Monthly Archives: August 2016

Take an art break

Ever since I mentioned Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, in my last post, our 2007 visit to the Olson House has been banging around in my head. Much has been written about Andrew Wyeth and his relationship with the Olsons and their Maine farmhouse; this is my impression of our visit.

Olson House, Cushing, Maine

Olson House

Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009) is renown for his watercolor and egg tempera paintings of rural American life. He met siblings Christina and Alvaro Olson, neighbors of his young wife-to-be, Betsy, in 1939. Wyeth became fascinated with their spare lives and the austere environment of their Cushing, Maine, saltwater farm. He took up a kind of summer residence there for many years, painting prolifically in an attic bedroom studio. The house became a National Historic Landmark in 2011. Now, the property is part of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, and is open to the public.

Gable on weathered house, missing window trim

Gable

To the casual observer, Christina’s World (1948) is a painting of a thin young woman in a pink dress, sitting in a tawny pasture, turned (rather awkwardly) to look up the hill to her house. Christina was 55 when Wyeth painted her, using a composite of Christina herself and his wife as models. She had lost the use of her legs to an undiagnosed neuro-muscular disease, and didn’t use a wheelchair. Instead, she propelled herself across the floor or ground by using her arms. In this painting, she is returning to the house from visiting her parents’ graves in the family cemetery, some distance down the hill toward the bay.

Christina's World - Andrew Wyeth [Wikipedia]

Christina’s World – Andrew Wyeth, 1948

Wyeth created many other paintings and hundreds of sketches around the farm, some of which we recaptured, deliberately or often serendipitously, in photos during our visit.

When we arrived at the Olson House, a yellow school bus was parked in the back. We wandered about the grounds and waited for the noisy kids’ tour to leave before we entered. We hoped to be alone in this place, which felt almost holy. And we were alone, except for a docent or two. How often do you get to be alone when you explore a historic site? Better yet, we had free rein to crawl all over the entire house—all three stories—and the attached barn. No part of  the house was cordoned off.

There is nothing I relish more than poking around an old house. The older and more decrepit, the better. The smells and the textures and the worn colors, and the sense that the lives of past residents have somehow seeped into the walls make the house a living thing.

Click on the images to enlarge.

The front hall floor is painted and stenciled with leaves. I don’t know how old this charming feature is, but it reminds me of the leaves our pets track into the kitchen in the fall. I even have a chair like this one at home.

Stenciled leaves on the hall floor, Olson House

Leaves on the floor

Beyond the stairs is a large, light-filled parlor. The cracks in the plaster feel familiar.

The kitchen, with its monstrous cast iron stove, still holds a few pieces of furniture. The rest of the house is all but empty. Wyeth painted Christina sitting at her kitchen table in “Woodstove.”

Geraniums still grow in the kitchen window.

Beyond the kitchen is a two-room pantry, which houses the sink (a metal-lined wood box) and water pump and a mechanical roller for wringing out the wash. The remarkable turquoise door has been immortalized in “Christina and Alvaro.”

Through the turquoise door is the dim and shadowy barn, which is roped off, probably because it’s in unsafe condition. We stepped only a few feet inside. I struggled with the light setting on my camera, so I asked Eric to photograph this scene and its beautiful light (which he no doubt would have, anyway). It’s one of my favorites. I didn’t know until I researched this post that Wyeth had painted it, too.

Back in the house, up the stairs are Christina and Alvaro’s childhood bedrooms. The tattered wallpaper in Christina’s room has been left to deteriorate, its delicate, faded patterns mingling like a collage. Our visit was several years before we tackled our kitchen remodel. Little did I know that I’d be seeing a similar effect on my own walls in a few years.

In the attic, Eric captured this scene of the room in which Wyeth did much of his painting. It was from this window that Wyeth first noticed Christina crawling through the field back to the house.

On the other side of the attic is another bedroom in which Wyeth created his last painting of the Olson House after Christina and Alvaro’s deaths.

We walked down the hill and into the grassy field. A hay wagon sits approximately where Christina was depicted, although the view of the house has been obscured by trees in the intervening decades. (More likely, Wyeth simply eliminated all trees from the pared-down painted scene. He also stretched the perspective of Christina’s World to enhance the feeling of distance. As I walked further down the hill, the house disappeared over the horizon.) The Olson House website now warns that this area is private property and not to trespass, but the docents encouraged us to go. I wonder if it’s still possible to walk there. It felt like an important part of the experience.

Farther down the hill is the small family cemetery, with a view of Maple Juice Cove between the trees. Christina and Alvaro’s shared headstone is prominent. They died within a month of each other in the winter of 1967 – 1968. In 2009, Andrew Wyeth himself was buried there with them. The three of them seem to look up toward the house.

While researching this post, I learned that the Olson House has recently reopened after being closed for a year for exterior renovation and installation of a fire repression system. While I’m glad the house is being preserved and protected, I’m also very glad that we had the opportunity to enjoy it in its original, weathered state. This photo of the new pine exterior just doesn’t have the same atmospheric appeal.

Olson House with new pine siding

Restoration [northernnewengland.aaa.com]

 Thanks for indulging me in a little art history nostalgia. I hope you enjoyed the tour.

