Monday, February 16, 2009


ANDREW WYETH, American Realist
July 12, 1917 to Jan. 16, 2009

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.)

My favorite Wyeth painting, "Master Bedroom"


Janet said...

I love this post. It tells so much about you and your determination. You are an amazing woman!!

Unknown said...

I told you many times how much I enjoy your writing and storytelling, and this was no exception. I so enjoy the stories of your youth. No matter how joyous, bittersweet, or painful, the images are always so clear.

I did not know that Andrew Wyeth passed away. What an incredible body of work he left behind! In his honor, I toured quite a few pages full of his art tonight. Wow.

Thanks for sharing, Julie!


Sometimes It's Good said...

I love the "Master Bedroom." While I was looking at homes at the beach I saw a print of it on the wall in one of the houses. The couple who owned it were dog lovers and had hung it in their bedroom.
Your love of art and literature shows in all your blog posts. Have a great Tuesday.
Hugs, Susan

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

Your story is amazing - it's sad that many people would use the lack of educational programs as an excuse - you took them as a challenge and rose above them - good for you! Keep at that "bucket list" !

Shopgirl said...

I love his works of art. I have Christina's World in my old scrapbook because it somehow spoke to me.I was a lonely child. And without knowing it I selected the master bedroom for part of the story of Ruth. I found it and saw the fact that it looked sad and empty. I hope it works in the story.
You and I have some things in common. Education was not honored in my bring up. It just didn't matter to my parents. So the three R's were not important to me until I was married. I have always loved history. I went to Jr. College for a short time. Took classes in design, because I loved making things that were ugly pretty. Making something from almost nothing, seeing art in junk seemed to be my thing. I think that is why we bought this house, it was old and needed our care.
Love what you do dear friend, Mary

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

Absolutely utterly stunning post. I was spellbound the entire time - and relived right along with you the great books I read as a child. We were not allowed books in our house when we were growing up - when we entered public school (at 4th grade) I was stunned by the library - couldn't wait to read all the books - but our family did not bring home library books. I had to do all my reading at school and I would rush through my work to get to my books - especially loved the hour a week we spent in the library. Finally when I was 7th grade I was allowed one book a summer - and you guessed it - War and Peace, because it was the biggest book I could find. Hard reading for a 7th grader - but I made lists and charts and got through it.

Now I read constantly - and our kids do too - they were taught to love and enjoy books, music and art. Thank you for the fabulous post.

Patty said...

I have always loved the picure of the dog!
Great post. Thanks

gma said...

As a young girl, Wyeth spoke to me as well. "Christina's World" always made me wonder about her. Out there, alone,longing for home, yet somehow detatched, swept away.
I also have the picture "Master Bedroom" in my favorites in my picture file.

Anonymous said...

You are so well read, there's a host of books in your list I've meant to read, but never got round to it :-)

Naturegirl said...

Julie you are a great story teller..allowing us to learn more and more about the wonderful woman that you are.Reading fills so many voids ..fills you up..takes you away.
Truly an inspiring post.Love the artwork and yes the Master Bedroom I love! smiles and hugs aNNa

Lila Rostenberg said...

A very inspiring post! I too read "War and Peace" while in junior high. I am so impressed that you remember the characters even now!
I come from a reading it was always easy to escape into other worlds! Your love of learning and longing for culture is something else we have in common!
I admire how much you read and tell us about even today1

Mary said...

Sorry that your knee injury is still so painful Julie - hopefully acupuncture will bring you relief from all that pain.

How amazing and thought provoking this wonderful post is Julie - your stories of life are always the best. Please write a book of short stories - or a novel - so we can have your words bound in leather or linen (or whatever they use these days), to place upon a shelf and tell friends, "I know this wonderful author".

You were the best type of student - focused from a young, impressionable age......and determined enough to make something of yourself despite little encouragement from the adults in your life.
Brava, brava, great lady!!!!!


P.S. I picked up an old copy of 'Rebecca' just last week to display - now I think I'll read it again - it's been too long.

Mary said...

Me again - thank YOU for also giving me a boost Julie!
In answer to your questions -
Yes, sweet Mary Rose did make my new banner - she is such a talented lady.

No,never had anything published in a shelter mag. which is fine - just like to have a neat, pretty home and use some of that pent up creativity by decorating and photographing!

I sincerely do hope you will get some relief soon - I know that with cold weather and the long Winter, not feeling well or being able to get about easily must be depressing. Loved that your sis took you riding - you deserve to be chauffeured every once in a while!

Chin up dear friend - Spring is on the way. Get well.
Warm hugs - Mary.

Sandy said...

An awesome post, Julie.

Joyce said...

Julie you are something else.

I see how brillant you are and I have known this all along but today's posting confirms it all over again......this is very visual and I love it when I see what I am reading.

Reading is such an amazing escape. I feel sad for those who do not read or can't due to learning problems or illiteracy, or who maybe can't afford to purchase books or magazines.

I ALWAYS tell people to utilize the LIBRARY more. I need to do the same...although I do go. I may go today even! HA!

I read so much as a small child and as a teenager it WAS a form of escape from being raised by the wolves if you know what I mean. Now I read for knowledge and research and pleasure.

I do agree with who ever said this in their comment......."you are a great story teller."
I say though....that you need to submit your writings somewhere.
See ya!

Sheila said...

I can only echo the comments made here, regarding your ability to tell a story, give a history lesson, or reveal a part of yourself in your wonderful posts.
I had very little education, it was my own fault and have spent my life with my nose in a book, and feel that has helped to fill some gaps.

couragetocreatewriteandlove said...

in my reader there is a post called a heartfelt thank you and i am asumming you deleted by now or is being hidden.
You are BRILLIANT!!!
here you have it!
a title by me (and others, too!)

p.s. whoever has you in their reader or bloglines read that post by now ;-)

Shopgirl said...

Thinking of you and hoping that your knee is getting well, I am so glad you are keeping up with Ruth, Your support in this has been priceless. Thank you Dear Julie.
I hope the neckless is really what you wanted...I could make another if it isn't. Your, Mary
Everyone has a story, I think you are amazing.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story, Julie! You knew what you wanted from a very young age and followed that dream.