Seeing a Master – Andrew Wyeth’s Helga


So we’re taking one day a month for spiritual retreat and renewal, and I hadn’t gotten to mine yet, so yesterday, I took half a day.  I spent the early morning reading from the prophet Isaiah and from Matthew’s gospel, then went on to Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, and then to poetry by Rilke.  Then some extended time of prayer, meditating mostly on the nature of God, His immeasurable -ness and the seeming absurdity of our own smallness.   To Him Who Stands Outside of Time as I try to figure out my next paltry move, be all the Glory.

I love going downtown.  I parked on 2nd just outside of Benaroya Hall, and stepped out of the van to confront the long wall memorializing the war dead from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  These names, so precious to their loved ones, yet so small in the great hoards of people streaming through the city.  Again, reflecting on the smallness of our -ness next to God’s.   I wandered past SAM (Seattle Art Museum), and realized the Andrew Wyeth exhibit featuring the Helga series was still on.   A huge Wyeth fan, I’d wanted to see the exhibit–I just figured I wouldn’t get the time.   It didn’t open until 10:00, so I wandered up 1st toward the market, heading for a favorite thinking spot I rarely get to anymore.   The Crumpet Shop at Pike Place Market holds many great memories for Anjie and I and the early days of being in Seattle back in the mid-80’s and then later with our kids in the mid-90’s.   A small counter looking out at the sidewalk, a freshly baked crumpet with raspberry and butter and coffee alongside a journal, and you have what I consider some prime thinking real estate.   (It would help if they would move the strip joint directly across the street.)   I jotted a few thoughts about presence and purpose, the blinding nature of sensation, and how Beauty calls to a Christ-essence inside us, even as we realize all is dust and smoke, the “hevel” (smoke) of Ecclesiastes.

Then it was 10:00 a.m., I was headed up the escalator at SAM.  I asked the first person I met to point me to the Wyeth exhibit.  It was down the hall, past the gray room, on the left.

I turned the corner.

These paintings will be marveled over for a thousand years.

Maybe that’s overstating it, but that’s what I kept thinking as I looked at Wyeth’s mastery.  There are 5 paintings from the Helga suite and two others from his other work.  I am no art critic, but I recognize power and mastery when I see it.   I say “power”…what power is there in a canvas covered in watercolor paints?  Or a piece of wood covered in tempera paint?  It doesn’t change the world, really.  It doesn’t remap the health-care system, and no children will be fed by it.  But there it is.  Oddly, civilizations will pass, and these paintings will continue to call to people, coaxing them to reflect on meaning, beauty, humanity, nature, and in my view, even God.   Yes, we can wonder, even lament and complain, over the relationship Wyeth had with Helga, his subject of over 15 years, and those of more conservative bent will cry foul over Helga’s state of undress in some of the paintings, but yesterday, as I looked at Wyeth’s work, I couldn’t help but think “how amazing.”  The painstaking labor of stroking enough lines to create the fine nature of human hair in Helga’s famous braids, the insight and control of material such that light spills across the canvas in such glorious value and contrasts, the capturing of the distinctively American landscape near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania.  There is deep love in these paintings, and Wyeth’s technical skill serves that love well.  No wonder he is one of the masters of our time.

I left thinking of the work still to be done in my own life.  Knowing that every breath is a gift, every day another bit of grace directly from God’s hand, surrounded always by both brokenness and beauty, I wondered how best to spend my days.  The work of making…I’m sure of that.  Making life, making relationship, making moments, making art.  In the heart of God, may we strive to make moments of work and play as masterful as Wyeth’s art.

Then I did two peformances of “Enchanted April”…

One Reply to “Seeing a Master – Andrew Wyeth’s Helga”

  1. What a delight! I saw a show about Balmoral Castle that mentioned geraniums and thought of Andrew Wyeth. Googled Andrew and ended up here! It was a lovely journey and your beautiful words about God were an unexpected and most welcome addition! Yes, every moment is a wonderful gift directly from the hand of God and God in his immensity seems to offer guidance and love to each and every one of us, his tiny creations!

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts!

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