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Karl J. Kuerner: Defining American Art in the Brandywine Valley

His family’s farm once a font of inspiration for Andrew Wyeth, Karl J. Kuerner also finds his muse elsewhere.

By J.F. Pirro

Upcoming Exhibit: Places to Go, Things to See runs Nov. 2-Dec. 16 at the E.O. Bull Center for the Arts, West Chester University. Artist reception 5-8 p.m. on Nov. 2. Call (610) 436-2755 or visit wcupa.edu.

Karl J. Kuerner in his Chadds Ford studio. See more photos below. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)More than anything else, the Brandywine Valley arts tradition has helped solidify the raw definition of what it means to be an American artist. More than a profession, it’s a calling—and if anyone could hear that calling loud and clear, it was Karl J. Kuerner. The late Andrew Wyeth made the Kuerner family’s property on Ring Road in Chadds Ford one of the world’s most famous farms. It’s estimated that more than 1,000 Wyeth paintings originated there, forming what may be history’s most unique assimilation of art and agriculture.

Why was Wyeth so infatuated with Kuerner Farm? He never offered a reason other than an affinity for Kuerner’s grandfather and his spiked cider. The elder Kuerner died in 1979 at age 80. Thirty years later, Wyeth passed away (more famously) at 91.

One of the young Kuerner’s first farm memories is of Wyeth painting his grandfather’s bull. “I remember wondering why anyone would want to paint a bull,” he says.
 

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Though Wyeth had already been painting the family farm for 20 years when he was born, Kuerner first had an opportunity to appreciate what he did there at a 1966 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts show. Then 9, Kuerner saw his backyard in a different light.

His earliest artistic instincts were reaffirmed by the opening page of The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, a treasure he discovered in a lot of art supplies, easels and art books he bought for $15 from a neighbor. Kuerner often retrieves this book and rereads the influential passage:

Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens and opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, and shows there are still more pages possible.


“Andy once told me that we’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg here,” says Kuerner. “There’s no bottom. There’s no end. There are more [artists] to come—more than you can imagine.”
 

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Kuerner remains amazed by the draw the Brandywine Valley has been for nonindigenous artists. “There’s a magic,” he says. “It’s been like a magnet. Now, whether those who come here are trying to catch in on the bravado, or if they’re drawn by their souls—that’s the question. And there’s a big difference, don’t you think?”

There was an early magic that drew Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. They recognized and channeled it, then built upon it. “Howard Pyle begat N.C., and N.C. begat his children, and Andy begat Jamie [Wyeth],” says Kuerner. “It’s like throwing a pebble into a lake and watching all the ripples feather out.”

Kuerner always felt a responsibility to continue the tradition, ever since his father—also Karl—took his son’s drawings to Carolyn Wyeth, Andy’s sister. “She told me to go home and paint something that was meaningful to me,” says Kuerner, an only child who was 13 at the time. “It led to a 7-year mentorship.”

Even then, Kuerner was certain he wouldn’t become a farmer. His father—who, at 84, still farms some—told him there wasn’t any money in it, and he’d witnessed his grandfather selling land to pay his taxes. Granddaddy Kuerner once sold a painting given to him by Andy for $12,000 to buy two tractors. One of Wyeth’s earliest works, it quickly resold for $65,000. Painted when Andy was just 17, it would likely fetch a quarter-million dollars today.
 

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Andrew Wyeth’s influence on young Karl Kuerner was fostered by countless conversations—some even about the art of being an artist. “He spoke with [me] not as an older artist to a younger artist, but at the same level,” Kuerner recalls. “The message was always: Keep painting. That the beauty you share comes from within, from emotion. That life is art and that your own original art is your own life’s history—and that you constantly have a chance to enlighten or disturb.”

Take one of Wyeth’s most controversial paintings, 1978’s “Spring,” of Granddaddy Kuerner. He’s face-up, apparently naked and covered in a snowdrift, as he was ill and dying in real life. “The family didn’t like it,” Kuerner admits. “But, as a farmer, you have to get to the root of the land. It’s been well documented that the painting was about life, and not a picture of an older person dying in the snow. But Andrew never asked permission, and he had free reign on the farm.”

In turn, this Kuerner has used the Wyeths for inspiration. In 2004’s “Out of Nowhere,” he paints his version of the train that killed N.C. Wyeth and his grandson at the edge of Kuerner Farm.

Though Kuerner positioned and built his house on the opposite side of Ring Road for the second-floor studio window view of the fields, farmhouse and barns of Kuerner Farm, it’s just as important that the window catches northern light. In fact, Kuerner hardly paints at the farm anymore. And though he’s never left home, his work has made a distinct departure. “Sometimes you zigzag, but you eventually become your own artist,” he says.
 

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Even so, Andrew’s aura can cast a shadow over any emerging artist. “It’s still difficult, and it always will be, because of my last name,” says Kuerner. “Kuerners will always be associated with Wyeths.”

Kuerner’s recent exhibits have been intentionally diverse. “Each piece should reveal what makes you [the artist] tick,” he says. “Each of my paintings always has a story behind it.”

“No End in Sight” (2004) documents his first ride on a roller coaster. After buying a pair of eagle heads (pictured in the painting) at a Stroudsburg antiques shop that came from Dorney Park in Allentown, the artist visited their original home to tie the two together. “Lost and Found” (2006) was inspired by his discovery of a $10 bill after a septic tank overhaul. And Andrew raved about “Hot Tub” (2002), which deposits an old, white porcelain claw-foot tub inside a corncrib. “There’s something that catches your eye,” Kuerner says about his work. “But there’s a reason it’s there.”

Working mostly in acrylic, sometimes in watercolor and occasionally oil, Kuerner paints “life experience,” as he sums it up. He’s also working on a sequel to his first illustrated kids’ book, Ike at Night—one he’ll call Ike Takes Flight, about Ike, his black cat and a trip in a hot air balloon.
 

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Kuerner’s latest painting pays tribute to Louise, his dear wife, who died of lung cancer a little over a year ago at 58. “[Louise] always believed in me being an artist, and that gave me freedom,” he says. “For an artist, you can’t ask for more.”

The untitled work is of her draft horse, Dentzel (named for the German carousel carver), pulling her in a sleigh through the snowy woods. It will be the centerpiece of Kuerner’s Places to Go, Things to See, the inaugural exhibit at West Chester University’s E.O. Bull Center for the Arts. “Karl brings a real diversity of imagery—the traditional Brandywine Valley heritage, but also his new, more contemporary and illustrative work,” says John Baker, WCU’s art department chair and the gallery’s director. “It’s really a broad spectrum from his life experience.”

There have been more than 50 paintings of Louise over the years. “The hardest part was watching it happen, though we’d prepared and treasured our time together,” Kuerner says of her death. “I helped her end her story in the book of life, and she helped end a chapter in mine.”

Kuerner learned of Wyeth’s passing in a phone call. “We feel the artistic loss and the loss of a friend,” he says. “But, in me, I feel it building up the need to keep going. The creative process can’t end. And, in some ways, Andrew’s death nurtures it.”