Artworks at Esherick Museum show are ode to a tree

Curator Paul Eisenhauer on the spiral staircase designed by Esherick, who was known as the "godfather of the studio furniture movement."
Curator Paul Eisenhauer on the spiral staircase designed by Esherick, who was known as the "godfather of the studio furniture movement."
Posted: June 01, 2012

Sitting here at Wharton Esherick's curvy dining room table is an intimate experience, for the revered artist and furniture-maker probably lingered in this very spot a million times nursing coffee or Jim Beam and savoring the view - wooded hillside above, Great Valley below, and, just outside the window, a skyscraping tulip poplar tree.

In 1926, Esherick began building his Tredyffrin Township studio - which over decades also became his home - around this tree. He figured it was here first, right? And it ended up so close to the house, he'd surely have noticed the grooved bark in sharp relief, like long strands of bicycle chain, and the light cucumber scent of its tulip-shaped blossoms.

Esherick died in 1970 at 82, and the tree, struck by lightning decades ago, somehow hung on till 2010, when it was taken down for safety reasons. "I still miss it. It literally filled the window," says Paul Eisenhauer, curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum, at the artist's studio/house.

Now, like Esherick himself, a cultlike figure known as "Thoreau in wood" and the "godfather of the studio furniture movement," the tree - more than 80 feet tall and a century old - lives on in a substantial way. Chunks of it were distributed to 45 artists, most from the Philadelphia area, who made 75 tables and chairs, shelves, stools, platters, plates and bowls from it. They'll be on display, and for sale, at the Chester Springs Studio in Historic Yellow Springs through June 10.

The show is called "Poplar Culture: The Celebration of a Tree." Partial proceeds benefit the museum, which, like the man who lived and worked here, is as quirky as it is fascinating.

Hand-hewn from cast-off stone and recycled mill timbers, the museum looks like a funhouse version of the stone bank barns of old Chester County. It draws maybe 5,000 visitors a year, who, in addition to architects, woodworkers, and other artists, include electricians, plumbers, and carpenters beguiled by what Eisenhauer describes as "Esherick's talent for making things that are beautiful, clever, functional, and fun."

Eisenhauer is an amateur woodworker himself, a college sociology professor-turned-curator who calls the museum "a magical place" that permanently altered both his artistic style and career path. He, too, has a piece in the show - curvilinear shelving built with help from his son, Jesse, 19, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an aspiring woodworker.

"This is a wonderful way to make something beautiful out of tragedy," Eisenhauer says.

Mark Sfirri, a New Hope artist who teaches fine woodworking at Bucks County Community College, first encountered Esherick's work in 1972 as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He's been a devotee ever since. And he knew this tulip poplar well.

"I take my students on tours at the museum and we always go into the back entrance by that tree," he says, unconsciously referring to the tree as a still-living thing, which - in a sense - it is.

Sfirri has two pieces in the "Poplar Culture" show - a sculpture called Continuous Column that pays tribute to Constantin Brancusi's Endless Column and Esherick's Twisted Column, and a woodcut called Dancers, in which three trees appear to dance. It plays off an Esherick print of three abstract dancers called Rhythms.

"It was a really special thing for me to work on the wood from that tree," Sfirri says. "I have a ton of respect for Esherick as an artist and for the variety of work he did."

Esherick, who grew up in West Philadelphia in a prosperous household, initially studied wood, metal, ceramics, printing, and drawing at Central Manual Training High School. He went on to the Museum School for Industrial Arts, later to become part of the University of the Arts, and got a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Painting was his chosen m├ętier, but he chafed at the academy's artistic constraints and, six weeks before graduation, quit. "He reached the point where they weren't teaching him anything new. They wanted him to copy the masters," Eisenhauer says.

There followed a stint doing illustrations for local newspapers, including the Evening Bulletin, and, until a machine displaced him, the Victor Talking Machine Co. in Camden. At that point, Esherick and his wife, Letitia Nofer, decided to move to the country. New Hope was too expensive, so they bought a farm just east of Paoli, where they hoped to live self-sufficiently and close to nature.

