celebrate.

In recent years invitation to the party has been extended to include non-members as we strive to share the site with a broader audience and ensure the support we need as a donor-dependent organization! Naturally, our members are our greatest ambassadors, and Wharton’s legacy is expanded through your passion and commitment to sharing in our mission.

Old and new friends meet on the lawn.

Old and new friends meet on the museum lawn.

This event has been growing and changing to meet the needs of the Wharton Esherick Museum and its community since its inception, but one goal remains the same – to share in the joy of Wharton’s work and the exceptional people that have been drawn together by it. Join the party!

You can learn more about the benefits of becoming a member by clicking here.



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

A Late Summer Honeymoon Cruise

September 1, 2016

The beautifully illustrated cover page of Wharton and Letty’s honeymoon journal.

As another summer gives way to the crisp fall air, we can imagine it feels a bit like the departure date of Wharton and Letty’s honeymoon over 100 years ago.  The couple set sail from Ventnor City, NJ on the nearly three week cruise and (fortunately for us!) the happy memories of this adventure were not lost with the passage of time.  Wharton, in true captain’s fashion, kept a daily log of the journey, which we’re excited to highlight in this month’s blog post.  His chosen title, “The Log of the Cruise of the Wiwurna III: or (In Better Words) That Honeymoon”, should leave no doubt of the good humor and adventurous spirit detailed within!

Wharton Harris Esherick and Leticia Aloysius Nofer were married in Philadelphia on September 13th 1912.  Raised in differing religions (Wharton’s family were Episcopalians, while Letty’s were Catholic) meant a church ceremony was out of the question, and the couple instead turned to a friend of both families, Judge J. Willis Martin, to help them tie the knot.  It was also thanks to Judge Martin, who offered the couple the use of his motorsailer for a honeymoon cruise, that the couple would have many more knots to tie in the weeks ahead!

honeymoon map

Map of places the Eshericks went ashore. Click to enlarge

Flying the Ventnor Yacht Club flag, the Wiwurna III was a “38 foot hunting cabin motor boat, run with a 12 H.P. Hall engine” and “sails with 425 square feet of canvas.” It was equipped with a cabin, toilet and washroom with electricity and carried both a rowboat and a 16 foot canoe.  The first few days aboard ship were spent puttering around the Jersey coast, getting used to the new accommodations, after which Wharton and Letty set out for New York.  Wharton details their route, passing by Seaside Park, Asbury Park, sailing around Sandy Hook, through Swash Channel, into Kill van Kull and dropping anchor at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on the north shore of Staten Island.  Hopefully the sites on land were nicer than the harbor, for this stopping point did not get a resounding endorsement from Wharton.  Rather he called it “the dirtiest and noisiest place we could be, trains ran across our stern, while tugs and liners chased under our bow.”

Wharton, Letty and the Cuskadens on an excursion up the Hudson River.

Once in New York they spent several days enjoying the company of friends and family (though they always returned to the ship at night!)  They visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Cuskaden, ate dinner in Chinatown with Uncle Millard, and took in a few plays, notably seeing George Arliss in Disraeli.  The Cuskadens even joined Wharton and Letty for an excursion up the Hudson, spending a night aboard with the newlyweds.  Wharton’s awe at the natural beauty of this region is palpable – “…that beautiful river of Hennrick [Henry] Hudson’s discovery flowing through great cuts, making high walls on either side; and immense woods reaching out above it all.  Large palisades making the trains that run along their base seem like toys, and our little craft must have looked like a dot to these great rocks and mountains of ages. Man is only a speck to these wonders.”

It is commentaries like these from Wharton that are the most delightful as a reader returning to these pages.  During a stop in Barnegat, New Jersey, Wharton delights in the laid back store owner, too comfortable at the local hotel bar to assist Wharton in buying ice, preferring to give Wharton the key and let him get it himself. Wharton is left wondering (surely with a smile) – “is that honesty or laziness?”

On another early night in their trip, the couple awoke to the US Life Saving Service coming to offer them help (though they were not actually in any trouble).  The “rescuers” were quite surprised to see Letty poke her head out at the commotion, to which the Captain remarked “that fellow don’t need no help, he’s having a fine time – he’s got a girl on board.”

