By David Kramer
From Issue 81
Wharton Esherick’s career trajectory follows a path that’s seldom seen among artists. Spanning more than 50 years, his style had its origins in the Arts and Crafts movement and later bridged the gap into Modernism, constantly evolving and adapting through several phases and forms of creative expression, including painting, woodblock printing, furniture and ultimately sculpture.
“Almost everything Esherick made, he designed for a particular person in a particular place,” says Paul Eisenhauer, Executive Director and Curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli, Penn. “He didn’t come up with a design and just repeat it over and over again; every piece was unique. Consequently, seeing his work in context shows you something different than seeing it as part of an exhibit. One of the things that makes this museum so unique is that you get to experience his work in context, as a whole. These buildings remain the way they were when Wharton lived and worked here, and you really get a sense of his life and character by being here. It’s one of the few places where you have that opportunity. The entire building is a work of art.”
An Emerging Style
Born in Philadelphia in 1887 to an upper-middle-class family, Esherick knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue the arts. Initially trained as an Impressionist painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase and others, he quickly discovered that painting alone could not satisfy his creative appetite.
“It was a pretty rigorous curriculum at the Academy, and Esherick never really found his own style there,” says Eisenhauer. “He was always copying or mimicking whatever style his teachers and colleagues encouraged him to follow. He had not yet found his own voice.”
For his paintings, Esherick started carving his own frames in the Arts and Crafts tradition and soon realized that people were more interested in buying his frames than they were his paintings. He had learned of the Arts and Crafts Movement through the writings of William Morris and others, and was exposed to handmade furniture by way of a small artists’ community in nearby Rose Valley that had been started by noted architect William Price in 1901. Esherick was first attracted to the anti-industrial philosophy of the movement, and his early carving work would bear the gothic, medieval influence of the Rose Valley Association.
“They had a distinct style and produced furniture and pottery that is still sought after by collectors today,” says Eisenhauer. After leaving art school, Esherick found work as a graphicartist and bounced around at a few local newspapers before being hired by the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, N.J., to make drawings of photographs for their promotional material. While at Victor, his boss introduced him to the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, and Esherick’s fondness for them was immediately noticeable. Thoreau’s Walden captivated him, and he yearned to return to his more creative, romantic roots.
As printing technology advanced, photographs could now be easily and accurately reproduced for print, and artist renderings were no longer needed. Consequently, Esherick and most of his colleagues were laid off from their positions at Victor. “Inspired by Thoreau and others, Esherick was intrigued by the idea of living off the land, leading an organic life, and being free to pursue artistic endeavors that integrated life with art,” says Eisenhauer. “The notion of becoming more fully human by building, creating and producing for yourself, rather than for someone else’s profit, was a very seductive idea.”
Back to Basics
Many of the American Impressionists of the time were taking their canvasses out into the fields to paint from nature, and Esherick was longing to get away from the city as well. With a small inheritance he received from his grandmother, he and his wife, Letty, purchased an 1839 stone farmhouse that they nicknamed Sunekrest (pronounced “Sunny Crest”), situated on a five-acre plot in rural Chester County, west of Philadelphia. Esherick focused on his painting and farmed the land to feed his family. His work from this formative period was primarily oil-on-canvas and featured sites and scenes from the bucolic life that surrounded him.
In 1919, Esherick took advantage of an opportunity to winter in Fairhope, Ala., where his wife was studying progressive teaching at The School of Organic Education, founded by educational reformer Marietta Johnson. He immersed himself in his new environment, painting as much as he could, and soon began teaching art at the school as well. Fairhope was a winter haven for free-thinking artists of all types, and Esherick fit right in, quickly making friends with many of them, including Sherwood Anderson.
Returning to Pennsylvania, a refreshed Esherick began illustrating the children’s book Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk, written by Mary Marcy, whom he had also met in Fairhope. He chose woodblock prints as the medium for his illustrations and enjoyed working with wood again as he had when he was carving frames for his paintings years earlier. Black-on-white woodblock printing became his new passion as the stark contrast of the two colors was diametrically opposed to the liberal use of color he had typically used in his Impressionist paintings. The simple juxtaposition of light and shadow opened up new horizons in Esherick’s imagination, and he was soon gaining notoriety for his work.
Honoring the Labor
By the mid 1920s, Esherick’s family had grown and so had his propensity for working with wood. “He needed more space,” says Eisenhauer, “and in particular, as he was moving more and more into woodworking, he needed space away from the children. When you’re swinging an axe and using sharp tools, having little kids around can obviously be dangerous.” Esherick acquired the land up the hill from Sunekrest and set out to build a studio there that was big enough to continue his current woodworking, while also enabling him to undertake larger projects.
