The Olson House, Cushing
Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting Christina’s World is considered the masterpiece that launched him as one of the best known American artists of the mid-twentieth century.
So intertwined in real life, you cannot describe Andrew Wyeth, or his body of work, without talking about Christina and the Olson’s.
And you cannot talk about the Olson’s without referencing the Hathorne’s (a.k.a. the Hawthorne’s, including writer Nathaniel), the Salem Witch Trials, or the curse.
In author Christina Baker Kline’s fictional memoir, A Piece of the World, her Prologue opens with this paragraph which I find to be the finest piece of writing I’ve ever read. It’s said by Christina Olson herself:
“If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches.
And then the drowned boys. The shells from distant lands,
a whole room full of them. The Swedish sailor marooned in ice.
I’ll need to tell you about the false smiles of the Harvard man
and the hand-wringing of those brilliant Boston doctors,
the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea.”
I find this so compelling and provocative. It leaves me dying to know more. To dig deeper into Christina and learn why these seemingly disparate things and events are what she would say define her.
And so dig, I did.
I was captivated by the biography Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life.
I am fascinated and surrounded by artist-brains. I’ve raised two and have learned that my own best days are when I create in some way, kind of like a runner getting his miles in. I know first-hand both the awesome wonder of creating and the agony and compulsion of it.
Artists experience the same emotions and ups and downs that all people experience; however, I find creatives may go higher up and lower down. To produce their best work, they wear their emotions on the outside or just under their top layer of skin. They live their lives learning ever more how to feel and how to express what they’re feeling. That sometimes leads to being very deep thinkers and communicators. I call it going down into the abyss.
This description perfectly fits the complexity of the man who was Andrew Wyeth.
I took a pilgrimage to The Olson House on a warm July day in Maine. Once we turned off Route 1 past Wiscasset, we began to meander up and down hills on curving roads in the most beautiful countryside. There were historic homes, meadows, purple flowers, woods and as we neared the property, glimpses of the ocean on both sides.
The dead-end, Hathorne Point dirt road suddenly curves just a foot in front of the barn which stands just across from the 3-story, 14-room Colonial farmhouse where Christina was born and lived her entire life.
The author, Christina Baker Kline, says some people have an almost spiritual experience when they enter the home, now renovated, emptied of furniture, and maintained by The Farnsworth Art Museum out of Rockland, a gift to the museum from Apple, Inc. CEO John Scully in 1991. Scully had bought it, for reasons unknown to me, in 1986.
To the right of the main house is attached the small kitchen addition where Christina spent most of her days and the wood shed housing antique tools and Alvaro Olson’s dory.
This style of small wooden boat is called a “peapod” which I think is just the cutest thing -- it’s shaped like an opened peapod.
The house sits high atop a bluff above the sloping pasture which leads down to Maple Juice Cove, Muscongus Bay, out to the St. George River.
It is the most beautiful view. On this hot summer day, a slight sea breeze cools me coming up off the bay.
The tiny family cemetery sits on a point above the cove. The gravestones belong to the Maloney’s and the Olson’s, along with a simple charcoal gray stone that says Andrew Wyeth 1917-2009.
Although the Wyeth’s resided in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, they summered in Maine.
Andrew felt such a connection to the Olson’s, the home and the land, that he requested he be buried there.
I am always intrigued by the random things that occur in a person’s life that grow to define them. When Andrew’s wife Betsy introduced him to Christina Olson, none of them would know what would come of that relationship. A mysterious, serendipitous force occurred at that introduction.
Andrew painted in the Olson’s third story. Many days. He would enter their home and do his most emotional work as though part of their family in some ways, and in other ways as a voyeur. He descended upon them. And they allowed it.
He formed a deep friendship with Christina, who was 24 years his senior. He could talk with her for hours.
He brought interest and dignity to her life and her days that all looked the same.
She likely became one of the muses who brought forth a large body of his work during that period in the mid-1900’s.
The tour guide in the Olson House on the day we visit is dramatic and compelling (possibly a witch herself, I think).
We learn about the Hathorne family (Kate Hathorne was Christina Olson’s mother) who descended from John Hathorne, one of the leading judges in the Salem Witch Trials. Others in the extended family, like the author Nathanial, changed the spelling of their last name to “Hawthorne” in hopes of losing the stigma of their relatives tied to Salem. But the tour guide reminds us what Nathanial’s most famous stories were: The Scarlet Letter, Young Goodman Brown, The House of the Seven Gables….all, in their own way, about witchcraft.
Kate Hathorne, who inherited the house, married a Swedish fisherman, John Olson, who arrived in Maine when the boat he was working on got stuck in the ice on the St. George River (another chance encounter). They had four children; Christina and Alvaro lived in the home until they died in the late 1960’s, one month apart from each other. Alvaro never married, instead caring for his sister his entire life. She had a mysterious degenerative muscular disease and was unable to walk in her later years.
Stubbornly, proudly, she refused to use a wheel chair.
Instead, when she could no longer hold herself upright while standing on the sides of her ankles, she would drag herself across the wooden plank floors of the home or the fields of their land.
It was seeing her dragging her body in the field that prompted Andrew to paint Christina’s World.
A casual observer of the painting might see a pretty young woman in a pink dress relaxing in a field.
That’s not at all the back story. Although Andrew painted her younger and in a dress she once wore, by the time of the painting, Christina looked nothing like that.
In writing long pieces, I seek to say what’s needed to evoke emotion….but not too much. A good writer is to show you, not tell you. What I love about paintings….and I try to emulate a bit in writing….is that there is no “telling.” In paintings, there are no words. The observer sees whatever he wants to see and knows nothing of the back story.
I love that opportunity as both the artist and the observer.
I envy songwriters or poets because I think they can more readily do the same as painters, write more cryptically, symbolically, to allow their listeners or readers their own thoughts. Oftentimes, when we learn the back story behind the song, it’s nothing like what we concluded in our own minds.
I find the land at the Olson House gorgeous, a place that speaks to me, the Maine I know and love. The cove, the bay, the river, sparse and uncluttered.
I find the house rather ominous, spooky.
Maybe I, like other visitors, feel the presence of the ghosts still walking those plank floors and gazing out the windows of the 3rd story…
.....and those who resorted to dragging themselves.