Have you ever made plans to meet someone, and then when you meet them, they don’t look, sound, or relate in the manner that you had expected? This happened to me when I finally met my adult self, and I suspect a similar thing happened to Wharton Esherick when he slowly became acquainted with his mature self. I often speak of historic houses, as having a “message” far beyond the historic dates and genealogy. Many times, I feel as they take on the life experiences of the various inhabitants. The tiny Esherick Studio, however, didn’t reflect Wharton’s experiences – it was, in fact, his experience – lived fully, used well. Like the synapses of the brain, the very structure, substance, and behaviors of this entirely unique site were an embodiment of something more primal, more fundamental than merely external manifestations of one’s loves and personality.
I expected to see the Esherick Studio as a house museum and as a shrine to a furniture designer, however, what I found was far deeper. The voice of this site is one of a normal, and at the same time, an extraordinary man who was lucky enough, like many of us, to have found a powerfully supportive wife (or partner) who helped build the foundation upon which his creative work firmly rests. In many ways, just as I had, it is because of his wife that Wharton was able to live a creative life.
By all written accounts, Wharton had dramatic and seemingly unwanted personal course changes in his life. He married Letty Nofer and had three children. Letty brought to Wharton fertile new ideas of education, body/mind relationships, Rudolph Steiner, and pulled him into social situations, such as Fairhope Open Education School in Alabama, that would make connections to last his entire life. Letty took charge of the home, Sunekrest, and the vibrant three children. She raised thenm with the fundamentals of open education and allowed Wharton to slowly retreat into his little stone workshop. From a distance, it seems quite clear that Letty provided Wharton with the stability and the intellectually full soil of experience that propelled his work beyond a good painter into the realm of genius sculptor and designer. Like many of our lives, the story of this site is complex and messy.
In 1940, Wharton & Letty separated, although never formally divorced, and took on different living conditions. Wharton wrote, with great regret, in his letters that the life of the family was too distracting and he was unable to serve two masters. Throughout their lives, they remained life-partners of some special composition, y when Wharton met and formed a deeply intimate relationship with Miriam Phillips, Letty remained a significant part of his life. Different from Letty, Miriam appears to have needed the same physical distance from a relationship as Wharton needed, and they slept in different bedrooms and continued this special life until his death in 1970.
There was a complex bitter-sweetness to my “one-night stand” at the Wharton Esherick Studio. When you visit the studio, what you should experience (in addition to his creative output) is the total life trajectory of a flawed, normal man. This man loved his wife and family, and as mentioned he never divorced his wife but was pulled in a diametrically opposite direction by his creative efforts. The studio shows his incrementally built extraction from his marriage and his family. And perhaps the message most deeply conveyed, is that his greatest artistic breakthroughs occur at his most complex and difficult emotional states.
Not many know that his spectacular spiral stair, built in 1929-30, was constructed so that he could more easily get to his bed loft from his studio work floor space. It is created because, one assumes, he knew his traditional marriage was over and that his place belonged more permanently within the walls of his studio, not the stone farmhouse, down the slope, that his family resided within. There are an urgency and abruptness to this stair that suggest resignation to an unwelcomed solution for a difficult personal problem.
Just like his mature work grew out of his client’s immediate need, so to did his studio grow out of his constantly changing personal life situation. When you enter this site, one must understand the sadness that became the fertile ground for his extraordinary creative output. When you walk through the studio and see his initials and dates carved into the building fragments, this is in a very real way, I believe, Esherick’s way of citing important points in his own life. These markings are a code, a reminder to us all that, just like life itself, this building wasn’t completely designed as a fully formed object, it just happened – accumulated.
I knew before I had arrived that Wharton, his wife and his children, all to some degree, practiced a bohemian lifestyle which included public nudity. Bob Bascom, Wharton’s son-in-law, shared stories of when the telephone wire workmen would come (and often) to inspect the lines hovering above the Family’s remote site so that they could catch a glimpse of the practically or fully nude female family & friends practicing expressive modern dance with only thin, gauzy veils blowing in the wind, or when Mrs. Esherick answered the door with on only a hat on. There are even published photographs of Wharton’s friends spending time at the site, clearly participating in communal bohemian nudity.