Being a successful painter proved difficult, and over time, Esherick turned to making simple Arts and Crafts furniture to support his growing family. That seemed to sell, and by the late 1920s, his pieces had evolved into something much more interesting - furniture and one-of-a-kind objects that combined art and craft, defied convention, and elevated the form.

"He handled the material in a unique way, a very organic way, treating furniture as sculpture," says Albert LeCoff, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Art in Wood in Old City, who believes that "whether someone who works in furniture realizes it or not, they're working through the influence of Esherick."

When designing a piece, he didn't cut the wood to conform to a design, as an artist might do with metal or plastic. He was guided by - and took advantage of - the natural characteristics of the wood, its shape, grain, patterns, color, tactile, and visual qualities. Like the tulip poplar outside his dining room, "Esherick worked with what was already there," says LeCoff, who still speaks longingly of his near-miss with Esherick.

Two weeks before the two men were scheduled to meet and talk for the first time, Esherick died of an intestinal infection.

Still, the artist had a long and lively life. He was a socialist, pacifist, and nudist. He had progressive friends from far and wide, and a rigorous intellectual life. Books in his spare, bare-bulb bedroom - the bed raised up so he could look out the window at the trees - reveal reading tastes as varied and fluid as his furniture: D.H. Lawrence, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry George, Leon Trotsky, Vincent van Gogh, Hinduism, Buddhism, Quakerism, the Bible, and tales of adventure and travel.

Does it surprise anyone that Esherick eschewed straight lines in his work? Anybody can do that. No, he made chairs out of hammer handles, curved door pulls, odd-shaped desks with hidden drawers and angled files, tables with uneven sides (the oak dining room table, for one), and snaking stairs that seem to hang in midair.

It speaks in visceral ways to Michael Biddison, a found-materials artist and woodworker from Nantmeal, Chester County, who made a chunky, low-slung log chair for the show. "When I first went to the museum, I felt I'd come home. It was very moving," he says, calling Esherick "one of my greatest heroes."

Ray Kelso, a self-taught furniture-maker from Collegeville, built a small stool with his tulip poplar, adding a seat made from the copper cap that was put atop the tree to stabilize it after the lightning strike. "It was pretty special for me to be able to produce something that came from a tree from that property," says Kelso, who has visited the Esherick museum more than 100 times in the last 35 years.

So he would know: Somehow, it's fitting that the star of this show is a tulip poplar, which is considered a "secondary wood," often used for veneer and pulpwood, which is used to make paper and boxes.

Kelso explains: "It's not a very sexy wood. You go to a typical woodworking show and you see walnut and cherry and curly maple and rosewood and all these beautiful woods. You talk to any woodworker. Poplar is not their first choice, yet here's a room full of poplar and everything in there is just incredible."

Sometimes fancy wood becomes a crutch, diverting attention from a mediocre design. That is not an issue here. "Poplar Culture" is not about snob appeal.

"This show kind of demonstrates that good design is good design," Kelso says, "and I think Esherick would like that."


If You Go

"Poplar Culture: The Celebration of a Tree," show and sale, runs through June 10 at Historic Yellow Springs' Chester Springs Studio, 1685 Art School Rd., Chester Springs.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission free. For more information: 610-827-7414, inquiries@yellowsprings.org or www.yellowsprings.org.

Wharton Esherick Museum, 1520 Horse Shoe Trail, Paoli.

(Note: The museum is in Tredyffrin Township, but Paoli is the mailing address. If using GPS, museum officials say, use Malvern.)

Hours: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.; Monday through Friday reserved for groups tours, minimum 5 people: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations required for all visitors. The museum cannot accommodate drop-ins. Admission: $12 adults, $6 children under 12. For more information: 610-644-5822, information@whartonesherickmuseum.org or www.whartonesherick

museum.org.


Paul Eisenhauer, curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum, discusses Esherick's work at www.philly.com/esherick


Contact Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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