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A Web Feature by Hoag Levins
Wharton Esherick Main Header

The Making of Wharton Esherick

Wharton Esherick was an artist and social renegade with a deep sense of attachment to the natural world. Born in 1887, he came of age in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the first decade of the 1900s, a time of great ferment in society and the arts. The patrician Victorian galleries that had long controlled the acceptable standards of "art" were then being challenged by
Wharton Esherick
Wharton Esherick at work

young artists who rejected classical concepts in favor of new ways of seeing and expressing images. These Impressionist, Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist, Ashcan and Abstract schools first began emerging as a significant public presence during Esherick's teenage years.

Obsessed with Drawing
From his earliest years, Esherick was obsessed with drawing -- using any item that would make a mark on any available scrap of paper: tablets, bits of newspaper, parts of boxes, margins of old magazines. He made endless sketches of his mother and scenes of life in his genteel neighborhood near where the Schuylkill River curved under the arched bridges made famous by local painter Thomas Eakins.

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.

Wins Academy Scholarship
In 1909 he was awarded a scholarship for further study at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts -- an extraordinary event and the first formal acknowledgement of his innate talent. The Academy was one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States at a time when painting and sculpture were the society's primary means of artistic expression. Its galleries exhibited the work of the country's most important artists. But it was also a bastion of unyielding traditionalist dogma. The enthusiasms of young students for new ways of seeing or painting were not tolerated. And, in an act that would be characteristic of an ornery determination to do exactly as he chose, Esherick quit the Academy just weeks before his scheduled graduation to pursue the modern techniques of painting his teachers forbade.

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.

Esherick Discovers Thoreau
He briefly found work as an illustrator of posters and record covers at the Victor Talking Machine Company across the river in Camden, New Jersey. There, he also became fast friends with another illustrator who was deeply involved in a back-to-nature movement grounded in the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau's book, "Walden." This naturalist thinking held that true freedom and peace of mind could only be found in a simple life based on honest, meaningful work, a respect for the natural world and minimal dependence on the mindless, mass-produced goods of the larger, machine-based society.

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.

Arts and Crafts Zealots
This original British Arts and Crafts movement was a political crusade by anti-industrialist zealots to reorganize civilization in a manner that made reverence for aesthetics -- rather than money -- its core value. They believed all the objects of daily life should celebrate high art and hand craftsmanship.

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.

Esherick Abandons City Life
The year was 1913. The 25-year-old, academy-educated artist returned to Philadelphia, packed up his new wife and their few belongings and dropped out of the city forever, retreating into rural Pennsylania to live the simple life and devote all energies to his goal of becoming a successful modern painter.

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.

The Trip to Alabama
Suddenly, Esherick accepted a job as an art teacher in the remote town of Fairhope, Alabama, and took his wife away from the Philadelphia region in 1919. It was one of only two extended journeys Esherick ever made away Pennsyvania, and it changed his life.

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.

Author Sherwood Anderson and Esherick
Shortly after the Eshericks settled in Fairhope, a troubled Chicago writer, Sherwood Anderson, was also traveling to the deep south to find refuge. A failed businessman, Anderson cranked out marketing copy for an ad agency while he wrote short stories and novels on his own time. His novel that would become an American classic -- "Winesburg, Ohio" -- had just been published to critical acclaim in 1919, but he was, nonetheless, destitute. Anderson's marriage was disintegrating and he despaired at both the hack advertising work he was forced to perform as well as the rising chaos of Chicago itself. The city was then in the throes of its worst race riots as well as a cacophony of labor unrest, new construction and the spectre of spreading political witch hunts by police conducting mass roundups of "radical socialists, moral perverts and (those) who abound in communism."

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.

Esherick's First Wood Chisels
Because of his connections to the commercial publishing world, Anderson understood the need of book publishers for good illustrators. Virtually all book illustrations of that time where done either by fine etchings on metal plates or by earthier wood cuts. Wood cut prints were also the most economical way to create small runs of posters -- such as those used to announce scheduled art exhibits and dramatic performances around Fairhope. Anderson gave Esherick a set of the small chisels used to create wood cuts and soon, as avidly as he had previously sketched, Esherick was carving and printing wood block images.

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.

Hedgerow Theater
Hedgerow Theater in Rose Valley

Putting on as many as five different plays a week, the Hedgerow troupe lived in a high-spirited commune in several nearby houses and even in some refurbished chicken coops. All shared in acting as well as housekeeping chores from garden hoeing and potato peeling to lugging around stage sets and sweeping the theater floors. All intensely "lived" the plays that were constantly being added to the company's repertory. Jasper himself was revered by his cast; his nightly experiment in true repertory theater drew appreciative audiences from around the region.

The Eshericks at Hedgerow in Rose Valley
Mrs. Esherick was brought into this exuberant theatrical community by her friend, Jasper Deeter's sister. She soon brought Wharton. She and Wharton both had a passion for theater and music and both were captivated by the magical atmosphere that was Hedgerow. Wharton joined in to design, build and paint stage sets and perform the carpentry work required to keep the ancient stone structure in safe repair. Simultaneously, images of actresses and dancers with flowing hair and sinuous bodies became a regular motif in his sketch books and wood cuts. And it was from this same circle of theatrical friends that he would ultimately select the woman -- actress Miriam Phillips -- who, in all but formal title, would later replace his wife.

