Interior of Andrew Wyeths Studio Chadds Ford PA. / Carlos Alejandro / Courtesy Brandywine River Museum of Art
If every cloud has a silver lining, one existing within the cloud of the international travel lockdown has been found time, money and opportunity to transform some or all of one’s home into a personal sanctuary or retreat. And, chances are, some of your most vibrant travel memories have found their way into the décor.
Edward Hoppers childhood bedroom and first studio Nyack NY. / Will Ellis Photography /Courtesy Edward Hopper Historic House Museum & Study Center
Now, consider that some of America’s most groundbreaking and ambitious painters, sculptors and architects lived under similar constraints, especially as international travel in their lifetimes was even more limited for the average person. Even though some famous artists had the resources and opportunities to travel and study abroad, many of them shared a need to create and curate a private world conducive to creativity.
Whether these vibrant worlds grew out of rooms within sprawling country estates, tiny rural cabins, handmade shacks, industrial lofts or studio apartments, the surroundings they created empowered them to take their imaginations as far as they could push them.
While fine examples of their completed and collected artwork hangs or sits in museums across the U.S.—many of these places closed until further notice—the good news for art and culture-driven travelers is that the artistic retreats famous American artists left behind are open or soon re-opening to visitors—and you don’t need a passport to see them.
Studio Interior at Russel Wrights Manitoga Garrison NY. / Tara Wing / Courtesy Manitoga Russel Wright Design Center
As the end of 2020 is upon us, and wanderlust is setting in, there’s no doubt you are missing the pre-pandemic ease of planning an international trip itinerary filled with museum crawls, architectural tours and visits to castles, cathedrals, temples and manor houses.
As art historian and author Valerie A. Balint sees it, meanwhile, there’s never been a better time to plan a U.S. road trip built around the fascinating homes, studios and stomping grounds of America’s famous artists that allow you to get to know them in an intimate way you can’t in a typical museum.
“We’re all thinking about how we’re managing to live and work in the same space in a way that many of us never had to contemplate before,” she explains. “All of these ideas found in these studios and homes connect to the common human needs to express oneself and create, whether that’s through architecture, gardens, writing or performance.”
What better way to be introduced to famous artists than the place where they lived and worked, and sometimes raised their children.
Georgia O'Keeffes Home and Studio Sitting Room Abiquiú NM. 2019 / Krysta Jabczenski / Copyright Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Santa Fe NM.
Balint adds that while technology generated by museums around the world have kept the public connected to the art world and history through virtual visits, most art-driven travelers now have a need and a desire to get out of the house and interact with the tangible, visceral and immersive. This prompted her to create something that shows how and why a road trip to visit the dwellings of famous artists around the country can satisfy a need to connect with art in real time.
“What better way to be introduced to famous artists than the place where they lived and worked, and sometimes raised their children,” she muses. “These places can help us understand the process of making art, as you get to see all the tools and the alchemy they used that you would not necessarily see in a museum.”
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Wharton Eshericks Home and Studio Malvern PA. / Charles Uniatowski / Courtesy Wharton Esherick Museum
Balint’s just-released “Guide to Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios,” written and compiled in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the leading nonprofit and preservation advocacy group in the United States, transcends the average travel guidebook.
Balint describes it as both a “101 American Art History course” that can be read cover to cover, like a good non-fiction book, and a planning tool that allows one to cherry-pick places of personal interest to organize a weekender, regional art trek or a continent-crossing trip that opens up America’s artistic landscape in ways museums can’t. She also hopes readers will be enticed to seek out lesser-known artists while reading up on more familiar or famous artists when planning their art road trips.
Willliam Chadwick Studio Florence Griswold Museum Old Lyme CT. / Jeff Yardis
“Although each individual site is testament to the individual artistic achievements of one person or one small group of famous artists, these places are much a part of the nation’s history and culture as is a presidential library, the Gettysburg Battlefield, or natural wonders like Yosemite and Niagara Falls,” Balint continues.
“The artists represented in this book contributed to the overall national identity and legacy through their work and approaches to art. When they were active, they influenced other areas of American culture as well as responded to the world around them when they were making their art. All art is ‘contemporary’ when it’s made, and these are the places where that happened.
When you are inside these places, you’ll find that they not only represent an artist’s aesthetics and values, but also connect the threads between work, life narratives and creative expression that converge in a creative space.”
Dining Room Frelinghuyse Morris House Lenox MA. featuring works by Frelinghuysen / Gavin Pruess / Courtesy Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio
Balint’s journey to creating the book, in turn, was as storied as some of the homes detailed in the book. Earlier in her career, she worked to promote three famous artists’ homes, including that of Chesterwood, who created the sculpture for the Lincoln Memorial and the Frelinghuysen Morris Home & Studio in Lenox, MA, which was the home and studio space of American Cubist/Abstract artists Suzy Frelinghuysen and George Lovett Morris. After a 17-year run at Frederic Church’s “Olana House” in Hudson, NY, serving as a curator and interim director of collections, she was hired as Manager for the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios Program in early 2017.
The Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios organization, meanwhile, formed a consortium of a dozen artists’ sites in 1999 that would act as a support mechanism and dialogue channel to improve outreach and operations. Over the course of 20 years, the program grew to encompass 44 sites, and Balint estimates another 4 will be added in the near future.
Studio at Daniel Chester French's Chesterwood Stockbridge MA. / Don Freeman
As one of its main goals was to draw more U.S. visitors, creating a field guide to the various famous artists’ sanctuaries was the logical next step. Balint’s intimate knowledge of managing historic homes and studios made her the person for the job, while a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for American Art provided funds and resources for the project.
“In my first two weeks on the job, I already had my first pitch meeting with Princeton Architectural Press,” she recalls on the process and the finished book’s uncanny timeliness. “Although we went to press late in the fall of 2019, and we’re ramping up for the book launch in the following weeks, we were keenly aware that a new paradigm for how people travel—seeking out those hidden gems—was taking shape.
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Gari Melchers Studio Falmouth VA. / Courtesy of Gari Melchers Home and Studio Mary Washington University
However, the way we would inform the public about this book ended up being somewhat different than what was planned, with people looking for more to discover within the U.S. As someone who cares very deeply about the power of place, I found that during the compilation process, the rediscovery of the personal complexities of the famous artists and their lives ended up having a definitive parallel to the art they produced.”
To best appreciate the book when planning a trip, Balint explains its organization into five distinct regions (Northeast, Southern, Midwest, Southwest and Mountain-Plains/Western) helps the reader reframe the place of American art within a larger international dialogue of fine art. Every site within each region, in turn, offers a very different and distinct experience.
She hopes readers will make the connections between the integration of art, landscape and inspiration in any of these U.S. sites that they would experience in an area such as Giverny, France (regarded as the cradle of impressionism), the Netherlands and other famous artist hubs in Europe. She also suggests starting one’s research with a familiar artist and then branching out.
Dining Room Installation at Charles M Russell Home Great Falls MT. / Paris Bread / Courtesy C M Russell Museum
“Take Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic,’ for example, which is one of the most well-known and appropriated images in art history and pop culture. It was created in a very small workspace in a converted garage. Charlie Russell, meanwhile, decided he wanted to live in a cabin in a suburb of Great Falls, Montana, and created one from recycled telephone poles,” Balint says.
“While (things like this) may not relate to a finished piece, I can relate to the boldness of that choice and the freedom by which the artist decided how he or she wanted to live and what they needed to survive and practice in their vision. This reminds us that for every sort of magnificent home a particular artist created based on his success over his lifetime, there are many other famous artists who have been productive in more modest and unusual spaces.
Winslow Homer Studio Prouts Neck ME. 2012 / trentbellphotography / Courtesy Portland Museum of Art
It shows creativity doesn’t necessarily need a spectacular view to come forward. Artists are the curators of their own space, and I believe those surprising sites will be the most inspiring for both serious art connoisseurs and casual fans.”
Other homes provide interesting sensory benefits. Balint notes that when she visits the Winslow Homer studio in Portland, ME, she’ll walk out to a cliff block to feel and smell the spray of the ocean.
Jackson Pollock at work on Alchemy East Hampton N.Y.1969 / Herbert Matter / Courtesy Pollock-Krasner House and Study center
“I feel the smallness of my own human scale next to that power, and I become completely aware of how I can experience a Homer painting in a way that can’t be replicated in a museum or anywhere else, no matter how many books I read. People touring the various sites who think they know Jackson Pollack, Thomas Hart Benton or the Wyeth’s may stumble on a surprising personal fact,” she says
“Thomas Hart Benton was an avid musician and never far from his harmonica. Wyeth collected little tin soldiers throughout his childhood and held on to his collection as a touchstone. Some famous artists showed their art for close personal friends in their kitchen spaces. It makes their genius something even more relatable.”
Other examples she provides includes David Ireland, a conceptual artist who purchased a former Victorian Italianate home in San Francisco’s Mission District. While the structure seems “not in sympatico” to his signature style, once inside you’ll see polyurethane and everything glowing amber, transforming the space and making it his own.
There’s the home of James Castle, a deaf, self-taught artist in Boise, Idaho who produced art with basically anything he had available, from saliva to newspaper, twining and sticks. With determination and a supportive family, his work became internationally sought after. And then there’s Clementine Hunter, who grew up on a plantation in Louisiana and did not start painting until she was in her 50s. Like Castle, Hunter was self-taught and created folk art canvases documenting plantation life coveted by high-profile collectors like Oprah Winfrey, who loves famous artists.
Clementine Hunter at Melrose Plantation, Natchitoches, LA. / Original Color Photograph by Tom Whitehead / Courtesy Melrose Plantation / Re-touched Black and White Copy Image by Sohn Fine Art, Lenox, MA
“I think the need to express oneself is universal,” Balint affirms. “I’m always struck by how the homes and studios personify dramas that these people went through, whether it be losing children or suffering from their own debilitating illness. Yet they prevailed through the realization of amazing masterpieces that we’ll go to see in a museum anywhere in the world. Visiting the personal places where those visions came to life puts those experiences into greater context.