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


wyeth & peterson | the local artist

1 04 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 177 | April 1, 2009


Wyeth & Peterson

some thoughts on the painter and his setting, in memory of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)—Maine & Pennsylvania, in praise of Charles Peterson—Door County, Wisconsin

by Norbert Blei

“I don’t really have studios. I wander around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, anyplace I find that invites me.”—Andrew Wyeth

“The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.”
Charles Peterson

Reading the obituary of Andrew Wyeth one night some weeks ago, remembering the first painting of his I had ever seen–the iconic Christina’s World; recalling all the attention and criticism he received in his years, from “illustrator or artist?” to controversy surrounding the nude “Helga pictures”; considering all a single American artist contributed to the greater good in one lifetime, his eyes focused most keenly on home, the local, the ordinary, I was both saddened over his loss yet grateful how he sharpened my own perspectives of a similar rural setting, pleased and satisfied to be part of a landscape with a quiet, celebrated, ‘local artist’ of our own, Charles Peterson, who daily goes about his work of paint, brush, pencil and pen, putting down images on paper close to prayer.

I am reminded of something Wyeth once said: “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.”

What do we lose, as a country, individually, within ourselves, our ‘place-of-being’ when we lose an Andrew Wyeth? I ask my friend, Charles (Chick) Peterson.

“Of course, the role of the artist evolved with the Paleolithic Age when it was recognized that some kind of “outside help” was needed in seeking food and shelter. 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 reading and thinking ).

“After the Armory Show of 1911, the trend toward increased abstraction began to take  over 20th Century art, and that direct appeal of representational art began to lose dominance. Increasingly mystified viewers came to rely on interpretation by those whose critical judgment was presumed to offer superior understanding of the artist’s intention. The artist no longer spoke directly to our inner beings. Picasso’s “Guernica”, hailed as the major anti-war statement of 20th Century art, doesn’t hold a candle to Goya’s “Disasters of War” as a statement conveyed by the art itself, not what some oligarchic critic tells us what we should be seeing in it. And later, of course, works like Rothko’s panels communicate nothing beyond simplistic color harmony, one of the most elemental ingredients in anyone’s art. Generally, the ordinary person loses confidence in his own reactions to art and turns to aesthetes for guidance in an experience he could have ‘felt’ for himself in the stone age.

“I like to think that direct appeal still obtains. I know from reactions to my own work that it reminds viewers of their own experiences in life, really completing the process I began as a kind of ‘conversation’ between us. They bring their own life experience to the viewing process, which then reminds them of aspects of ordinary life we all share. Could I suggest it becomes a kind of humane sharing of life by direct, instinctive means?

“The struggle of the Western world to illustrate its spiritual aspirations reached a peak in the Greek Golden Age, lost its way during the Dark Ages and then gradually was rediscovered during the Renaissance, a representational art which expressed through visual means not only spiritual aspiration but all other aspects of our existence as well.

“It seems to me Wyeth, an exponent of that representational tradition needs no clarification. He ‘speaks’ powerfully to our inner beings. He does so through his utter devotion to the simple life he grew up in, giving us characteristic genre themes carried out with consummate skill. His passing is a significant loss because he was such a famous exponent of that tradition, rivaling in the popular mind the fame of our leading abstractionists and maintaining thereby the legitimacy of his mode. ‘Our mode’, really, there being thousands of first rate painters out there who are simply ignored by a market ruled by an oligarchy of galleries, museums and art criticism.

“I think we lose as a culture when Wyeth’s influence wanes. Especially now with our suffering economy, we need an appreciation of actual life with all its trials but also its real beauties, the kind of expression we see in “Christina’s World.” Warhol’s soup cans won’t help.”

There’s something immensely satisfying about ‘being in place,’ in both the realistic and metaphorical sense. Knowing where everything is. Where one can expect to find it, though time diminishes everything. There’s something equally satisfying when there is an artist in the midst of it all, with the skill, knowledge and integrity to celebrate and enhance life, nature, and the history that surrounds us.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to drive through the rural roads of this county in all seasons, find comfort in woods and water, fields, pastures, animals, old farmhouses, country churches, villages, stores, stone fences, orchards, old farm machinery, people…’objects placed upon the landscape”…and see everything twice: through my eyes in a fleeting moment, and the memory of a Charles Peterson’s painting where everything I feel is there–or was once here. It takes a consummate artist to ‘bring us into the picture’.

Placing objects on the land… Peterson considers the significance of this.

“Fundamentally, placing objects is the most basic step in composing, the effort to achieve rhythm, balance and emphasis. Composition is the essence of any work whether representational or completely abstract, whether it be music or writing or the visual arts, composition is what makes it memorable.

“On the other hand, placement has limitless expressive possibilities beyond formal composition; moving objects closer or further away, larger or smaller, or into surprising locations carries messages to our instincts which powerfully influence interpretation. To use a famous example, Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” places the awkwardly handicapped Christina at a great distance and downhill from the house she aspires to reach, emphasizing the difficulty of her situation. The house, a style familiarly seen in the comfortable old sections of cities, says something to our inner beings about her isolation when we see it standing in disrepair, utterly alone on its hilltop. Placement, far beyond its basic compositional function, really carries the message in this painting.

