By Charles Bender
After a long, slow, winding drive up Valley Forge Mountain in Pennsylvania, the treeline parts. Through the underbrush several buildings seem to emerge from the hillside. These are not the tightly tended gardens of Winterthur or Longwood, where most of my period reproduction work would feel at home. Nature is the architect and builder here.
My journey to this place began 30 years ago when, as a teenager, I first traveled to Wharton Esherick’s property, where buildings of log, board, stone and stucco make up the studio, visitor’s center and a residence of what is now the Wharton Esherick Museum. Much of the architecture seems to have grown naturally from the earth. Ever the artist, Esherick (1887-1970) added splashes of color to the stucco additions, doors and windows. Earthen greens, reds and browns, with accents of bold navy, pink and mauve, compose the palette with which Esherick decorated his environment. Make no mistake – that is precisely what he was creating: an environment.
While my own woodworking combines 17th- to early 19th-century aesthetics with 21st-century building techniques, even at a young age, I felt an affinity for this man whose work and life were so closely intertwined.
At first glance the buildings don’t appear to be anything special. But the more you look, the more you realize that they are the expression of a life trying to strike a balance with nature. As an artist influenced by impressionism and cubism, Esherick tried to mimic the asymmetry found in nature.
The studio, built right into the bank of the mountain, has a curved roofline as does the garage/visitor’s center. Unlike the garage, where the ridge twists from one corner of the building to the other, the studio ridge curves slightly downward. With the addition of the “tower” and the “silo” to the studio, the entire building takes on a deliberate cubist appearance.
The buildings and grounds are part and parcel with the landmark furniture Esherick made during his career. But just like you cannot understand the builder without his surroundings, you cannot understand his furniture unless you understand his personal history, from painter to sculptor to craftsman.
From the June 2013 issue #204
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