In contrast to this expected eccentricity, what I wasn’t expecting was the emotional and creative bareness that the studio manifested. In fact, when, just as Mrs. Esherick had done, this un-garmented atmosphere met me at the door, I was startled and it forced me to withdraw from its open, shameless and honest welcome. There was the door. Opened, it revealed the private lives of the Eshericks. There was no formal foyer or ante-chamber. BAM – come on in.
It was now an odd and rare feeling for me to be the turtle who has retreated into its shell, but I needed to re-adjust my expectations and consider that I, once again, really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. In some ways, I personally understood what he was telling me. My opaque emotional garments needed to be shed before I could embrace Esherick’s world.
As I stepped closer to Wharton’s colorful, cubist, expressionist jewelry box–it looked beautiful, yet clearly used. The compositions were at the same time powerful, yet harsh, and discordant. The house wasn’t painted, it occupied Color, and as an area was used, the top color was eroded away and a lower color revealed itself. This wasn’t by accident – it appeared fully intentional. I immediately thought of Rudolph Steiner’s paintings and of his philosophy of how color, painting, and the arts could affect society as a whole. He believed in the healing qualities of color, the nature of this color “therapy” being to stimulate different emotional responses for each individual. Most discuss the studio as “colorful” and “playful”. I, however, see it as a search for direction – an acknowledgment of our lives as foggy, beautiful, and at times confusing.
Feeling overwhelmed, and that I needed to center myself a bit and analyze the new environment, I asked my hosts to show me around. I mentioned that I was, at this point, not interested in the history of the site, its period of interpretation (we know how dense I am about this), or stories about artifacts housed within the collection. Instead, I had questions regarding what I could touch, sit on, lie on, open, and experience. My hosts were incredibly welcoming and very generous with allowing me almost free access. They gave me just enough direction and information so that I could, on my own, investigate and piece together a narrative of the man and his studio.
The Esherick Studio orientation walk-through lasted about 30 minutes. After waving goodbye to my hosts, I reassured them that I would be OK overnight. I shut the door and I headed up the DNA spiral stairs of the Wharton Esherick Studio and proceeded to slip and almost fall- so much for me being OK. I was wearing my good, sturdy, chunky, black New York City shoes, and I quickly learned that, just like Wharton Esherick himself, this studio did not like big cities either. This symbolically foreshadowed the content of my intimate conversation with this historic site – real, tactile, and potentially raw. I took my shoes off and didn’t put them back on until I left the next afternoon. Thus, my slow transformation into nudity continued.
I continually got mixed-up while moving through the studio. The spiral stair is a complex tree consisting of the main trunk with an offshoot leader. It really is just like climbing a tree. I took a few trips to bring all of my luggage up to the second-floor bedroom area. This is where I spent most of my time because it was so nicely scaled and it felt private. This bedroom loft originally simply was placed upon the rafters, there was no proper floor installed. It wasn’t until the spiral stair was created that the floor was nailed down. Before that time, the bed sort of was perched up on the rafters like a bird’s nest.
The rest of the house was open and quite fluid in its spatial relationships. Interestingly, at the very center of the house (at the landing where the spiral stair forks) is a little shelf where the phone is placed. The phone has a very long cord, that I am told allows it to be taken to most parts of the studio. The phone rested as a guardian dead smack in the center heart of the studio – I passed it more times than I can remember. The very long cord tells me that Esherick didn’t want to stop working, so when he took a call, he simply walked back to his workspace and continued carving. In an era before smartphones, this phone came to you. I often felt this way when I was living in the studio overnight – If I needed light, there was a light. If I wanted to turn off a light, I just followed the line to the object hanging from the ceiling and pull the cord. Space was complex and difficult to grasp, but the living within it was not.
