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Son of a prosperous merchant, Esherick refused to abide by his father's plan that he study for a business career. Instead, after graduating high school, he enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts to study painting, and further distressed his family with his growing affinity for anti-business, socialist political causes.
Following the lead of other avante-garde painters, he took a day job as an illustrator at Philadelphia's North American newspaper and spent his nights and weekends painting furiously in the new Impressionist style. But he soon lost his newspaper job to a new technology -- the gravure process that allowed newspaper and magazine publishers to easily reproduce photographs on printing presses. Artists like Esherick, who previously created all the line drawings used to illustrate news stories, were no longer needed.
It was a book that profoundly affected Esherick. He kept a copy of it on his bedside table for the rest of his life, thumbing through it regularly for solace and inspiration much the same as other people thumbed through their Bibles. Written in the 1840s at the very dawn of the industrial revolution, "Walden" was the first great work of literature to protest the emergence of a mass-production society. The book was a commercial failure during its author's lifetime and quickly went out of print. But fifty years later, it was resurrected as a cult classic by adherents of the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain, who circulated it back into America.
This "Arts and Crafts" philosophy spead across the Atlantic in the 1890s and was a major influence throughout the American art world during Esherick's formative years. It inspired legions of individual artisans to new forms of experimentation and heavily impacted the thinking of architects. Arts and Crafts buildings were high-art designs executed in an unpretentious manner with natural materials from the surrounding region. Each building was a homage to its site, blending so harmoniously with the landscape it almost assumed the essence of a natural thing itself. The "Prairie School" of design by Chicago's Frank Lloyd Wright became the movement's most famous architectural offshoot. Wright's stunningly elegant turn-of-the-century buildings integrated structural mass and line with furnishings and interior detail to create a revolutionary "unified environment" of natural materials, organic forms and motifs of the surrounding flora.
At the same time he was immersed in his impressionist painting and his growing desire for a "naturalist" life, Esherick married the daughter of a center city meat merchant -- a woman who loved classical music and the dance and who was also eager to escape the clamor of Philadelphia for a more "organic" life.
Esherick began taking solitary journeys on the Pennsylvania Railroad line that ended at Paoli, 25 miles west of the city. From there, he took horse and wagon rides with rural real estate agents through the surrounding rolling hills. In Paoli, in heavy woods at the bottom of the area's tallest mountain, he found an old stone farm house for sale. Sitting on five acres of rocky ground not well suited for farming, the property was as dilapidated as it was cheap.
That quest would be become his greatest failure, yet open the door to his true vocation.
After reaching Paoli in 1913, the Eshericks settled into a spartan existence. Using the crude tools of a colonial farmer and any materials he could scavenge, Wharton made the dilapidated house and barn watertight. The couple dressed in the sturdy clothes of peasants, read by the light of kerosene lanterns, baked bread in a wood stove and grew their own vegetables. Wharton wandered the woods and slopes to commune with nature and find subjects for his paintings. They both read voraciously, with a steady stream of books, magazines and newspapers available at the other end of a morning's brisk walk to the nearby railroad station village.
Elsewhere, the world was increasingly embroiled in social unrest and political chaos. Europe erupted in vast battles between newly-mechanized armies. After America entered the war, Philadelphia and its surrounding counties were ravaged by shortages of basic food items as well as coal. Rioting city mobs attacked coal-carrying railway cars to seize fuel for their homes. An influenza epidemic raged through the Philadelphia region, killing as many as 700 people a day in an era before vaccines or antibiotics. Accounts of the time indicate that corpses piled up so fast they were stacked like cordwood and buried in hastily-dug mass graves.
Fairhope was a utopian colony established two decades earlier by a group of tax-protesting reformers, including Philadelphian Joseph Fels, who had played a major role in organizing another utopian experiment -- the Rose Valley Arts and Crafts community in Pennsylvania -- just a few miles from Esherick's Paoli home. Isolated in endless tracts of pine forests along the coast of Mobile Bay, Fairhope could only be reached by ferry. Its government combined various aspects of socialism and democracy in a communal manner designed to prevent the emergence of either great wealth or great poverty. All land was owned collectively, as were all public utilities, including even the People's Ice Company. Anyone who wanted to build a house or a small business could obtain land for free.
By 1919, the fishing, farming and lumber milling community had also become a popular haven for tax objectors, free thinkers, painters, writers and assorted iconoclasts from around the country. They were drawn by the solitude, natural beauty and cheap living -- one could get by on $6.00 a week -- as well as an open atmosphere of intellectual stimulation and unfettered debate. In addition, growing numbers of liberal-minded educators as well as parents were trekking to Fairhope to inspect or enroll their children in the revolutionary school where Esherick went to teach painting. Established in 1907, the School of Organic Education had become nationally famous as one of the seminal institutions of the new "Progressive Education" movement.
Much like the experimental colony around it, the school was established as an alternative to life in the American mainstream. One of its goals was to eliminate the competitive conditioning of children. Its students received no marks, no honors, no failures and no promotions. Daily activities were designed to develop an appreciation of creativity in all aspects of living and instill a sense of wonder and curiosity about the surrounding natural world. The curriculum heavily stressed drama, arts, crafts, music and free-spirited dancing. Overall, the school sought to turn out aesthetically oriented young citizens motivated to live and work together in harmony rather than compete with each other for status or wealth.
When he left Chicago, Anderson had completed the first rough draft of his next novel and was seeking some quiet, cheap and inspirational getaway where he could write in peace. He ended up in the outback of the Alabama delta aboard a ferry to Fairhope. One of the first people he met when he stepped off the boat was painter Wharton Esherick. Anderson, then 44, and Esherick, 33, struck up what would become a life-long friendship.
