Innocence or experience? The man who refused to choose

Wharton Esherick: American original

7 minute read
Esherick's Chester County studio: Inspired by cattle.
Esherick's Chester County studio: Inspired by cattle.
What's most striking about Wharton Esherick (1887-1970), the dean of American craftsman, is the dichotomous existence he led, and how it shaped his work and legacy. In part, Esherick was a woodsman— literally. But he was also an artist (his chosen classification), and his closest friends were among the most astute American literary masters of their era.

In particular, the lives of Esherick, Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson were intertwined between 1920 and the early 1940s like a trio of knots in the same chunk of wood. After Esherick began carving decorative frames for his art in 1920, it was Anderson who first told him that his wood frames were far more interesting than his paintings.

Esherick was as comfortable around the carving tools in his rustic studio (which survives today as a museum in Paoli) as he was around dance, drama (especially at the Hedgerow Theater near Media), design and philosophy. His one-of-a-kind furniture was every bit the sculpture his sculptures were.

Esherick believed that each of the arts fed one another. In addition to Dreiser and Anderson, his list of artist and publishing friends is as vast as the cultural milieu in which they worked and played. United, they provided an alchemy of rich, unparalleled reward that contributed mightily to sculpting an American face on Modernism.

Academy dropout

The individualistic pattern of Esherick's career was set in 1910, when he dropped out of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts six weeks short of his degree because he preferred to wield an axe; according to Paul Eisenhauer, current curator at the Esherick Museum, "Wharton Esherick left to see what kind of artist he could become."

But his hilltop rural hideaway couldn't erase his refined and scholarly appearance, or his upbringing in a prominent West Philadelphia family. In Esherick's 1919 Impressionistic self-portrait, a museum piece and the first catalogued item in the Penn exhibit, he's dressed in his Academy uniform. He appears aristocratic, doctor-like— sans the broad axe.

Like too many Philadelphia artists, Esherick's work has waited— 40 years after his death— to finally reap a deserving whirlwind year. The current University of Pennsylvania show, "Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern," which is split between two campus sites, opened in the fall as Mansfield "Bob" Bascom, Esherick's son-in-law, was celebrating the publication of Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind (Abrams, 276 pages, $80). Earlier in 2010, Paul Eisenhauer published Wharton Esherick Studio & Collection (Schiffer Publishing, 96 pages, $19.99).

The Esherick Museum, which is offering special tours through January and mid-February (months it normally closes due to weather), offered a print show this past March in Phoenixville in conjunction with Philagrafika 2010, the international festival of print arts in Philadelphia.

In Esherick's honor, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has also arranged a continuing installation of several examples of Esherick's furniture from its collection of American studio craft. These are exhibited in its collections of American art, and include Esherick's fireplace mantle and doorway from the Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok House library, which were part of his massive sculptural interior design project in Gulph Mills between 1936 and 1938.

Dreiser's walking stick

Penn's Van Pelt-Dietrich Library already owns Dreiser's ephemera. In its current shows these have been coupled with many of Anderson's papers on loan to celebrate the relationship among the three men. The shows include Esherick's smaller whimsical, painted folk art like Head of Anderson (1934), for which Esherick used finished nails to recreate a beard, and more formal carvings like Walking Stick for Theodore Dreiser (1925) and Head of Dreiser (1927) in mahogany.

Through its plentiful use of Esherick's woodcuts, precious family photos, and several of his artworks in oil and watercolor, the library installation covers the influential people and organizations in Esherick's life during the 1920s and '30s.

There were the Adirondack dance camps of Ruth Doing and Gail Gardner, where Esherick made some of his first furniture in a simple, almost campy and primitive arts-and-crafts style. He'd eventually combine his Modernist aesthetic with traditional simplicity and functionality.

In exchange for his daughter Ruth's acting school tuition at the Hedgerow, Esherick made a series of chairs with hickory hammer handles he'd bought in barrel lots at auction. At the Hedgerow, where Ruth and her sister Mary both performed, he also designed stage sets and staircases and exhibited his works.

Quest for utopia

Esherick also took exploratory trips to the utopian and socialistic community in Fairhope, Ala., which was also the home of Marietta Johnson's School for Organic Education, which Esherick's children attended. Johnson gave Esherick his first carving tools. Ever open-minded, albeit covertly, Esherick also taught art at a Negro school there.

In Penn's Kroiz Gallery, the exhibit traces Esherick's evolution into his famous furniture. His sculptures were both cubist and free-form, but so was his furniture and interior design.

For Helene Fischer, owner of Schutte Koerting Co. in Philadelphia, Esherick made a Victrola cabinet, a prismatic corner desk and eventually an entire guest room suite. For his photographer friend Marjorie Content, a confidant of Georgia O'Keeffe's, Esherick made a corner chest of drawers that when closed also served as the headboard for a day bed.

The Penn exhibit concludes in 1940 with work that was part of the Pennsylvania Hill House exhibit at the 1940 World's Fair in New York. It's an appropriate end point. By the late 1930s, Esherick had separated from his wife; then Anderson died in 1941 and Dreiser followed in 1945.

Personal message

Esherick's blending of rustic-primitive with academic-artsy seems archaic today, when mixing the two mediums is frowned upon —though it's the way I've tried to live my adult life. For that reason alone, the Penn shows struck a responsive chord with me. "I wish I would have been alive back then," I remarked to a friend. "I would have fit in better."

The unique relationship Esherick shared with Dreiser and Anderson also reminds me that, a half-century earlier, my own Bucks County farmhouse was the setting for a similar friendship between the knighted Shakespearean actor Charles Albert Fetcher and Charles Dickens.

Today, sadly, few artists have the time or energy to mix the two sides of man (a sort-of merger of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience). Esherick was a doer and a rugged individualist, but somehow a Modernist, too. His loft bedroom library in his studio-museum is rich in diversity, cultures and perspectives. Contrary to some stereotypical accounts, Esherick was no recluse or hermit. On the contrary, he often traveled for cultural and intellectual stimulation.

Lesson from cows

And his culled exposures prove it. Above a counterweight-operated trap door to his bedroom, there's Esherick's own hand-carved raised bed, which Eisenhauer believes was inspired by Anderson's introduction to Winesburg, Ohio. Ever practical, it includes two banks of aesthetic, shallow drawers for clothes.

Visitors to Esherick's studio-barn (and now museum) in Chester County are awestruck by the odd, asymmetrical lines of the buildings. Nothing is square or plum. Every piece of clapboard siding has a different width, as if in nature.

The barn walls are tapered ever so slightly as they rise like a tree trunk. You think: Why do support columns that level the studio against the slope start round, then flatten to create a curved or prismatic side? Bascom explains that the inspiration came from watching cattle scratch their backsides on trees or barn piers: "He just looked at his surroundings, at nature."

Another Esherick contemporary, the poet Robert Frost, when confronted with two roads diverging in a wood, famously opted to take the one less traveled. Esherick opted for both paths. He was talented enough to traverse both—and it's what made all the difference in his life and now his legacy.

What, When, Where

“Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern.†Through February 13, 2011 at Kamin Gallery, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, 3420 Walnut St.; and Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives, Fisher Fine Arts Library, 220 South 34th St. (215) 746-5828 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation