What Would N.C. Wyeth Do?

The Wyeth painting dynasty is of one of my great pleasures. Many years ago I had the chance to work on the touring exhibition ‘An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art.’ I am on my way to New York City for a meeting, and decided to stop in Chad’s Ford for a treat.  Many people can recall one of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic paintings with their, in Andrew Wyeth’s words, ‘exciting and emotional’ subjects. Jamie Wyeth’s work is my personal favorite.  There is something incredibly compelling about N.C. Wyeth’s work and its relationship to storytelling that has always fascinated me.  N.C. Wyeth said he knew that his illustrations, first produced as large paintings, had to be understood quickly, and have an effect upon the reader of the story.

I wonder if Wyeth enjoyed reading stories. It must have been part of his home life as his mother was part of Thoreau’s and Longfellow’s set. For me his genius was sifting through all the marvelous bits of a book and seizing on particular points. He was very particular about what aspects of a text composed the images he produced to enhance the reading experience. Wyeth had to gather, sort, and evaluate details about each text. He said the scene he choose to paint for illustrations in texts like ‘Last of the Mohicans’ or ‘Treasure Island’ was most often not the most famous scene in the book. For example, instead of painting a climactic battle scene he painted how characters were emotionally affected by the event. Portraying how characters are affected also most effectively enhances the readers’ experience. Heightened emotion in the illustration produces the greatest emotional effect upon the reader.

Wyeth’s process is a lot like what I do as a student. Studying involves gathering, sorting, and evaluating details about each text. This material is then used selectively to make my point about how the authors’ technique affects the reader. Sometimes it feels easy and sometimes it is more difficult. Especially when texts are challenging and I am reading them because they really cannot be excluded. Right now my reading list is Henry Fielding and Jonathan Swift. Fielding is accessible and fun while Swift is a challenge. I do need a way to manage his texts. Have you ever had to read something you do not really enjoy? Our course study guides often suggest some creative organization and analysis tools. It inspired me to find a way to engage with Mr. Swift’s work.

While Swift is not my favorite author to read  I find his work powerfully affecting. What a dilemma. I decided to try to make studying Swift more enjoyable and productive by ‘illustrating’ the most significant points about ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’  Managing information in a way that I do not normally use to communicate is refreshing and opens mental doors. Which is why I am waffling on about N.C. Wyeth and studying.

Studying on your own can be challenging.It is important to keep thinking in engaged and creative ways. Staying focused and motivated is not always easy, especially when so many other things demand our time and attention. And we should enjoy the process and knowledge we acquire, despite the challenges. For me, finding ways to come at this study project from different perspectives is very helpful and rewarding.

After a week of intense reading, and a meeting on Saturday that is a major distraction, I decided to relax about the competing demands for my time and Swift, an author who is one of the few I would not read for pleasure.   I decided to find a different way to approach Swift.  Today I went to see some first editions of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ at the Hunt Institute. The librarian showed me some fabulous books from the period about how exotic plants were collected and stored aboard ships like Gulliver’s. I also had a chance to read from some 17th century texts about sea voyages and ship wrecks. It helped me approach ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ with an open mind.  Now I think Swift might need to be considered in the context of his time more than any other writer I am studying. Next week I am going to story-board ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ with Wyeth’s words in mind. Wyeth must have asked a lot of very good questions while he was reading. I wonder what he would ‘say’ about Swift’s work?

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