Climb the red oak spiral stairs up to Wharton Esherick’s bedroom, turn the small wood latch, open the closet door and what do you find? A treasure trove of Esherick’s sketches. Boxes upon boxes organized by theme with labels like ‘Animals’, ‘Dance’, or ‘Hedgerow’ across the front, each containing hundreds of sheets of paper. Esherick was an avid sketcher, his keen eye observing and interpreting the world around him. From his earliest days as a painter through his transition to three-dimensional work, his passion for drawing remained a constant in his studio. One can imagine him with pencil in hand as he sat in the audience at Hedgerow Theatre, on a family vacation, or alone on a Pennsylvania hillside. He drew all sorts of subjects – landscapes, portraits of friends and family, actors, dancers, circus performers, and plans for furniture and sculpture. In the drawings, we can see Esherick continually inspired by movement, while his style evolved from strict representations to quick gestural drawings. The more he came to know his subject, it seemed the fewer lines he needed to express it.
Behind the scenes, we have been hard at work cataloging the sketch collection throughout the past year. Well, “we” isn’t quite accurate. Rather, one amazing volunteer, Judy Stevenson, has been volunteering her time towards this project. Carefully assessing each individual page, noting it’s content, size, little notes scribbled in the margins, Judy is gathering and organizing any and all important information a researcher or curator might want to have at their fingertips. A perfect fit for the project, Judy is the Archivist for Longwood Gardens where she manages and catalogs Longwood’s historical archives and cultural object collections. You can imagine our delight at finding so qualified a helping hand! She has cataloged over 2,000 drawings so far, which are now searchable by the Museum staff.
Take for example a folder of sketches (now easily located!) labeled ‘Christmas 1945’. Rather than sketching decorated trees or holiday bows, Esherick was sketching the people in his life. With a few decisive marks of his pencil, Esherick captured the unique, robust personalities of the faces that surrounded him on that particular holiday season. With each portrait we can imagine a lively gathering, friends whispering, laughing, telling stories and shooting glances across at Esherick as he sketched. They are the perfect reminder to be grateful for all the wonderful and colorful characters that come through our doors – as guests eager to experience Esherick’s world and volunteers eager to share and preserve it. From all us at the Wharton Esherick Museum, we hope all your holidays are full of warmth and cheer – and maybe some sketching, too!
Post written by Visitor Experience and Program Specialist, Katie Wynne.