This Wyeth Admirer Has Views Of His Own Rea Redifer Is Filled With Contradictions. So Is His One-man Show.

Posted: April 14, 1996

KENNETT SQUARE — Against the backdrop of narrow, one-way streets and glass-fronted stores that look blankly onto rows of parking meters, artist Rea Redifer, 63, is a familiar but unobtrusive figure.

He's not one to talk openly about his numerous professional activities - as a painter, filmmaker, screenwriter, newspaper columnist, Civil War historian, and aviation expert. Nor does he fit the image of the classic reclusive artist.

He has a quick, wiry manner of moving, and he is on a first-name basis with local shopkeepers and the waitresses at the Kennett Square Inn.

When he appears in town, usually dressed in khakis, sneakers and a faded denim jacket, he could easily be mistaken for a man on a mission to the local hardware store.

With his casual manner, he doesn't look like the type of artist who calls his lifelong occupation a ``messy, chaotic, damnable, frustrating'' affair.

Nor does he necessarily come across as the literary-minded filmmaker of PBS documentaries who once dared to make a feature film - what he calls a ``terrible Italian western'' - with Joe Namath as the star.

But contradictions are part of Redifer's life - and the focus of his work.

Although Redifer has painted and taught in the region since the early 1960s, a one-man exhibit of his watercolors that opens next Wednesday at Chadds Ford Gallery reveals numerous artistic departures from the area's so-called Brandywine School of painters.

He talked about that work in a recent mobile interview that took place at the Kennett Square Inn, at a local car dealership where Redifer displays his watercolors, at his home off a quiet side street, and at his nearby studio.

The conversation covered a lot of ground, from Redifer's friendship with Andrew Wyeth and filmmaker Ken Burns, to his Hoosier upbringing and his interest in American literature.

Having grown up as one of nine children in a Depression-era household outside South Bend, Ind., Redifer said he discovered Wyeth's work while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War.

Impressed with Wyeth's ``loose, freewheeling watercolors,'' he wrote to him and later settled in Chadds Ford, where he raised a family and studied painting with Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew's sister.

Redifer moved to Kennett Square about 15 years ago, but he has maintained his close ties with the Wyeth family, particularly as a collaborator with independent filmmaker Denys McCoy, a Wyeth nephew.

Compared with many Chester County artists, including a group Redifer lightly refers to as the ``pseudo-Wyeths,'' Redifer has gone about his study of the local landscape in an unusual manner.

In attempt to capture what he calls the ``evocation of the American landscape,'' for example, Redifer tends to focus on the peculiarities of rural Chester County: the swirling patterns of blackbirds; the relentlessness of crows descending on a cornfield - ``I guess I'm sort of a crow freak,'' he said; or the double character of the red fox, both predator and prey among the local horse crowd.

Some of his landscapes offer closeup views of sycamore trees, bursting milkweed pods or the phantom-like forms of a hedgerow. Other watercolors offer multiple images, such as Childbirth, a Civil War-inspired work depicting a woman giving birth at home.

Typically, the close perspective, shown together with the distant curve of a field or the empty spaces between fallen and battered corn stalks, brings to mind the haunting, still atmosphere of an abandoned battlefield.

It is a quality that may or may not be intentional, said Redifer, a self-described Civil War buff.

``I'm not a person who's made a career out of painting the same scene a hundred times,'' Redifer said.

He is less interested in dwelling on a specific subject matter than in evoking a certain mood or exploring universal themes, as in his works inspired by the Civil War.

Since the early 1970s, for instance, Redifer has created a series of portraits that examine the contradictions or disparities in Abraham Lincoln's personality. He does this often in the same portrait, using images that are either enmeshed or shown separately in the two sides of Lincoln's face.

They include the ``humble side and the arrogant side'' of Lincoln, the ``depressive Lincoln and Lincoln as the shrewd politician,'' Redifer said.

He describes himself as the type of researcher who tries to experience the war through letters and diaries as well as through camping for days at places like Gettysburg.

Redifer's interest in Lincoln, however, has more to do with Lincoln's place in the American landscape as a mythological figure than as a historical figure.

``I think everyone is affected by Lincoln in one way or another,'' Redifer said. ``He has some sort of primordial quality about him.''

IF YOU GO * The opening reception of Redifer's one-man show at the Chadds Ford Gallery will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. It is free and open to the public. The show continues through May 1. The gallery is near the intersection of Routes 1 and 100 at the Chadds Ford Village and Barn Shops. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, and evenings by appointment. Call 610-459-5510.

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