Acquiring the Mountaintop
When Wharton and his wife returned to Pennsylvania from Fairhope, Alabama, in the early 1920s, the surrounding areas of Chester and Delaware counties were changing rapidly as increasing numbers of affluent city dwellers sought suburban homes and estates. Businesses were likewise expanding out of the city, scouting cheap land within easy trucking distance of a rail line. Rumors flashed through Paoli that representatives of a quarry company were investigating the mountainside property directly above Esherick's own land. He panicked. A quarry there would turn the naturally wild area into an industrial zone of blasted rock, uprooted trees, and debris heaps. Esherick, strapped for money as always, went to his grandmother and borrowed enough to buy the twelve acres of land stetching up the side and over the top of the mountain. It ensured the tranquility of his physical surroundings but put him further in debt than ever. He HAD to sell more paintings.

Carving Wooden Frames
Clearing out and fixing up a section of his barn as a rural gallery, he filled it with his own Impressionist paintings of natural scenes from eastern Pennsylania and Alabama. In an attempt to enhance the saleability of the paintings, he fashioned wooden frames for each one, sculpting the surfaces and contours of the frames with chisels.

Selling the Kitchen Table
When he corraled a series of prospective buyers to the barn gallery, he was chagrined when more were interested in purchasing the uniquely-styled frames than the paintings they contained. A visitor who came into the house was enamored of Esherick's unusual dining table and offered to buy it. Desperately in need of cash, Esherick sold it and made another one for his family.

The New York Gallery Scene
Determined to break into the mainstream gallery system to sell enough paintings to survive, Esherick packed up a collection of his work and made several trips to New York. He had carefully assembled a list of the most meaningful galleries in Manhattan and spent days walking from one to the other trying to interest their owners. "I think it was one of the most bitter experiences in his life," said George Rochberg, the composer, and a close friend of Esherick's during the last 20 years of his life.

Putting the Iron in his Soul
"Wharton told me this vivid story of the last gallery he visited during that time," said Rochberg. "By then he was depressed as well as tired, having tramped through all those other galleries. That last gallery manager was wearing a morning jacket, striped trousers and a disdainful look as he watched this hayseed from Pennsylvania come through the door. He flipped through a few paintings and asked Wharton if anyone had summoned him to New York. Wharton said, 'No.' The man shook his head and told Wharton the best thing for him to do was go back to wherever it was he lived in Pennsylvania and wait until someone from New York sent for him. It was as awful a put down as one could imagine and a crushing blow to Wharton's ego. But I also think it helped put the iron in his soul."

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.

History and Influence of Rose Valley
Back in 1901, a group of Philadelphians including such luminaries as Edward Bok of the Curtis Publishing Company and Joseph Fels, the soap magnate, had joined with socialist activist and architect William Price to turn deserted mill town of Rose Valley, twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia, into a utopian Arts and Crafts commune. Located along the heavily wooded banks of Ridley Creek, the town became a center of woodworkers hand crafting high-quality oak furniture with a gothic, medieval flavor. Over the years, they were joined by potters, weavers, painters, musicians, actors, illustrators and other artists drawn to the idea of living "The Art That is Life" in Rose Valley. By the 1930s, community had evolved into an affluent enclave where many of the region's leading architects, designers, judges and lawyers maintained Arts and Crafts-like custom homes.

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."

Esherick's Studio/Home Begins in 1926
Wandering the dirt roads and paths of the surrounding area, Esherick began seeing ever larger "images" in the living trunks and boughs of massive trees. As his sculptures increased in size, he quickly outgrew a small barn workshop. In 1926, with help from several neighbors and friends, he began laying the stone foundation for a woodworking studio on the very crest of the mountaintop above his farmhouse -- a site that visually evoked Thoreau's notion that "there are none so happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon." The spot provided a panoramic overview of the surrounding hills carpeted in oak and evergreen, dogwood and laurel. Below, birds glided by in languid formations or hung themselves stationary, like individual kites, in the updrafts. Lush green farmlands, laced with rivers and often tufted with morning mists, stretched as far south as the eye could see down the flatlands known locally as "The Great Valley." It was on this mountaintop, amidst saws, planes, wood shavings and his well-thumbed copy of "Walden" that Wharton Esherick finally found himself as an artist.

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.

Department Store Culture Rejects Hand Craftsmanship
In this new, emerging department store culture, the concept of "hand crafted" or "craftsmanship" not only fell into disfavor but took on an almost odious stigma. It was generally perceived that only poor people would resort to using "home-made" or "hand-made" objects because they couldn't afford the "proper" products found in stores.

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.

Death of the Arts and Crafts Movement
By the late 1920s, the soul of the original Arts and Crafts Movement had been eviscerated. Art historians would later write that in subsequent decades, America's overall artist-craftsman activities fell to their lowest ebb in modern times. True craftsmanship of the old school was practiced by only a small number of "loners" working in isolation around the country.

Esherick the Loner
One of those isolated artisans on a mountaintop in Paoli was Wharton Esherick. Ironically, he had found his niche at the very moment national respect -- and any significant market -- for such talents collapsed. Like Thoreau, he was a loner in the truest sense of the word -- a man confidently following his own visions through a society that he knew placed little or no value on such visions.

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.

Hailed as Dean of American Craftsmen
In the late 1960s, as hand craftsmanship gained new national stature and popularity as part of the baby boomer generation's counter-culture movement, his life's work was recognized as a leading force in that crafts revival. Shortly before he died, he was officially hailed by the national art and design community as the "Dean of American Craftsmen." It was an accolade he accepted with the wry humor of a man who had long ago come to terms with the reality of his existence.

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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