Wharton and Letty being “rescued” by the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Not every couple would have been well-suited for such a rugged outing, a trip in many ways full of duties and hard work.  However, Letty was spirited and unconventional (it is said that while other girls still played with dolls, she played with engines) and Wharton’s familiarity with sailing is apparent from page one.  The log is peppered with nautical lingo (with references to the jib, aft sail, tenders, and such) and titles (Wharton as Skipper and Letty The Mate and Chief Engineer!).  Indeed, a good portion of Wharton’s log aptly details (as it should) the wind, weather and tides and how they used these to get where they were going!

Drying out after the storm.

Drying out after the storm.

Wharton spent his fair share of time on the water as a youth.  His parents owned a beach house in Longport, NJ where the Esherick boys taught themselves to sail, even spending one entire summer aboard ship.  This experience must have come in handy when Wharton and Letty found themselves in a powerful storm.  Making their way back down the Jersey coast from New York, Wharton recounts how the boat was “taking big breaks and poundings like a fighter, and sticking her nose out for more, many times rolling over to put the port holes under.” They managed to battle their way through gale force winds and rain and tuck into a cove south of Barnegat, New Jersey to wait out the storm.

Crabbing near Cape May, NJ.

Thankfully, not all of their time aboard the Wiwurna III was as harrowing as those stormy nights! Wharton and Letty straightened up, dried out and headed for Cape May, crabbing off the boat, and visiting the summer resorts on shore.  The last few days of the honeymoon were spent making a leisurely push up the Delaware River, undoubtedly knowing that, with the cool October air, their trip would have to come to an end.  In fact, their last night was spent covering up with “all blankets, sweaters and rugs” – they had held out as long as they could!

Letty bound the journal with linen cord and whittled sticks, so that the book could be hung like a nautical chart.


That last day, October 2nd, just shy of three weeks, Wharton and Letty “hauled out for the winter” at the Philadelphia Yacht Club in Essington, PA.  Upon returning home, Wharton copied the log in ink and lovingly brought the stories to life with snapshots and illustrations.  Letty then created a canvas cover for the pages, using linen cord and whittled sticks to bind the book, lending it a resemblance to a nautical chart and preserving it for future adventurers.




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

Remembering Ruth Esherick Bascom

November 6, 2015

Ruth Esherick BascomIt is with heavy hearts that we share with you all new of the death of Ruth Esherick Bascom, 93, daughter of the sculptor Wharton Esherick, who died of congestive heart failure at Paoli Hospital on October 23rd. She donated her body for medical education. She was born June 28, 1922 at the family’s home on Diamond Rock Hill, Paoli.

In her youth she was active with the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, first appearing on stage at age nine in A. A. Milne’s ‘Make Believe” and apprenticing at the theater during her senior year at Radnor High School. For the next 15 years she was a member of the theater’s permanent company, specializing in stage lighting. Her favorite acting role was Madeline in Susan Glaspel’s “Inheritors”.

Ruth in Inheritors

Ruth in a performance at Hedgerow Theatre.

She left to be stage manager for the singer Libby Holman, setting-up stages across the country, including the Dag Hamerskold Auditorium at the United Nations in New York, for her “Blues, Ballads and Sin Songs” tour. (It was Ms Holman’s Christopher Reynolds World Peace Foundation that sent Martin Luther King to India to study non-violent protest under Mahatma Gandhi.)

In 1962 Ruth married Mansfield Bascom, the Director of Architecture and Engineering for the International Basic Economy Corporation in Puerto Rico. Together they were instrumental in preserving her father’s Paoli sculpting studio, a National Historic Landmark for Architecture, with a major collection of his work – woodcuts, sculpture, sculptural furniture and furnishings – to share them with the public as the Wharton Esherick Museum (, converting his furniture workshop into their residence.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a step-daughter Halsey Bascom and an “adopted” daughter Helyn Sacher. There will be a memorial service for her in the spring, at the museum.

Ruth outside the '56 Workshop (no date)Her obituary will be printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer Saturday, 11/7. Memorial contributions can be made through the Support page on our website – please denote the memorial contribution in the notes section at check out. Thank you.

Wharton to Wendell

December 3, 2013

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:  

Wharton and Wendell on Wharton's deck c.1965

Wharton and Wendell on Wharton’s deck c.1965

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!

You can also check out Wendell’s work at