A Piece of the World: Wyeth’s Christina’s World – Explained

9780870708312_p0_v1_s192x300Although Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the woman crawling through the field to a house in the distance has long evoked a sense of mystery, Christina Baker Kline attempts to explain the life of Christina Olson in her novel – A Piece of the World.  The woman crawling through the grass in the famous painting “Christina’s World” was Andrew Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine.   In discussing this work, Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless…she was limited physically but by no means spiritually.”  The image suggests a story, and Kline fills in the unknown details of Christina’s insular life, and her role as muse to a great artist.

Although Christina suffered from a progressive crippling disease, she refused treatment or leg braces, crawling along the ground to get from place to place, amazingly without self-pity or the pity of most who knew her well.  Kline fills in the background of her childhood and creates an ill-fated romance doomed by her disability and her poverty before meeting Andrew Wyeth in her forties.   Living without electricity or indoor plumbing, and kept from school by her father to work the farm, Christina continued in the dilapidated house that eventually became Wyeth’s studio.

Although Christina Olson is the focus of the story, the painter, Andrew Wyeth comes to life just as convincingly.  Kline connects the painter to his subject by comparing their childhoods  and their outlook, and offers to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Wyeth sees beyond the rundown house and the austere restricted lives of its tenants, Christina and her brother, and produces a portrait of longing and determination not unlike his own.

At times the narrative can be as slow as the lives of the characters, perhaps reflecting the stillness of the Maine landscape, and I found myself skipping over some of the protracted dialogue.   Almost like staring at the painting, reading the novel requires a patient eye to reveal more than what is obvious.

Kline summarized her research in her “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, and it would be wise to read both her notes and her Acknowledgments first before the novel.  Her extensive reading on the lives of both the Wyeth family and Christina Olson provides a number of references worth noting, and her short summary adds meaning to how she embellished their lives in her fiction.  Her description of her own young life living with her parents in a thirteenth century Cambridge cottage without central heating and on an abandoned Tennessee farm, connects her to her subject.  But, the best part is the color print of Wyeth’s painting on the last page.   Start from the back of the book and then begin Kline’s story.

Japanese Art – on display and in books

Peter Schjeldahl’s New Yorker essay on the Guggenheim display of Japanese artist On Kawara – A Painting A Day – changed my perspective on conceptual art.  Staring at a piece of white canvas prominently on display in an art gallery always brings to mind one of my favorite plays, “Art,” with Alan Alda on stage justifying the exorbitant cost of his blank canvas to his skeptical friends.  If modern art is “all in the head,” Kawara’s Date Paintings fill that category.

Kawara_On_Oct_31_1978 The Guggenheim displays many of Kawara’s three thousand acrylic paintings, featuring only the dates on which they were made: the month, day, and year inscribed in white on layered backgrounds of red, blue, or dark gray.  In his obituary, the New York Times noted the artist, who died recently at 81 years old, found elegance in every day. Although some dates may remind the viewer of a war, an explosion, a death, a birth – other dates remain personal and dependent on the individual viewing.

Schjeldahl may not like Kawara’s work, but he admires it:

“…I like art works to be unique, and I want a sense that someone inhabits them. At the core of Kawara’s multitudinous production, there’s a wintry vacancy; the content is as uniform as death. But there is a term for the effect that it generates…the sublime. Kawara’s art evokes a cosmic perspective, by which his own life and, by extension, the lives of us all register as a negligible spark in time… Some art shows fill your spirit. This one empties you. You won’t forget it.”

I’d like to see Kawara’s art and decide for myself.  The artist, who used his mah-jongg winnings to support his family and his art, and who destroyed any work he could not finish by the end of a day, fascinates me.

9780062100689_p0_v1_s260x420Coincidentally, one of my book clubs chose Katherine Govier’s The Printmaker’s Daughter, a fictionalized tale of the nineteenth century Japanese artist – Hokusai – noted for “transcending time and space” in his iconic depiction of “The Great Wave.”

katsushika-hokusai-the-great-wave-at-kanagawa-from-36-views-of-mount-fuji-c-1829Hokusai preferred to work in paint, yet the Japanese woodcuttings that converted his art to prints made him famous. Govier’s book trudges along slowly, almost seeming to be a translation in its halting language, but her impeccable research reveals the possibility that Oei, Hokusai’s daughter, may have created many of his paintings – without credit. Both father and daughter were artists, and the mystery has never been solved.

Although I have just started reading this historical novel, I can already detect similarities in the Japanese artists – a century apart.  Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post said of Hokusai – “{he} explodes our most cherished clichés about how Japanese culture worships tradition and is bound by it…”  The same could be said of Kawara.

Have you been to the Guggenheim or the Sackler to see any of their work?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

“You are hosting a dinner party for three writers?  Who’s on the invite list?”

When Kristin Cashore, author of young adult novels, was asked this question in the New York Times book review interview By the Book,  she answered:

“Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Hildegard von Bingen…hopefully one of them can cook and wouldn’t mind coming early to take care of that.”

When reluctantly participating in a get-to-know-you exercise and asked for one author, my response – Steve Martin – was met with disdain (they were all academics.)  Having dinner with the prolific wild and crazy guy who’s written novels (Shop Girl), plays (Picasso at the Lapin Agile), can talk about art (has a private collection), and can play a mean banjo – not to mention his sense of humor – has the potential for good dinner conversation.  Calvin Trillin could add a little spice, and if I were to add one more, of course, Julia Child (to cook).

Do you have authors you would like to meet?  maybe share a meal?

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The Lace Makers of Glenmara

Travel to Ireland, have a little romance, learn about the countryside and the women in Heather Barbieri’s light novel – The Lace Makers of Glenmara.  When one of my fellow writers recommended Barbieri’s latest book – Cottage at Glass Beach – I searched for the book in my library system but it wasn’t there; instead I found this lovely distraction.

The story is an easy tale of loss and rebirth.  Kate, the heroine, changes the lives of everyone in the village – as well as her own, but probably the best comic relief comes from the Catholic priest who  threatens damnation to the ladies who are making the lacy lingerie.  A fast fun read.

A bonus is the appendix with Barbieri’s list of her favorite books.  Some I plan to explore:

  • Light Years by James Salter
  • The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
  • The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susan Clarke

Quilting 101

I’m not a fan of self-published books, but found one that I will probably read several times – Sue Rasmussen’s “Quilting101.” Sue is an award winning, talented quilter with a graduate degree in Textile Sciences from UC Davis who has managed to distill useful information about needles, threads, batting, and fabric terminology into a readable and concise manual. If you’ve been quilting for a while, you’ll already know these basics, but if you are new to the craft, 101 is a handy reference.

Quilts have become art, and I am in awe of what can become of scraps of material. Here are some I am surrounded with this week:

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