readers respond | wyeth & peterson

4 04 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 178 | April 4, 2009


Wyeth & Peterson, THE LOCAL ARTIST


Editor’s Note: One of the immediate pleasures in writing to various websites is the work itself. Some of it comes easy. But most of it requires considerable time, thought, reading, research…and finally the act of putting it all together so that it will mean something, register in the hearts and minds of readers. Which is why the writer remains engaged at all in this habit.

Given our present age of communications (the screen you are reading from as I write) some call what I am momentarily caught in the act of doing, “blogging”–a term I intensely dislike. I call it good, old fashioned writing. I have essayed this topic before, ( . And I’m sure I haven’t written the last word on the subject.

Those about to test the blogging waters for the first time sometimes ask for tips. I have none. You get into it because you believe you have something to say that matters. Given the shortage of real readers these days, given the publishing predicament for those who know in their bones they are writers who must get their words out—there are not a hell of a lot of options left to practice the trade, pursue the art. And none of this, whatever you want to call it, however you my feel about it, in any way guarantees readership.

The payback for all this (writers and ‘bloggers’) remains an indeterminate factor. Readers’ response. Reaction. (Hello, out there!) I tell you…You tell me.

The disappointments are plenty. You may end up hating what you “blogged” and put out there without thinking through. You may easily lose hours, days, weeks, putting in (up, on the screen) what you consider your very best–and hear nary one damn word from anybody. (Why the hell am I doing this?) Or you may get the most incredible response from a friend, a total stranger, readers in distant parts of the world.

Now, that’s exciting. (For me.) To be ‘in’ all those countries.

There is absolutely no accounting for, no telling how many readers may have seriously taken your words/ideas to heart—but just plain can’t, won’t. don’t respond, for reasons entirely…well, for the same reasons (many of them legitimate) you can’t, won’t, don’t respond when someone rings your bell.

I’ll leave it at that. Except to share some responses to a piece recently put together after reading about the death of American artist, Andrew Wyeth…then remembering my friend, ‘local’ artist, Charles (Chick) Peterson who lives just a few miles from me…juxtaposing these two artists, the idea of ‘local’ artist…my own fascination with ‘the ordinary’—which I “read” in the images of both these painters… and, and…well, I’m just pleased and thankful for these ‘early returns’/responses from a variety of folks I know from a little to nothing about except: three of them are writers (novelist, poet, essayist, newspaper writer—Midwest, Northwest coast); one a photographer (Florida/the Midwest); one a cantor (East Coast); and one a potter/poet, the Southwest. Such a thoughtful gathering of minds and hearts.

This makes it all worthwhile. –Norbert Blei

Thanks for this, Norb. Peterson is a marvelous artist! I recall your fine piece on him in one of the books?

Best, Aryeh

appreciate this, Norb … damn, the format in which you present things is so utterly rich…jb . [kudos to Monsieur K.]

Norb –

A wonderful piece–on Peterson & Wyeth, on familiar things as medicine, on the bleigeist.



Interesting thoughts on art. I would be interested in the viewpoint of your good friend Emmett Johns on the relative importance and relationship between traditional representational art and contemporary abstract art. He is, in my estimation, equally facile at both.

My personal view is that they are not mutually exclusive, nor does the recognition of quality in one diminish the validity of the other. As usual, thanks for a piece that inspires consideration.


Hi Norb,

I really enjoyed your Wyeth and Peterson story. They are two of my favorite artists. I’ve like Wyeth for years. I like so many of his paintings, but my favorite painting is “Distant Thunder.” Not sure what it is about the painting that makes it stand out more than others. I think it’s the peacefulness of the woman lying in the grass with the pine trees nearby and her dog also resting near her. I can remember times when I was picking berries and how peaceful it was to lie down in the grass out in the middle of nature, far from artificial sounds. I can just hear the sound of that distant thunder!

I have a couple books of his paintings, plus the Helga book, and also the books of Peterson’s paintings. We always have at least one of his paintings on our walls.

Hope all goes well on your side of the fence. Hope to get up your way again sometime before or after the majority of tourists descend on you.


Hi Norb-This one got my motor running.

“What we yearn for are those values that refute our materialism…simple pleasures, country people, solitude, beauty of the commonplace, nature serene…the quietude of the country…Something to comfort our spiritual blight.”

It is pretty hard to separate out the material from life which is both material and immaterial. I keep thinking the material stuff is there to remind us of the things we can’t touch even though we can feel them. Spiritual blight and too much stuff. But, I do not think of country people, solitude, nature as simple. Or maybe it is simple and I don’t know how to be.

Pictographs could communicate such urgencies before the written word evolved; a penetration of the spirit world through a direct appeal to our subconscious, art being more like music than literature (which involves the reading and thinking ).

