A poet gets face-to-face with Andrew Wyeth’s world
Welsh poet Tony Curtis with ‘Roasted Chestnuts’ by Andrew Wyeth at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
By John Chambless
Welsh poet Tony Curtis has long been an admirer of Andrew Wyeth, but until Sept. 21, he had never visited the Brandywine River Museum of Art, in the heart of Chadds Ford, where Wyeth spent his life creating landmark works of art.
Just before noon on Monday, Curtis – who read from his poems at an afternoon program at the museum – was standing in the midst of “Natural Selections,” a show of sketches of plants by Wyeth, and getting some insight from Virginia O’Hara, the curator of collections at the museum.
Curtis, who has published more than 30 books, including eight collections of poetry, had seen Wyeth’s works in several traveling exhibitions, beginning in 1980. But Monday was a feast of riches, beginning with guided tours of the galleries and a private behind-the-scenes look at the museum’s art storage area, and culminating with a tour of Andrew Wyeth’s studio.
“By accident, in the 1970s, my wife and I ended up in a babysitting group with an artist and his wife. We didn’t know much about art at all,” Curtis said. “But he lent me a Wyeth book. I responded to the intrigue, the narrative, the drama of Andrew Wyeth, as much as anything. When you actually see the work, you realize that the technique is there. This is a Renaissance master, in a sense. But first of all, the initial hook is the drama of the stuff.”
Years ago, for an American edition of one of his collections of poetry, Curtis thought that using Wyeth’s “Winter 1946” for the cover would be wonderful. So he took the direct approach and wrote a letter to the artist.
“Apparently, it wasn’t that common for him to allow people to use his works on covers,” Curtis said. “I don’t know – I just naively asked. Some obscure Welshman said, ‘Can we use this?’ and he agreed. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.”
Wyeth had read the author’s poems before agreeing to let the art be used.
“He said some very nice things,” Curtis said. “He told me, ‘Rarely have I been so touched by a book of poems.’ Now, either he was being super-polite, which is an American flaw which we British don’t share,” Curtis added with a grin, “or I think he really did like them.”
Curtis writes elegantly about many subjects, but his seven Wyeth meditations are as sparing and precise as Wyeth’s paintings. The artist clearly felt strongly enough about the poems to allow his highly personal painting to be used.
The letters Curtis exchanged with Wyeth are now in the collection of the museum. He donated them when he came to present the reading on Monday. “I realized I should bring them here,” he said.
Moving into the large Andrew Wyeth Gallery at the museum, Curtis had a satisfied smile as he immersed himself in the monumental “Snow Hill” and the enigmatic “Spring” (1978), which depicts Wyeth’s dying neighbor, Karl Kuerner, seeming to appear out of the frozen earth. “Now, talk me through his one,” Curtis asked O’Hara, listening intently to the explanation. “It’s a very strange painting,” Curtis said. “It’s like he’s coming out of the freezer or something. Remarkable.”
Catching sight of “Spring Fed,” Curtis gasped. The painting of an overspilling water trough and barn window is the subject of one of his masterful poems, also titled “Spring Fed”:
The stone basin
fills and fills
from the swivel tap’s
The hills have shed
so much snow
the first brown grasses
clear of it,
the heifers push
up into the fields
to take the early shoots.
And it comes
the whole slow
turning of the season –
the softer touch of air,
the shine on the bucket,
the unclenching of things,
the lapping of the water
in the stone basin
up to the rim,
and the very first,
onto our boots.
Curtis saw “Spring Fed” when it was part of a traveling exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, but still marvels at it. “It’s about nothing, in a sense,” he said. “It’s just this insignificant corner, but it’s about so much more.”
During his tour, Curtis asked about some of the people pictured in Wyeth’s portraits – such as James Loper, famously captured in Wyeth’s 1952 painting, and learned what details are known about the many people who sat for Wyeth.
Curtis had a special connection not only to Andrew Wyeth, but also Betsy Wyeth. Mary Landa, the collection manager of the Andrew Wyeth Office at the museum, asked to take a photo of Curtis with the portrait of Betsy, titled “Maga’s Daughter,” that hangs in the Wyeth Gallery. “She wanted me to send her a photo,” Landa said.
Spending a day engulfed in all things Wyeth, Curtis was genial, enthusiastic and awestruck by turns. Standing in the place where the artwork he admires is so firmly rooted, Curtis drew a comparison between what he does and what Wyeth did.
“I make a living out of teaching poetry, and one of the things I do is say that poets and artists both do the same thing,” he said. “Each of us starts with a blank rectangle. And we choose which bits we need to fill.”