Immersed in Fairhope's free-spirited community of artists, both men experimented with new media. Anderson threw himself into sculpting with clay and painting in a Cubist and Abstract style. Fascinated with the colorful ceramics being turned out at a Fairhope kiln, Esherick designed, crafted and fired a series of ceramic animal figures.
By the end of 1920 both men had left Fairhope -- Esherick and his wife returning to their Pennsylvania farm house and Anderson taking a job as a newspaper editor in Marion, Virginia, where he hung his office walls with Esherick's Fairhope paintings.
Back in Paoli, Esherick set up a wood block printing press while he continued painting. As a matter of necessity, he also began making items of simple furniture for his home, including a large dining room table that was the family's central gathering place.
To earn some badly needed money, his wife ran a small nursery school in her home for the children of nearby families. She taught weaving and a form of rhythmic dance designed to encourage children to joyously release themselves to music. She was also a student of natural cures and a believer in the therapeutic powers of organic foods -- interests that drew her into a circle of similarly-minded friends in nearby Rose Valley who were connected to the natural cure sanitorium of ostepathic physician, Dr. Ruth Deeter.
Dr. Deeter's brother, Jasper, had just moved to Rose Valley from New York City to organize a professional theater company in an old stone mill that was used as the local community center. The 28-year-old Jasper Deeter felt the craft of acting was being debauched by the Broadway practice of having the same actors play the same roles in the same play night after night, year after year. He objected to the manner in which theater stages were being turned into factories that used actors like machine parts, endlessly going through the same motions. In his view, such stultifyingly dull work was no less destructive for the spirit of an actor then it was for that of an assembly-line worker.
In 1922, Deeter organized a true repertory theater company in Rose Valley -- a group of actors who learned all the parts of many plays and were able to perform different roles in a different play every night. Thus, the actor's skills were constantly challenged and developed in a manner that was as enriching for the individual as it was ennobling for the institution of the theater itself.
The group's sudden domination of the old mill lead to a community controversy about whether Deeter had any rights to use the hall. In a fit of temper, Deeter, at one point, vowed that Rose Valley would have true repertory theater even if his actors had to practice their craft outside among the hedgerows. The name -- Hedgerow -- stuck and after Deeter did secure the rights to the old mill, its name was changed to Hedgerow theater.
Then entering mid-life, Esherick had been struggling to be recognized as a serious painter for nearly 20 years. In 1924, at 37 years old, he gave up the dream that had sustained him since he was a teenager and suddenly put away his brushes, oils and easels. He never touched them again.
Then, with the same fervor with which he had previously painted, he threw himself into wood block printing, wood sculpting and the crafting of small items of furniture. It was a time when his involvement with the Hedgerow Theatre troupe and the surrounding Rose Valley artistic community continued to become an ever-larger part of his life.
When he first started with wood, Esherick used exotic materials from Asia and Africa and his initial creations had a heavy, medieval feel with dense geometric surface carvings much like the Gothic furniture previously produced by Rose Valley's woodworking commune.
But Esherick quickly abandoned foreign woods, turning exclusively to local materials from his area of Eastern Pennsylvania. His surface carvings became elegantly spartan representations of local trees and birds. The line and mass of his furniture and sculpture took on an increasingly sensual, organic quality. He was using wood to celebrate the feel and essence of the natural world as well as the expressive concepts that had perviously guided his painting. His unique work was combining, as never before, the line and spirit of modern sculpture with the techiques of fine furniture craftsmanship.
He began making the free-form wooden bowls, platters, and trays and utensils that his family and friends used daily -- even going so far as to create a dining room table that had salad "bowls" carved into its surface. It was typical of his penchant for mixing equal parts of droll humor and frugal practicality: diners ate their salads and then wiped up the remains of oil in a manner that was constantly re-oiling and enriching the wood of the table itself.
He began accepting orders for items of furniture and received commissions to do the wood block illustrations for new editions of Walt Whitman's works such as "Song of the Broadaxe."
By the end of the 1920s, his woodworking skills and refreshing artistic vision brought him growing recognition in influential circles of architects, designers and wealthy Arts and Crafts patrons connected to Rose Valley's Arts and Crafts community. This, at a time when the Arts and Crafts movement itself had all but died out across the rest of the country.
By the latter 1920s the nation-spanning mechanisms of radio, newspapers, slick magazines and Hollywood movies had coalesced for the first time into an integrated marketing colossus that could influence the perceptions, desires and buying habits of the whole population, spawning an economy that depended on the creation of endlessly changing "fashions" that would cause people to continually purchase -- and then discard -- an ever-growing array of mass-produced goods. Newly-tested concepts of mass psychology were employed to convince the consumer that his or her own individual status and worth as a person was directly related to the act of purchasing clothes, furniture or other manufactured products.
In fact, the very term "Arts and Crafts" was seized and co-opted by advertising executives who promoted it as just another of the many "styles" of lamps and furniture mass produced by the millions for department store outlets. "Arts and Craft" architecture went the same route as factories produced small Arts and Crafts houses -- their lines vaguely suggestive of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School structures -- as do-it-yourself kits.
Living in spartan simplicity and struggling with minimal support, constant debt, and little potential for the broad adulation that most artists crave above all else, Esherick toiled in relative obscurity for decades.
After his spiral staircase and a collection of his free-form furniture was exhibited in the New York World's Fair that opened in 1939, he did establish a reputation in high architectural circles, but remained unknown to the rest of the culture.
Esherick was a rare man who created for the joy of the process itself. His life and work can largely be summed up in the words of a section of Walden where Thoreau wrote of another artist: "The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result have been other than wonderful?"
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