“As the 20th Century art world moved toward abstract composition, its leading exponents have eliminated inconsequential subject matter and produced ‘pure’ art which speaks directly to our souls. I think pure abstraction can certainly speak, stir, even thrill the soul. But abstract order is basic to all art, including that which can involve the mind as well. Wyeth’s powerful abstraction amplifies his painstaking descriptions of subject matter. This is basic in all effective works of art, like Vermeer’s women seen in quiet contemplative activities with which his exquisite compositions are in perfect harmony.

“I recently ‘placed’ an abandoned buggy on the edge of a scrub woods with snow covered evergreens actually growing through it spokes. Quite aside from forming a reasonably balanced composition, the placement ‘spoke’ to viewers, many of whom said they felt at peace, at ease with the tired old wagon, experiencing perhaps a kind of metaphor for their own aging .

“Art or Illustration? The question has slowly become interesting to our 20th Century minds, increasingly attuned the advance of abstraction. As it exponents concentrated on “pure” form, their audience rejected the traditional skills of representation as ‘unnecessary,’ and felt that those who continued to work in a realistic vein were merely ‘illustrators’, as though excellence of composition was possible only in the abstract. I don’t suppose the questions ever came up before our time; did the Medici accuse Michelangelo of being an illustrator when the saw his ceiling? Or Botticelli’s “Birth Of Venus”? Or Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”? Or Degas’ “Ballet Dancers”? The bulk of art of the Western world has been concerned with people doing something.

“Art or illustration? Now, to be fair, a lot of representational art is superficial, relying on some literary explanation to be understood. We have been inundated with romantically charged ‘illustration’ through our flourishing publishing industry for some 150 years now, and yet much of that has been first rate art; i.e. Homer’s illustrations of the Spanish American War, or N.C.Wyeth’s work, and hundreds of others.

“When Wyeth says he was an ‘abstract painter’, I think he was talking about the vital necessity, the overriding importance of composition , which is fundamental to any effective art (and the summary of abstraction). But his art certainly speaks to our hearts directly without any literary explanation.”

An added, personal pleasure of ‘local identity’ is knowing Chick Peterson as a friend. Someone I can call, write. see. Someone who is always there, in place (village, home, studio) when I need to talk, share ideas (art and politics) and, if I’m lucky, have him regale me with a story only he can tell, inevitably filling his serene, studio atmosphere with raucous laughter.

Wyeth too, was ‘of a place.’ He rarely left Pennsylvania except for Maine in the summers. “You know,” Wyeth said, “after you travel you’re never the same—you get more erudite, you get more knowledge. I might lose something very important to my work—maybe innocence.”

‘Innocence’ returns my thoughts to childhood–Wyeth /Peterson. I recall Chick having mentioned in the past how Andrew’s father, the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, played a role in Chick’s development.

“As a kid I apparently was unusually interested in drawing, which I did constantly, even while brothers and neighborhood kids were playing baseball across the street. I do remember being especially excited by N. C. Wyeth’s wonderful illustrations for books like “Robinson Crusoe”, which our mother was reading to us boys evenings after our homework was done. I had a natural interest in cowboys and Indians, horses and boats, etc. and his stuff was enchanting for me.

“His son Andrew was apparently also ‘turned on’ by N. C.’s work, and one can only wonder at the impact of life at home with a successful, practicing artist. A rather sickly child, Andrew never got beyond the lower grades in school, but took up painting under the disciplined instruction of his father. Currently rare, such an early concentration in one’s field, produced a remarkable mastery of traditional technique.

“I remember Andrew Wyeth’s work was becoming known while I was studying at the American Academy in Chicago after WW II , but I didn’t encounter an original of his until I went to a Carnegie International with some fellow MFA students from Ohio U in 1954. This was one of his Maine barn scenes which deeply impressed me with his mastery of traditional representational technique and I took encouragement from that (at a time when my chief painting instructor at OU was trying to sidetrack me into abstraction, an older man who had gone through the same training as I at the American Academy and who claimed empathy with me facing the new directions of art). Wyeth’s exhaustive attention to visual truth communicated a sense of the importance of ordinary life, of its difficulties but also its beauties. And I think his dedication helped shape my own goals and choices thereafter. It gave me a sense that sharing the experiences of life was a valid effort. I think he gave me courage to paint “what I see, as I see it.” As Manet said, “If it succeeds, it is art. If it fails, start again. All the rest is trash.”

“Wyeth lived in quiet surroundings and painted the life around him. I am reminded of Cezanne who, when urged to move to Paris and join that exciting world of painters, said dismissively, “They TALK a good painting.” After a career as professor and department head, I felt encouraged by such examples to live in this very pleasant place and devote my life to painting “what I see.” I am one of thousands who keep an essentially traditional approach to what interests them. The eternal quest for effective composition while telling the truth about ordinary life is endlessly challenging for me, and I pray that I can follow Wyeth’s example of dedication until I reach my own end.

“Being human, I dream of achieving perfection, but being human (and not Vermeer) I know it will never happen. I take inspiration from painters like Wyeth (who came closer than most of us ever can ) and who dedicated his life to the quest and, in the process, shared with us his insights into the magnificent reality or ordinary life.”