Why Pilgrimages Can Be Good For Us: My Pilgrimage to the Brandywine Museum of Art

Me geeking out at the NC Wyeth Exhibit at Brandywine Museum in Chadd’s Ford, PA.

I have been a big admirer of the works of NC Wyeth for a long time. You might remember his illustrations from your favorite classic YA adventure novels (now assigned texts in college 19th Century and turn of the century literature classes), books like Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Last of the Mohicans, A Boy’s King Arthur, Kidnapped, The Yearling, Robin Hood, The Deerslayer, etc. Very popular books in the early 20th Century with themes and storylines still made into movies today.

I loved his style! BIG color, lots of drama, action, adventure, stunning landscapes. I wished I could paint like that ever since I saw my first Wyeth up close at Texas Tech University. But I was a cartoonist at the time, and an occasional portrait artist, and I was working towards a PhD in Creative Writing. I wasn’t thinking of myself as an Artist, nor was I think of myself as an Artist who was going to study Wyeth.

As a gay man, growing up so Other from other boys, I had a peculiar relationship with the World of Boys and Men (which I will write about more in a later post) and that was a world that belonged to Wyeth as well. I had felt excluded for a long time from that world, and made up for it by being in other worlds. But I lingered outside the borders often and looked in at Things Which Were Not For Me.

So I pursued writing and teaching as a career, making art wait.

But in the last few years, my teaching situation changed, and it was difficult to find work as an adjunct teacher. I also continued to almost make it in the job market for tenure track positions. So i decided to make a change in my life–to build my art career–because I needed the money, a new source of income, and my art had waited long enough.

In 2019, I decided to go to CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) to make a mid-career course direction. My goal was to build my skills as a painter and as an artist, and to learn how to monetize my art. I needed to have another money source if I was going to survive.

Between seeing Wyeth for the first time and 2019, there had been at least 20 years, and by that time I had discovered why I had felt so Other, so out of place with other boys and men. I was gay. And in that time, I had also discovered that I had late-in-life longings to be more adventurous and active.

I had moved to the Yukon Territory of Canada in 2001-2004, and again in 2007-2013 for a total of nearly 10 years! I had had such positive adventure experiences guided by good people there who knew I was a bookworm, a science fiction and fantasy geek, an artist, someone who was kinda afraid of competing/surviving in the wild, and competing against other men in Outdoor Things. In the Yukon, I canoed down the river, drove through the wilderness, over icy Winter roads, had hiked up mountains (and down them), hunted wild sheep and moose, swam in mountain lakes, been on the snowy peaks of hills checking for signs of potential avalanches, and out with scientists and artists into the wild. The Wilderness had been opened to me by good, patient people, and I am eternally grateful for that. I did not “man up” to do those things, and I don’t consider them “man credit.” I discovered that those things were available to most people and that people did them regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, or years of outdoor experience. They did them because they were fun, and beautiful, and wonderful.

So after this, I found myself approaching Wyeth differently. Both as someone who came to adventure books late in life, came late to adventure, and as someone who was attracted to adventuresome men. And, I wanted to look at creating paintings of adventure that were more inclusive of who I was. Which is where I decided to “Queer the Hero.” So, as an artist I decided to paint in the style of Wyeth–or try to learn that style in order to create paintings that might feel more inclusive to queer folk, specifically gay men, but with an eye towards a broader spectrum of inclusivity.

I had chosen as my first project at CCAD to explore the life of Yukon Cornelius. (See my post The Further Adventures of Yukon Cornelius) to see if I could give a gay hero the Wyeth treatment visually. My goal was 7-10 paintings of Yukon Cornelius in acrylic (I was not well-versed in oil).

Now, I had been watching news of a new NC Wyeth exhibit “New Perspectives” going up at the Brandywine Museum of Art for awhile…and I wanted to go, but I lacked money and time. But moments after receiving my student loans refunds, I bought a ticket to Philly to go see the NC Wyeth paintings myself. This was a pilgrimage.

What is a Pilgrimage?

“I thought Pilgrimages were holy journeys”

They are, in a sense. They are usually journeys– Journeys you take when something holds significance to the next moment in your life, or that holds significance to your life right now. Some people take pilgrimages to holy cities, yes, to say that this belief, this deity, this spiritual life has value, and to honor that belief by giving it focus. Some re-inact important journeys that others have taken to say–we remember, and we value this journey you took.

Some use the term “pilgrimage” when they undertake a journey, sometimes arduous, to get to a place they have always wanted to see, or be, which might hold items of value to them–they could be holy relics, or items that have great importance to your chosen vocation or a hero you want to emulate. You might be a baseball fan and for you the Home of Mickey Mantle might be a pilgrimage, or a poet and the house of Walt Whitman feels more important than other places that are similar. When we are spiritually linked with a person or place, we receive a lot deeper joy and significance from visiting that place.

Few will journey a long way for less than an object of great value, or a place of great significance, or a person of great personal importance.

Few will journey a long way for less than an object of great value, or a place of great significance, or a person of great personal importance.

I journeyed to Brandywine because Wyeth lived there and because his works were on display there, and because, at this time in my life, I wanted NC Wyeth as a mentor.

Brandywine Museum of Art

Chadd’s Ford, PA is 40 min or so West of Philadelphia, and Brandywine Museum of Art is part of a much larger organization on the campus that includes a conservancy, and at least the homes of two artists, NC Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth. My friend Kater drove me to Brandywine because she knew it was important to me.

I did not have the time that day to visit the homes of my heroes, but I had a few hours to go through the exhibit. I would love to spend more time with the paintings, to really look at his composition, his color choices, his body positions, to analyze each painting separately.