I think that letters, words, literature, poems can certainly be as direct an appeal to our subconscious as can art. Especially well chosen words. I sometimes think/feel that there are circumstances when one word can be worth a thousand pictures. The wonderful thing about pictographs and petroglyphs is that, for the most part, we cannot translate directly what the artist may have meant. We create our own meanings, whether its pictures, music or words. We can’t help it. We often assume that the ancients who created the petroglyphs were using a symbol set that their contemporaries understood. But we don’t really know if that is so. If we agree exactly with the artist or the author, and they confirm that is exactly what was meant, the wondrous miracle of cross-referenced experiences and the same understandings has occurred.

the iconic Christina’s World is an amazing portrait of both a woman and a place. When I first saw the painting, I remember thinking of the loneliness of farm landscapes in New England, West Virginia and the Midwest, anywhere really outside the population centers, anywhere that you feel that you are the only person, literally and figuratively. And I thought that the house, a supposed place of nurturing, of family and fellowship, was so far away, symbolically unreachable from the woman’s emotional point of view. I thought that the woman’s perception of her alone-ness had felled her. When I later read about Christina Olson and her physical disability, her crawling across the fields, the painting changed for me and became a symbol of perseverance rather than desolation. The words, the reading and thinking part, changed my mind, appealed to my subconciousness about this life.

Guernica and Goya and Rothko: The abstractions of Guernica and Goya are close enough to our nightmares of war and senseless destruction to translate immediately. Rothko is just as facile at bringing me quickly to a similar sort of fugue state where I’m walking and talking on the outside but grieving about death in my heart. Then, you go back to Lascaux Cave and the drawings: marvelous running horses and oxen and mammoths and then those strange untranslatable abstract shields that make me think of Rothko’s paintings. What? Some say they are clan shields. Are Rothko’s painting not clan shields of a sort? Shadows on the cave wall? Abstract art here in the cave of the ancients too? And they supposedly did all this in the dark? Or have the flashlights disintegrated?

Representational art expressing spiritual aspiration. A sort of contradiction on the surface but then Charles Peterson paints then and now, the quick and the dead, even the ghosts of sounds and music. We are reminded of our past times, past people and places forever changed. Yes, representational art can make it easier to get there. Your thinking is guided carefully to the place of understanding. Words can get you there too. Abstract art can get you there. But you have to admit that it is interesting that we use all these visual surface clues to get us to the invisible, the non corporeal, the subconscious. How did we end up with so many surfaces? Why are we so interested in the one we can’t see at all?

Andy Warhol’s soup cans: So is the medium the message; or how far from reality can you go? Why is it we can trust, feel a level of comfort with the realists, the Wyeths, Charles Peterson, and even the abstractionists, Picasso and Rothko? They paint lifetimes and places we can recognize. On the other hand, Warhol shows you your trained reactions to things out of context. Would the Campbell’s soup can be OK if it was a ghost on a table in an old abandoned Midwestern farmhouse with the ephemeral family smiling, slurping up warm soup next to the long gone woodstove on a cold winter’s day? What if Warhol takes the screaming woman from Guernica and puts her on a soup can and labels it WAR? What if Wyeth paints the windows in the bedroom to match Rothko’s canvases. What if the Dadists write poems by cutting the words out of the newspaper, putting them in a paper bag, shaking them up, throwing them out, and recording the order as poetry? What if it takes a profoundly deaf Beethoven four years to write Missa Solemnis? Me, I’d rather eat the soup, look at the paintings and read the newspaper. But I have to keep making art and writing words.

It takes a consummate artist to bring us into the picture. The crux of the matter-not many of us actually enjoy alienation. Composition, where objects are placed, in or out of context, gives us balance, draws us in or throws us out-whichever the artist might want if good enough. We like the artists that include our lives in our perception of their works.

“They TALK a good painting.” I can remember reaching the point with my writing and my writing education, where I became disgusted with words. Writing became just a snobbish erudite manipulation with no truth in it. I stopped writing and began to make art. I can remember reaching the point with the pots that I decided there were enough objects taking up space in the world and went back to words as more ecologically and materialistically sound. Then I saw that the words take up invisible space in the mind that can become just as cluttered as the attic in that old farmhouse we love to look at with the ghosts paging through the old books in the abandoned library.

Ordinary life: I bought a book of Charles Peterson’s paintings a while back to give to an old friend because we had spent good times in Door County long ago and then after some 30 years had become ghosts in one another’s lives. There is a refrain that runs through Peterson’s paintings and Wyeth’s paintings and Francis Mays’ poems and your books, Norb, that keeps us turning into ourselves. Our ordinary lives-that is all we have and it’s grande. We like to be reminded of this.

“Art or illustration?” This ongoing argument is much like the one for potters, ie is it art or is it craft? The NCECA recently asked the NM Potters and Clay Artists to donate $1,000 to their proposed $100,000 conference in Santa Fe next fall for a symposium “Criticism on Contemporary Ceramics.” to address this problem again. They want to raise the ceramic arts to be the equal of the fine arts like painting. I’ll bet they use a lot of words on this one. We can’t give them $1000 but will probably have a reception and serve them some green chile or something.

Thanks for this piece. I’ve taken a long lunch break from working on a big old pot, played with visions and words, and now I’m ready to go back to moving the clay around with my fingers. I don’t know where art comes from but I’m glad it is here. But you know that.-Kris



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