After a while, I felt like I was beginning to “get” the studio space. I kept walking around, searching for the spaces, opening the doors and windows to the outside landscape, and moving furniture. Sometimes I understand a house aesthetically and emotionally. Other times I understand a house formally and intellectually. Wharton’s house was something altogether different. It was beautiful, but not pretty. It was functional but not systematic. It was inventive but was not affected. What I understood best was that every surface had a message. As I walked around barefooted, the conversations changed, the placement of my feet became much more intentional. The experience of Wharton’s work is sensuous but not sexual
My hosts left some cheese, crackers and wine as a snack and I grabbed the loot and headed to the deck to watch the evening light fall over the woods below. It was very peaceful, but it also felt a tad bit lonely. Lonely was the wrong word – it felt isolated. Lonely implies a longing for company. I don’t think Wharton lacked for company, and my intuition tells me that he much preferred the isolation of his studio to the activity of a busy house, guests or city street. After my snack, I took the dirty dishes and put them in the sink. Now, mind you, I was told that nothing in the kitchen worked so not to bother with it. The sink looked lonely, it longed for the touch of a dirty dish. I felt like it had been a long time since it felt the thrill of a messy surface. Happy to help a friend in need, I placed my dirty dishes in the sink and walked away. I felt it best to give them some time alone before the curator came rushing behind me to clean away the mess.
My hosts had also given me free reign on the collections storage areas. I happily reviewed curatorial protocol regarding clean hands and white gloves. I am a good boy, I washed my hands. I also asked to not know where everything was placed, I wanted to be surprised. As I unwrapped the acid-free tissue paper protecting the various woodblock prints, I think I heard a faint sigh of relief. Kind of the way Horton heard Whoville. The undressing of the prints and photographs is always a combination of excitement and sadness. Excitement because usually they are so beautiful and special, and sadness because everyone can’t see all the great stuff that house museum is storing within i collections. This is something I want to think about. Just like this studio is alive with the present, so too should all of these collections items. I actually left a print of an Alabama magnolia tree (shown) out all night. I wanted to see it in the morning and wake up with my “one-night stand” still present with me so that I can make breakfast for us both. I knew this might freak out my host curator, but she seemed pretty cool.
After investigating the great prints in the drop-down cabinet, I wanted to explore the outside loading dock area to the left of the studio. After releasing multiple levers and latches, I exited the big double doors from the workspace floor and walked outside. The sun was going down and the wind was picking up. The studio rests in a very wooded landscape on a steep slope. The wind caught my attention and I looked up to the trees so that I could see how hard the wind was actually blowing. As I stood there watching, another veil was lifted – I rushed back into the studio, looked closer at the drop leaf desk that housed the prints I was looking at and took close note of the bas-relief on the middle door. I then went back outside and looked up again. The material world overlapped with the creative process and the result was something entirely new, yet still tied to the idea of origin.
As I retreated up to the bedroom loft space, I turned off the lights. Each switch was tied to a small cord and at the end of the cord was a unique hand carved or created object that hung from a ceiling “O” hook. Once I understood this basic idea, it was easy to find the light switches. The functional effort of turning off the lights for the day became a collective effort – I felt like I was saying goodnight to all of these new friends as I grabbed hold of each one and turned the lights out.
I needed to get some Twisted Preservation work done, so I set up my computer and pulled out all my books and files. I have never said this outright, but I am not a historical re-enactor. I am not wearing a costume and living just like they did in ye old days. You will openly see my computer and iPhone, and on occasion, I will take a sleeping pill to get to sleep. I am interested in how these historic sites can change and modify themselves to accommodate contemporary life. I don’t just mean architecturally or spatially – I mean socially, politically, and personally. I want to understand these historic sites as active voices in my life, and these voices hold considerable meaning and value to our present day communities and issues.
As I got organized to conduct my business at hand, I needed more surface space so I grabbed a stool and brought it over to the desk and started to place around me the extra things that I needed. I am a visual learner, so I like to spread my stuff out when I am working so that I won’t forget to include something. Not only did I have the curved table top, I now had a small stool – upon which I placed a book so that I could have a level surface. My coffee cup needed a spot, so there it went. And so the evening proceeded.
I never felt the awkward cramping of a highly designed space whose function was directly tied to its shape, rather I felt like I was in some animated film. When I needed something, it just showed up and served my purpose perfectly. So much so, that it wasn’t until the next morning when I was photographing my bedroom space, that stood back and realized how seamless Wharton’s furniture and spaces adapted to my needs. Part of what looked chaotic about the studio was how many items were packed within its walls. But, just as I had been able to pull in disparate objects to form a unified functioning whole (A workspace), the studio itself was a space whose function was to provide POTENTIAL. It wasn’t designed to provide for a function. I liked that.
