It is on days like this, when the cold in my shop is too cold for glue, finish and me that I have a chance to stop and let the happenings of life come to rest in my mind. In truth, the new year has started off with less than a bang. I tell myself that it’s the lack of sunlight, and the effort that it takes to stay warm that has me wrapped in this blanket of melancholy. But that is a lie that I tell myself in an offering of kindness, but not helpfulness. The truth is that new things shoot me to the moon and back again with fear. New and good things. I’ve always been this way. And despite the attempts I have made in my life to overcome the initial sense of fear and utter panic, I still have to allow time for the reaction, no matter how ridiculous it seems. In a couple of weeks, I will be taking a few months off from the cabinet shop to be a visiting artist at Warren Wilson College. Though I jumped at the opportunity with a resounding “YES,” I knew I would have to walk through the familiar hall of fear as the new semester approached. Here I am and here it is. I would say it’s the same old hall, but it seems shorter, and there are more windows in it… maybe they’re doors. Each time I pass through this space, I reclaim a little bit more of myself and I become more comfortable in my own skin. I hope in time, I will only have to walk over a threshold, releasing the idea of being contained by this fear altogether. For now, I look for things that remind me of that possible future. This time, I have been able to reach back into the vaults of my own experiences for this reminder. It is the story of a transformative and powerful experience that I had while still studying at Haywood Community College over ten years ago. A paper written for one of my classes at the time, I have left it virtually untouched. I hope you enjoy….
The Birthplace of a Mantra
Written in July 2003
In the course of my studies in Twentieth Century Crafts and Furniture Design over the past year, I have been introduced to a number of craftsman and women who have influenced craft design and philosophy through generations of artisans. At this early stage in my hopeful career, I am continually looking back to these individuals and their works to find direction, ideas and inspiration for my own future as a craftsperson. But, at the same time I am also struggling to find a style that is uniquely my own, one that allows me to have a small, but discernable voice in this already prolific and crowded world of craft and fine art. It is in this very personal struggle that I seem to have found a strong affinity for the works and life of Wharton Esherick. During my recent tour of his home and studio, what initially sparked my interest and connection to Esherick was a comment made by our guide. It was recounted that as a painter, Esherick found it difficult to develop his own style because he could never get away from the influence of his teachers. He wanted more than anything to find a unique way of contributing to the world of art, and eventually turned to wood as his medium of choice. Without question, Wharton Esherick was able to find his own path, and in doing so, paved the way for countless others to begin exploring ways to do the same.
My exposure to Wharton Esherick prior to the tour of his estate was fairly limited and brief. I knew that he was an important figure during twentieth century craft and design, and that he helped usher in the Craftsman Revival, which is still very much alive today. I had seen pictures of his work, home and studio. However, being a person who is easily intimidated by curves and odd angles, I conveniently dismissed his work and mentally filed it away in the “nice, but not my style” category. And, I would have been content to leave it there forever had it not been for the
gentle encouragement near insistence that I sign up for the tour as part of my educational experiences in Philadelphia during the Furniture Society Conference. From the moment that we exited the van and stepped foot onto Esherick’s property, I knew, but couldn’t yet admit that I would not be able to return to my sheltered world of safe design and straight edges.
The first building that I noticed was the stone barn-like structure that at one time had been his studio, and eventually home. Its appearance was strange and even unattractive to me initially. The different pieces and parts seemed at odds with one another and left me wondering what in the world Esherick was thinking when he constructed them. The guide began to talk about Esherick, of his early life and influences, and of his painterly beginnings. The odd building began to transform itself into a thing of wonder with a perplexing attractiveness at which I didn’t want to stop looking. I would have to though, as our attention was turned instead to the two-car garage that Esherick had built in 1927, today the museum’s headquarters. Now, I was really paying attention. What had first seemed to be an aging, out of proportion barn became a beautiful work of art. The building, which I found intoxicating to look at, warps and twists along its roof line and bulges out at its walls as if it had once been caught in a Pennsylvania twister. I learned that this was Esherick’s first experiment with expressionistic architecture, which he had first been introduced to while building stage sets at the Hedgerow Theatre, America’s first repertory theatre. As we were ushered into the building I especially noticed the beautifully crafted doors leading into the structure. They were so simple, yet elegant and organic. “No right angles,” the guide had said earlier. He said that Esherick detested right angles and always tried to make things without them as he felt they were boring. Boring. Now my safe little world of right angles and straightforward design was boring. But, it was safe, so I could still admire his work, yet know that it would never be like my own. I renamed my mental file “really nice, but not possible – for me.”