A painting is a series of choices by an artist, and a small collection of happenings. I know now that my 36 x 48 acrylic paintings never turn out exactly as I envisioned them. They are partly my choices, but some things happen while you are painting. Some colors just sing suddenly! Some faces morph. Sometimes a background or side object will appear and disappear, and the lighting may change.

I think there are a world of art lessons hidden in each of his paintings. I intend to look at them closely in subsequent blog posts–the ones I have pictures for. I also think the choices Wyeth made in literature matters, the choices of scenes. He is trying to tell us things–not about the story–but about what he believes matters between the characters, or about people in general. Like all artists, he gravitates towards what moves him, what inspires him, what provokes a picture in his mind. In looking at his illustrations, especially, we see what is important to him as an artist and as a person. Who does he focus on? Who is getting the best light? If there is action, at what moment has he decided to stop the art camera? Why?

I think his view of illustration reflects Howard Pyle and the Brandywine artists–and what they were told to look for in a scene that they would illustrate, which tells us a lot of what kinds of things were valued in a story. Do we illustrate moments of tension or rest? Conflict? Sudden action or meditation?

I went there and discovered a beautiful exhibition of his works, some of which I have put in these pictures. I took a lot of pictures because I could not stand in front of the paintings for very long. I wish I could have spent hours in front of a painting, to really understand it, to see the choices Wyeth made, but I forced myself to take pictures—and also find pictures online to study. These aren’t ideal methods, but none of us has hours to spend in front of a painting if it is in a busy museum! But I plan to work on some deeper analysis of these paintings. Wyeth has much to teach me.

I bought several things at the shop. If you go on a pilgrimage, it is important to bring back holy relics, images, and icons so that the pilgrimage can continue when you return back home.

I bought a mug, a mug of the pirates with the yellow background and I’ve drunk coffee from that mug continually from my return till today. It’s a ritual I do to keep me in the spirit of that pilgrimage.

I did break it in November, and then a good friend bought me the exact one from the Brandywine and had it shipped to me!

I also bought a print and t-shirt of the same image. I bought the book that went with the collection–which gives me every painting from the exhibit to look at more closely!

I came back from my Pilgrimage feeling blessed. I say ‘blessed’ and I mean ‘grateful’, yes, but I also mean ‘blessed’ as in ‘having been blessed by the important person you wanted to be blessed by.’ It’s okay. I’m not thinking NC Wyeth came to me and blessed my work, but I feel as if by going to see his work, honoring it, and learning from it, that I had achieved a kind of ‘blessing’ to move forward on my own work. ‘Approval’? Perhaps. But, yes, also ‘grateful’ that I had the weekend to go see the exhibit. I felt as if I couldn’t start my project unless I had gone to see his work first. Perhaps that is superstitious of me—but that’s what makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage. You have to have some belief in the reason you are going, some reason to go on a journey, some belief that your presence at the place, the shrine, the objects, will matter.

Did your pilgrimage matter? How do you make it matter?

It is your belief that makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage. It is the importance you imbue an object— it is sacred-making. In the same way that your wedding ring, or a locket, or a lucky quarter, or a baseball caught at the ballpark, or a gift given to you by someone you care about–you can make sacred the journey that you are taking, make sacred the objects or place that you visit, make sacred the objects you return with.

You can make sacred the acts that you do following a pilgrimage–like vows you make to continue studying the belief, the objects, the works, the person behind them. I made my painting a kind of sacred act—not a sacred act to NC Wyeth–but to the artist I wanted to become. I owed the person who went on the pilgrimage to follow through on that journey, and I owed the person I wanted to become to follow through on it too. He was counting on me pushing myself at art school.

So I did. I created ten paintings, which can be seen here.

As COVID-19 struck, my images started to get more intimate and comforting because pandemics are scary. The in-bed reading image, the donuts and coffee image–both were done here at home and are smaller canvases. I did two other paintings, as you can see in other posts about police violence, as the protests and police clashed here in Columbus.

But ten paintings in 9 months is not bad for a painter who had never painted at this size or these full bodied characters. I was a portrait painter, and a cartoonist. Everything I learned here I learned from doing the paintings and studying Wyeth (and other painters of that illustrative era–Leyendecker, Baumhofer, Pyle), listening to my fellow students come by and critique my work (which, honestly, was the best thing about Art school!), my mentor in my second semester, Brian R. Williams, and pushing myself to complete these large paintings. The act of painting had become a ritual that was part of the effects of the pilgrimage. I took myself seriously as an artist because I was taking Wyeth seriously as an artist/mentor.

Would a Pilgrimage benefit you?

What are you doing with your life and work right now? Could a journey to visit the sacred place, home, studio, museum exhibit, ballpark, theatre–change the way you take yourself seriously? A pilgrimage is a way to take your craft, your passion, seriously.

While traveling may not be what you can do at the moment with all the travel restrictions, you may want to plan a pilgrimage now for a future date. If you are a writer—who is a big influence on you? If you are a painter–which painter influences you now? Whatever your craft or passion, designing and implementing a satisfying pilgrimage, and documenting it, can help you find more purpose in your work, more passion, and can imbue what you do with a sense of the sacred. It can give it more meaning.

It can also link you to the past, creating a chain of influence that you are a part of. I find this sometimes a most fulfilling part–to realize I am not alone out there as an artist or writer. I can claim a connection to a past artist or writer and make that person a mentor through acts like Pilgrimages, to give me deeper resonance in my work. It may only bring deeper resonance to you, as the artist or writer, but it may also bring resonance to others. We are connected to the past anyway—the result of decisions others have made–the styles, the subjects, their passions. I find honoring that past to be personally satisfying, and I think you will too.

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