It would be misleading to think that an idea like this speaks only about an eccentric artist and not about a normal person, but in truth, it speaks to the need for each of us to remain flexible and aware of those things and lives around us. In a very real way, the studio building embodiment of a level of spatial empathy and concern – a kind of sympathetic materiality. In the same way, that Louis Kahn wanted to let the brick be what it wanted to be, this studio is willing to become what is needed in order for the task to be completed. This made sense to me once I realized that E was a Socialist. He lived through many of his friend’s lives being destroyed or even pushed to suicide by political attacks. I wonder what Esherick would say about our Presidential election? Or how the “Black Lives Matter” movement expresses ideas that he himself may have felt as a socialist? I was told by Wharton’s son-in-law that he would often be found in his studio working while the radio was on. Most of the time he was listening to political commentary. Although isolated, Wharton was not an isolationist. He remained very current on social issues.
The closest feeling, I have had to this “One-night stand” was, when my partner, John and I visited a self-taught artist, Joe Minter, in Birmingham, Alabama. His house rested on a dead end street. So intense was his mission, quality, and production level, that I stood stunned quietly holding onto his chain link fence, while I attempted to make sense out his world. All I can remember are the sounds of chirping birds throughout the Arcadian landscape superimposed upon the relentless, harsh chopping sounds of the cemeteries’ weed-whackers and grass mowers – both of which, when combined, produced a level of discordant chaos that seemed an appropriate background to this site’s messages. Joe’s work is centered, both literally and figuratively, on top of an unmarked African-American burial ground. His creative activity is dedicated to honoring these anonymous slaves and to providing them a voice in history. When you speak to Joe or come into contact with his work, you are shocked by the naked urgent-ness and in the sincerity of his creations. He didn’t tell you what to think, he simply existed with you. Yes, that is the bareness that I was feeling. So compelled by his work, Johnny and I returned the next day bringing our good friends Deb and Sally along with us.
On the surface, like at Joe Minter’s place, one might simply see Wharton Esherick’s Studio as a place where he created his famous furniture pieces. But if you are allowed the time and space to listen to the deeper voices of the site, you understand his life, his family’s upbringing, his woodblocks, his furniture and sculpture, and even his death – as full expressions of his creative mind. After Wharton experienced a heart attack in his loft bed, the emergency paramedics couldn’t take the stretcher up his famous spiral stair, so they asked him to walk down on his own. Appropriately, his last steps on this spiral stair were his, and his alone. Just as the stair had marked a passage of his life into a new stage, that same stair now marked his final passage.
Herein lies one of the realizations of my “One-night stand”. This spatially complex studio is the manifestation – not symbolic – but the real manifestation – of Wharton’s life. When you enter this studio, you are entering his mind. All of the items and the studio itself serve to encase the synapses of creative connections that the artistic mind is able to see. The studio at first appears disorganized, erratic and unstructured, but once you quiet yourself to become immersed within the very ether of the creative atmosphere – the veil is lifted and all of those disparate things begin to come together in a way that seems simple, direct, and yes naked. My final thought is that, what Wharton, Letty, and Miriam are telling us is, it’s not simply an issue of emotional state, and how that state directs your choices, rather it seems to me, it is how you use that emotional state to propel your collective lives forward.
Right before I left the Esherick Studio for my train, I went into the gift shop (which is fab), and I noticed two baskets of what looked like hair nets. I picked one up and realized that they were shoe booties (which I hate). My host commented that they ask everyone to put them on before entering the house. I told her that the only way I could maneuver through the house was barefoot – otherwise, I felt like I had no way of feeling the subtle changes in the floor surface traction. She agreed and expressed her dismay that she has to use them, but she has to protect the floors.
Here’s an idea, have you ever thought about letting visitors walk through naked? I mean, barefoot?
- I would like to thank my new friends at the Wharton Esherick Museum allowing me the opportunity to have & share this experience: Julie Gannaway, Laura Hemmer, Paul Savidge, Paul Eisenhauer, and Bob Basom.
- Thank you to Laura Orthwein for guidance on the content of this post. As always, I listen to your clear-headed suggestions.
- A belated thank you to John Yeagley, for locating and dragging me to see & meet the amazing Joe Minter in Birmingham, Alabama.
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