The first part of the studio was built very much in the Arts and Crafts style with a simple shed dormer set over walls made of locally quarried stone and a foundation that flared out at its base. “He drew from the architectural vernacular of the region—the stone bank barns that you find throughout Chester County—and added a subtle dose of Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Eisenhauer. “The way the studio is situated just off of the hilltop—it doesn’t dominate the landscape, but rather it’s built into the landscape—embodies Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture.
“Wharton was the designer, but he didn’t draw formal plans from which his stonemason, Bert Kulp, could build. Bert and his crew would show up in the morning and Whartonwould tell them what he wanted them to do that day, and they would go about doing it. Wharton had the artistic vision, but Bert had the technical skills.”
While the original stone portion of the studio was being built, Esherick was already beginning to migrate away from Arts and Crafts style. By the time the studio was completed, he had relinquished it entirely. “He continued with the ideals behind the Arts and Crafts movement,” says Eisenhauer, “the idea of honoring the labor, that labor could elevate you, and that living and working with beautiful art produced by hand could motivate and inspire people. He didn’t abandon the ideology of the movement; he merely left the style.”
Finding His Voice
Esherick’s woodblock carving soon led him to explore more angular forms and themes characteristic of Cubism and German Expressionism. This new style was evident in some of his early forays into producing furniture, most of which was made out of necessity for his growing family, and manifested itself further in the private commissions that would follow.
In the early 1930s, Esherick met his first major patron, Helene Fischer, who started pushing him to follow his own voice and move away from traditional forms of design. “The idea of using furniture as more than just something functional was appealing to him,” says Eisenhauer. “He really saw what he was doing as sculpture. It was just that some of that sculpture happened to be furniture.”
Breaking New Ground
With the publicity that Esherick was getting from his commissions from Fischer and others, galleries in both Philadelphia and New York were eager to exhibit his work. His Spiral Stair, the stairway from his own studio, was even included in an exhibit at the 1940 New York World’s Fair. As he continued to experiment with new ideas, his desire to create desks, tables and chairs was eclipsed by his enthusiasm for creating free-form, organic sculpture. The volume of work he was producing, and the rate at which it was being produced, meant that he was spending a tremendous amount of time in his studio on the hill, and the need for more space necessitated that it be expanded.
Adjacent to the stone bank portion of the studio, he added a kitchen along with a second bedroom above it for his son Peter. The exterior was clad in long planks of white oak installed vertically in a board-and-batten pattern. “If you look closely at it, you’ll notice that the walls aren’t plumb, which is by design,” says Eisenhauer. “The walls lean and there’s a rather prismatic roof; it’s a very playful, whimsical building.”
The studio would be expanded one final time with what Esherick referred to as his “silo.” The exterior of the silo is covered in stucco that had pigment mixed into it as it was applied, so the colors go all the way through. “It’s an autumn leaves fresco that he did in October 1966, as the silo was being built,” says Eisenhauer. “It’s not a traditional cylindrical silo, it’s essentially three-sided, with an irregular oval form that fits into the corner of the existing building. By embellishing the silo with fresco, he was returning to his roots as a painter.”
A Craftsman’s Legacy
Esherick continued to thrive creatively into the 1960s, with a number of large-scale interior commissions to go along with his groundbreaking furniture and sculptures. His work bridged the gap between the Arts and Crafts movement and Modernism, and his widespread influence can be seen in the scores of artists, sculptors and furniture designers that followed him, including Sam Maloof, Wendell Castle and George Nakashima. His work has frequently been exhibited in notable museums across the country, including The Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but much of his work today remains in the hands of the families who originally commissioned it.
His former home and studio was declared a National Historic Landmark for Architecture in 1993 and is now operated as the Wharton Esherick Museum. Esherick died in 1970 at the age of 82, and the museum opened to the public in 1972. It has been run as a nonprofit organization since then, and Esherick’s daughter Ruth and son-in-law Mansfield Bascom are still active with the museum.
(Mansfield stepped down as museum curator in 2008 in order to finish writing the comprehensive biography Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind.) The couple currently live on-site in an adjacent workshop that was designed by Esherick and Louis Kahn in 1956.
“Esherick’s work was on a human scale; he wasn’t trying to make something monumental, he was trying to make something that worked, both aesthetically and structurally,” says Eisenhauer. “He believed that art and life should be integrated, and his pieces accomplish that in ways that a lot of art and furniture don’t. Esherick’s work had the power to make you feel at home, and that’s a very rare talent.”
For more information on the Wharton Esherick Museum, please visit whartonesherickmuseum.org
David Kramer is a Portland-based freelance writer and curator of the website TheCraftsmanBungalow.com. His article “A Portal to the Past on the Oregon Coast” appeared in Issue No. 80, Winter 2013. He is grateful to Paul Eisenhauer and the staff of the Wharton Esherick Museum for helping to make this article possible.