Thursday, January 22, 2009

Claiming Andrew Wyeth

Painter Andrew Wyeth died in his sleep on Friday, in a home less than a mile from the one in which he was born. He was, by far, the most famous painter in the Brandywine Valley.

Of course, several locales claim Andrew Wyeth as a native son. He was born and died in Chadds Ford, which is in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County. But Chester County (where I live) also claims him, as does the state of Delaware: Chadds Ford is just a few miles from both. The Brandywine River flows through all of these. In fact, Wyeth's home town is named after John Chads' ford, which crossed the Brandywine River itself. Finally, Wyeth had a summer home in Maine (where he painted his iconic Christina’s World, above left). So Maine gets to claim Andy Wyeth as well.

Back when I was in college, I tried my best to become an artist. I spent countless hours sketching buildings and landscapes throughout the Brandywine Valley. Sometimes I drew right outside the Brandywine River Museum, as if the talent of three generations of Wyeths* would rub off on me.

But I didn’t have the talent. Now, I’m glad I abandoned drawing in favor of writing. I can still type despite the tendonitis in my hands. But I couldn’t sketch for hours, not anymore.

Despite the millions Andrew Wyeth earned (see Otherworld, above right, an unusual painting he made of the interior of his private jet), he was just pain Andy to his neighbors. He liked to eat at two inexpensive local places: Hank’s Place and Jimmy Johns’ Pipin’ Hot Sandwiches (not to be confused with the Jimmy Johns' Gourmet Sandwiches chain). I was never particularly impressed by Hank’s, but I loved Jimmy Johns’. I used to dream of their hot dogs when I lived out of state. (Apparently, so do others; Jimmy Johns’ displays photos of soldiers in Iraq wearing Jimmy Johns’ tee-shirts.)

Tourists sometimes stopped by Hank’s Place, hoping to spot the publicity-shy painter. He would pretend he was just another diner, telling tourists that “Andy was here, but he left…you just missed him.” He was popular enough with the staff and the regulars that no one gave him up. Now that’s popularity – when white folks won’t snitch on you!

* The collection of the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford includes works by Andrew Wyeth, his father N.C. Wyeth, and his son James Wyeth.

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