My husband had been wanting to take me to tour the Wharton Esherick Museum ever since we met. He went to boarding school in nearby Exton, PA and toured the Wharton Esherick Studio as a child. He remembered it fondly and after we visited last summer, I could see why! The eccentric studio and little homestead of this lesser known artist, sculptor, and craftsman is a hidden gem! How can one go wrong visiting a place where the Outhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places?
Wharton Esherick was a visionary artist who was widely recognized for his vanguard approach to design. Most of his pieces were constructed of wood and pay homage to the natural world that surrounded his work space. Esherick's work is found in major art museums all around the country, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Met in New York City.
Born in Philadelphia, Esherick studied painting at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (now the University of the Arts) and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He moved to a farmhouse near Paoli, PA in 1913 to pursue his painting career. Esherick was creative and when he began carving decorative frames for his own paintings in 1920 he quickly realized that the frames were more popular than his paintings, so he switched his focus to wooden sculpture. He has received recognition for bridging the gap between art and craft through his expressionist furniture and interiors - his furniture passed as sculpture and his sculpture functioned as furniture. Therefore, he became known as the "Dean of American Craftsmen". He was the most Influential artist of his time that you’ve probably never heard of. His work was as beautiful as it was useful.
The outside of Esherick's fairy tale studio/home looked like it was straight out of a Dr. Suess book. Inside was just as unique. The four levels of living and work space are filled with more than 200 pieces of his work. Everywhere you turn there's a whimsical sculpture, painting, woodcut or piece of furniture that tells a story. His actual studio evolved over 40 years, and is considered his "biggest piece of artwork".
If you love hand carved wood and custom furniture design, you must visit! The Wharton Esherick Museum has been offering tours to the public since 1972. You must make your reservations at least 24 hours in advance, so be sure to check their site for dates/times. We have visited Brandywine Valley during the winter season and not been able to book a tour to the Wharton Esherick Museum with fewer than 5 people. So, when we knew we'd be visiting the area this summer, I booked us on one of their newly offered wine and cheese tours!
I highly recommend the wine and cheese tour (or any guided tour for that matter)! There were 10 of us on the tour which was just the right size for the small studio. We had a fabulous docent who was very knowledgeable; you could tell he had a true appreciation for Esherick's work. Esherick didn't want an autobiography written; his house is his living biography. He wanted people to come and not just see the work, but to feel the work the way that he felt it when he created it.
Our 1.5 hour tour began outside of the garage (now the visitor welcome center) and workshop. The workshop, built in 1956, is now home to his 95 year old son in law and is not part of the tour. The beams for the roof of the garage (shown below) were badly warped, so instead of scrapping them or trying to straighten them, Esherick split the ships knees and used the curve in forming framing for the roof. Because there are no straight lines in nature, it is rare that you would see a true 90 degree angle in any of Esherick's work.
Then, we made our way into the studio. He built the different sections of the studio over over time. The last section added on was the silo made of color impregnated stucco intended to be one with nature; we'll have to come back in the fall to see the house literally disappear into the leaves of the trees of the hillside.
As you tour the house, you will notice influences from Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Steiner. On the main level, you can see the models of Esherick's collaborated work with Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn, one of the great modernists.
At the bottom of the studio is the gorgeous split spiral staircase that leads up to Esherick's bedroom and kitchen and dining areas. The staircase is a work of art! In fact, it has traveled twice to be showcased in different art museums. He built it with the ability to remove it (a perfect opportunity to get large pieces of wood to other levels of the home).
Atop the stone walls of the studio space, Esherick built a bedroom, raising the bed to the exact height of the window so he could watch the sunrise in the valley below. He maximized every inch of space in his studio turned home. He solved the problem of a drawer that would topple out by extending the drawer all the way past the bed. To this day, it holds his shirts just the way he left them when he died in 1970.
Surprisingly, Esherick's work did not bring him much financial wealth. Any time he needed some money, he would create a table or a chair to sell, but his real wealth was his collection of personal creations. If he created a piece for a buyer and they didn't like it, he would happily refund them and add the piece back to his personal collection.
Aside from the beauty, functionality and touchability of his work, it's the way Esherick lived that captured me on our recent tour. I could really feel his presence in his home. I did get a feeling of lonliness, but I believe that for him it was rather a feeling of peace to be one with nature.
Esherick's home ultimately became a historic landmark in 1993, and then the museum itself.
The Esherick's Outhouse overlooked the valley of his homestead. The joke was that when the door was open, it was occupied. LOL! Unfortunately, it seems I must have deleted my pic of this 'work of art' so I don't have a picture to show of it in its famous glory.
Please do yourself a favor and visit this amazing museum once things return to normal after COVID-19. You will not only learn more about this influential artist, but to also have a chance to see Esherick's craftsmanship up close and personal! You'll want to touch this smooth and glassy wood in person! It's unlike any wood you have ever seen or felt.
Wharton Esherick, famed artist and craftsman, was often heard to say, "If it isn't fun, it isn't worth doing." Enjoy!