Now, finally, we were on our way to the studio and home, the first building I had seen and thought so ugly. A short walk down the stone path gave the guide time to talk about the construction of the building. No wonder it looked pieced together – it was. It took Esherick forty years to eventually complete the entire structure. Construction first began in 1926, with the completion of the stone portion of the building. It is an example of work done during his “organic” phase. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of “organic architecture” Esherick designed the structure with the natural world as his model. The walls of the building taper slightly in from its base, giving it the impression that it is rising from the ground like the trees that surrounded it. The roof also seemed to be sagging and in need of repair. However, this curvature was a design element deliberately built into the structure, adding to its organic nature.
The second phase of construction occurred when Esherick was further exploring expressionism. The two-story addition containing his bathroom and kitchen had extreme, prismatic like angels and sharp edges. Adding to this, in 1966, he built the free form tower that he called his “silo.” Mimicking the autumn colors around him, Esherick added paint into the plaster, borrowing from the abstract expressionism that still colored this phase of his career.
Now, with some knowledge of Esherick and what fueled him, I began to see the once strange and ugly building come to life. It was a story told in Esherick’s own words of his personal journey through his life and career. And being that it was just the cover, I couldn’t wait to see what treasures were hidden inside.
We were led through the front door, directly into the kitchen and dining area. As I looked around, it was true – there was not a single straight edge or parallel line that I could see. It was obvious that everything around me had been sculpted painstakingly to perfection with caring and skillful hands. The kitchen table seemed to grow up from the floor and stood only on one leg (the guide said it was bolted to the wall to prevent it from leaving with the clients like all the other tables had). The walls were tongue and groove cherry boards, creating energetic sunburst shapes throughout the two rooms. The floor was made from scraps of apple wood and walnut, given to him by one of his shop helpers. His entire design, flowing from a single knot in a piece of walnut, danced playfully under our feet.
“No right angles,” I was beginning to feel comfortable with the words that chased me from room to room. Before, they had evoked feelings of fear and self-doubt, believing that I could never make things this beautiful. Now, these words whispered to me of a possible future filled with exploration and the rewards that come with pushing beyond one’s limits. I think it was at this time in the tour that I came to grips with where I was at that moment. It felt as though I were standing in a crossroads of sorts. And it was in this moment that I made the decision to abandon my fears and find out what I was capable of creating in my own life. I rubbed the sculpted shelf beside me, knowing that decades before, Esherick had done the same. Maybe he was the one speaking to me, “No right angles.”
Pulling me from my dreamy state, we were led down the now famous spiraling staircase into his sculpting studio. I have to admit though that at this point in the tour I was so emotionally moved and overwhelmed, the rest of my experience was basically one giant wooden blur. I continued to find myself in total awe of everything that I saw and touched. I could see how the sculptures rising from the dirt packed studio floor would have inspired a once young Wendell Castel to make more out of wood than just furniture. I was amazed at the craftsmanship that Esherick brought to every single thing that he created for his home. And, it surely seemed that every single thing in his home had, in fact, been created by him. Esherick, a true craftsman in every sense of the word, had fabricated even the hardware in his furniture pieces. I laughed at the whimsical carved monkey, hanging onto the rope that raised and lowered his loft floor. I admired the woodcuts and prints that first invited Esherick to play more with wood. I even found the toilet seat, which he had hand carved, worthy of admiration (I must say, though, I didn’t touch this piece).
I don’t know what the people around me were thinking or feeling. Perhaps they had already known what possibilities awaited them as craftsmen and women. Maybe they were just as moved as I. The only thing I was sure of at the end of this tour was that, like the wooden forms surrounding me, I had been transformed into something new and different, someone new and different. Wharton Esherick, once an artist struggling to find his own unique path, created a style of sculpture and furniture design that is undeniably and uniquely “Esherick.” The fact that he began, not as an engineer, architect, or even woodworker, but as an artist looking for a means to express himself is a point of great inspiration to me. “No right angles,” a mantra by now, spoken in my own voice, has become a spark, igniting my desire to discover what dreams lie within me. I know that when I want to, I can go beyond the boundaries that have previously comforted me, but now confine me. Every moment in our lives is leading us in one direction or another, usually under the heavy blanket of our awareness. I had the awesome experience of being totally present for several moments in my life that will certainly help shape it in ways that are still unknown to me. How cool is that?