Above, one of Wyeth's "Helga" series of paintings. Below, one of his most-recognized paintings, "Christina's World."
Somehow I missed the news of Andrew Wyeth's passing last month. I only learned about it this weekend, but I wanted to pay him tribute here, not only because of his wonderful paintings, but also because of what he meant to me as a teenager.
When I was 17 I found a copy of one of his paintings in a magazine. It was of a long expanse of greenish looking snow, with a farmstead in the background. (I googled it tonight but couldn't find it.) I clipped it out and tacked it to the bulletin board on my bedroom door. It reminded me of North Dakota, certainly, but the main reason I clipped it out was because of its muted colors and subtlety.
And it had a profound effect on me in a much larger way. It was part of my effort to educate myself, culturally. I grew up in a rural, isolated part of North Dakota. I went to a one-room elementary school and then to a marginal, at best, high school with definitely marginal teachers. It offered a foreign language only one year that I was there and speech, not at all. No art instruction, no art appreciation, no music appreciation. In English class, we read just two novels, one in junior year and one in senior year.
So, I undertook to broaden my horizons. I subscribed to the Saturday Review of Literature and devoured it every week. I read reviews of books I would never read, read cartoons I didn't understand, even tried to learn chess via the weekly chess puzzles. My mother, I'm sure, thought I was an odd child, but didn't say a word. My stepfather was openly scornful.
I babysat frequently and used the money to subscribe to the magazine, and to buy books and records. I joined as many book clubs as I could, including the International Collectors Library, which sent you books in (faux) leather and gilded bindings of all the great classics. I read them too. I especially remember reading "War and Peace" in the Columbus laundromat, waiting yet again for dad to pick me up, and hearing the background noise of dryers tumbling clothes while I was far away in Russia, entrenched in the world of Pierre, Prince Andrei, Natasha and the rest of the Rostov family.
I also crossed the Russian Steppes with Dr. Zhivago and Lara, ran through the streets of Dickens' London with Oliver Twist, roamed the moors with Catherine and Heathcliffe, suffered along with Jane Eyre. I watched breathlessly from the gallery as Atticus Finch's children watched their father give a magnificent oration. Along with the constantly knitting Madame LaFarge, I watched heads roll during the French Revolution.
While other kids were joking around in study hall, I sat with one leg tucked under me, arms curled around my book, so deeply absorbed I was not really there. No, I was arriving at Manderley for the first time along with the ever-nameless new wife in "Rebecca". (It's still my favorite suspense book of all time and my all-time best villain, the dastardly Mrs. Danvers. )
Hearing first lines of my favorite books still gives me the shivers:
"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again."
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" ("A Tale of Two Cities.")
"When he was nearly 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." ("To Kill A Mockingbird")
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." (David Copperfield)
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." ("The Catcher in the Rye")
I ordered a poster book of the 100 Greatest Paintings ever and memorized the artists and their works. I even found, in one of those Sunday newspaper supplement magazines, an illustrated vignette of Richard Burton's five favorite poems. I can remember at least three of them, and memorized them all: "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, "Miniver Cheevy" by Edwin Arlington Robinson, and "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In short, I was this thin, shy, gawkish sponge, soaking up little tidbits of knowledge wherever I could find them. Of course, I also haunted the school library, such as it was, and the Crosby library. I fell in love with Ancient Britain for life when I eagerly, blissfully, researched and wrote a term paper on Stonehenge.
I ordered classical music LPs and played them over and over, trying to discern the different composers' styles. Again, my mom never said a word (and I didn't play them when dad was home).
It wasn't long before I didn't have to look so hard or so determinedly for knowledge. When I went to the University of North Dakota, a whole new world opened up for me as I pursued an English Lit degree: Novel after novel after novel and poems read gloriously aloud as they were meant to be, stimulating class discussions, annual writer's conferences, theatre, avant-garde and "serious" films, art galleries, guest lecturers (Truman Capote among them!) and concerts.
But I like to think that I put those first few drops of knowledge in my bucket all by myself. And I thank Andrew Wyeth for being one of those first drops.
(Ever since the film "The Bucket List" came out, people have been making their own bucket lists. But I've had the same bucket list forever and I'm still trying to top off the bucket by reading every good book I possibly can.)