Old woman with dark hair cuddling black kitten on her chest

Miss Olson [A. Wyeth, 1962]

Andrew Wyeth and Alvaro Olson with wagon in front of Olson house

Andrew Wyeth and Alvaro Olson [Kosti Ruohomaa]

Alvaro, Christina, and Andrew

Alvaro, Christina, and Andrew [Richard Meryman]

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

 

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Preppin’

The pace has been a little different at the bungalow this summer. Eric has been working hard to prep the house for painting during the week, while I, of course, bring the bacon home from the cube farm. By the time the weekend rolls around, we both want a break. It’s summer after all, and we in the damp, gray Pacific Northwest cherish our summers, which traditionally begin on July 5th and sometimes, if we’re lucky, blaze gloriously into early October.

Who can blame us for packing in all the summer activities we can? It’s time for art fairs, ferry rides, farmers markets, architectural tours, dinner with a view. You may have noticed that I’ve slacked off on blog posts. No apologies! I’ve also, um, slacked off on my living room replastering project. What can I say? By the time I get home from work in the evening, plastering doesn’t sound appealing… and come the weekend, I want to play outdoors. And I don’t mean hunting crabgrass, either! Our crabgrass is alive and well!

Okay, break’s over. I have some gnarly before-and-durings for you (no afters, yet). A house does not get to be 103 years old without experiencing some decrepitude. Years of deferred maintenance cause spots and wrinkles, as surely as years without sunscreen cause spots and wrinkles on us. These photos are tantamount to a confession.

Eric started the prep work on the south side of our house, which bakes in the summer sun and soaks in the winter rain. I may have mentioned that whoever painted the trim back in 1995 never got around to trimming out the south side. That person should be thrashed!

In her defense, I recall our 2007 trip to New England, when we visited the Olson house in Cushing, Maine, inspiration for many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings (most famously, Christina’s World). We were free to crawl all over its shabby, faded austerity—a religious experience for me. It made me think: If this house can stand on this windswept hill since the late 1700s with, apparently, no paint, then … what, me worry? But, I digress. That’s a topic for another travel blog.

It is with humility that I reveal to you … our bungalow’s south side. This is my bedroom closet window. (Craftsman houses often have windows in their tiny closets so that one might air out one’s few clothes.) The upper pane is cracked. The checked and peeling brown paint has a tenuous grip on the oversprayed trim boards. The window glazing is mottled but still there. That’s more than some windows can say. Eric used a combination of scraper, power washer, and heat gun to get all the paint off that would come off.

Here’s the south foyer window. Same condition. No hate mail, please.

Are you tired of looking at these depressing photos? I am. I’m sure you get the idea. But wait, there’s more!

Some places are going to be hard to paint, like this oddly shaped cubbyhole formed by a shed roof under the gable over the south foyer window, where pigeons like to roost. In the spring we can hear the chicks peeping and the adults cooing. Eric used the power washer to blast out the remnants of nest and lots of pigeon poop. Yes, he wore a face shield. Then he covered the area with net to keep the birds out. The net will be neatly attached to permanently deter the birds after we paint. Our bird-watching cats will be disappointed. (They do not catch pigeons.)

Small shed roof protects a window under a gable

A complicated construction

Pigeon poop is not the only hazardous waste Eric encountered. On the porch roof he discovered a disgusting pile of what we think was raccoon poop, loaded with cherry pits. You know what happens when you eat too many cherries … that raccoon must have had a bad bellyache.

A pile of raccoon poop on the roof

Yuck

Back to the window frames … After Eric removed as much old paint as possible, all window frames got one or two coats of Zinsser Peel Stop, a treatment that soaks into punky, dry wood and dries hard as rock, at the same time bonding any remaining paint to the wood. Then, a coat of Kilz Klear, a primer that goes on translucent white and dries clear (I mean, klear), like Elmer’s Glue. The new paint won’t dare to come off.

Cans of Zinsser Peel Stop and Kilz Klear

Zinsser Peel Stop and Kilz Klear

In contrast to the south side, this is our east-facing attic stairwell window. Looks much better, right? But up close, its paint is also checked and brittle, not to mention filthy from pollution.

The most dramatic weather damage is on the parts you can’t see from the ground—the knee braces, for instance. What would your knees look like if they’d been propping up the eaves day in, day out, for 103 years? This is not a log on the beach. It’s the top of one of the knee braces.

Shockingly bad!

Shockingly bad!

You might be surprised to learn that rotten wood like this can be salvaged with good old Bondo. Yes, the same stuff used at body shops. Eric tells me it’s rather tricky to mix the two-part goop, race to the top of the ladder, and schmear it on while it’s still malleable. Bondo is a lot stronger than wood. Real restorers would replace all of these parts with new wood, of course … but we’re not doing that. Our goal is to stabilize the existing wood, paint it, and move on.

Gable roof with three knee braces

Tired old knees

In all, Eric replaced eight window panes and reglazed several more. Both of our bathroom windows had cracked panes, so we took the opportunity to replace the clear glass (which we had covered with patterned adhesive privacy film) with new, obscure glass. Wow, what a difference in the bathroom—almost too bright. I can see my own spots and wrinkles too well.

Yesterday, after our spate of too-hot-and-windy-to-paint weather ended, Eric and I applied two coats of “haint blue” paint (Valspar “Gossamer Sky”) to the front porch ceiling. Here’s a teaser for my next post: Woo-hoo—it’s time for COLOR!

Porch ceiling with robin's egg blue paint

The painting begins!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it