Andrew Wyeth’s "Snow Hill" (1989), on exhibit at Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Outdoor preschools are all the rage in Seattle now, because parents want their kids exploring nature and learning in forest classrooms. Walking through the new "Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect" exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, you see why.
Wyeth studied leaves frozen under a thin layer of ice. Feathers blowing in the wind. A river’s torrential flow. The reflection of water flickering on the bow of a boat. These are pictures you’ll want to linger over with your kids.
“I think we all know what it means to live a life very close to nature,” says Patricia Junker, the Ann M. Barwick curator of American art at SAM. “All that we feel about the forces of nature, and people who have been tested through time as fishermen, seamen. I think we will be right at home in those pictures.”
The show, organized by Seattle Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum of Art, marks the centennial of Wyeth’s birth. It includes 106 works from the artist’s 75-year career, including his final painting, "Goodbye," painted in 2008, just a few months before he died.
When I entered the exhibition, I thought, “Uh-oh.” Was this going to be one of those dimly lit shows with little pictures hung at adult eye level? Thankfully, no. The gallery is spacious and bright, hung with large paintings filled with careful details. Kids will love playing “I spy.” Go on a hunt for the sleeping dog, the cows, the tin soldiers on a windowsill and the portrait of Wyeth’s young son, Nicholas. Every picture is filled with characters, strong emotions — and an opportunity to tell a story.
“The show is amazing for young people because it’s all about stories. Kids of all ages relate to stories,” says Regan Pro, the Kayla Skinner deputy director for education and public programs at SAM.
Wyeth had risen to fame by the 1950s, but he was considered an outsider in the art world. Take a walk through SAM’s modern art galleries, and you’ll see lots of abstract shapes and bright colors, but no figures. Wyeth’s distinctive drybrush watercolor style was so realistic that you can practically see every blade of grass on a hill. As he chronicled the life around him, he didn't take any shortcuts. He painted a man sleeping on a crazy quilt. A seated girl wears a checked suit. Curtains crocheted with birds flutter out an open window.
“Every picture requires a long time. It’s going to be time consuming,” Junker says. “I think you’ll find yourself whiling away quite a bit of time because every picture is engaging. It’s not one of those walk-by-and-read-the-label kind of shows.”
SAM’s last show, Yayoi Kusama’s "Infinity Mirrors," was a natural hit for kids. Flashing lights, shiny mirrors and colorful polka dots everywhere! This show takes a sharp turn into serious portraits and sparse landscapes from rural Pennsylvania and coastal Maine. Wyeth liked painting in the fall and winter, using a muted palette of browns and grays.
There’s a lot of brown. Which is a lot like watercolors at my house. No matter what colors we start with, we end up with a lot of muddled brown.
My kids’ favorite stop in the show, admittedly, was the table set up with half a dozen touch-screen monitors. Visitors are invited to make a digital painting of the landscape where they live. A wall-mounted TV displays finished works (but none of the ones I saw used brown).
In the gift shop, you can pick up a 504-piece puzzle ($24.95) of a Wyeth painting. That’s at least 502 tiny pieces of gray sky. Good luck. But don’t miss the biographical movie playing in the shop, which shows home video clips of Wyeth as a kid.
Heads up for parents: There are female nudes in two galleries. If you’re concerned, you can ask a security guard to show you a route that avoids them. It’d be a shame, though, to miss the portrait of a nude woman sitting by a window. The light is stunning.
Wyeth’s most iconic painting, "Christina’s World," isn’t part of this exhibition, but you see other portraits of Christina Olson here. There’s an especially tender picture of Christina snuggling a kitty. Also on view is a well-known painting of Helga Testorf titled "Braids," one of more than 240 the artist painted or drew of the German model.
The show includes unfinished quick studies, in pencil and watercolor. You see pictures in the process of emerging from a blank sheet of paper. In "Winter Bees," 1959, Wyeth encountered a honeycomb bursting with bees in an oak tree.
“God, the quality of that transparent, golden honey in those incredible hexagonals is amazing!” he wrote. “I didn’t finish it because some animal came and ate it.”
Tips for kids
Regan Pro, who’s a mom of two young boys, shares strategies to involve your kids with the show:
- Play a game of looking at the pictures. Tell a story about what just happened and what happens next.
- There are lots of repeating themes in this show. How many barns can you find? How many boats?
- Talk about the concept of home. Wyeth paints potted geraniums on the windowsill and a rocking chair by the stove in Christina’s home. What is your home space like? What makes it feels like home? Who are your neighbors?
- Take a sketching walk of your own neighborhood.
- Wyeth loved the movies, and films inspired his work. Pull out your phone, and film your kids telling a story or doing a skit. They’ll love watching it again and again.
- Practice perspective drawing in the museum’s Chase Open Studio, where there’s a dollhouse set up against a landscape. The drop-in studio is always free, and located in the middle of the grand staircase along University Street.
If you go
When: "Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect" is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 15, 2018. The museum is open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on most days. On Thursdays it's open until 9 p.m.
Where: 1300 First Avenue in downtown Seattle
Cost: Entry to the Wyeth exhibit requires paying special admisison pricing of $22.95–$24.95 for adults; $14.95 for students and teens; children ages 12 and under are free. Admission to the special exhibition is 50 percent off on First Thursday (when admission to the rest of the museum is free). Tip: You can reserve a free museum pass through the Seattle Public Library. Tickets are released at 9 p.m. daily for dates 30 days ahead.
Parking: Rates and hours for garage parking here. Or park at the City Target across the street, where a $20 purchase gets you two hours of free parking. Or take advantage of easy transit service to downtown.
Learn more: Dial 206-866-3222 on your cell phone for a free audio tour of the exhibit. You can also listen to the tour at wyeth.site.seattleartmuseum.org.
Free event for teens: Mark your calendar for SAM’s teen night out on Saturday, Nov. 11, 7–10 p.m. The whole museum is free for teens and their accompanying adults.
Tips for young families: Look for the family room (one floor down from the Wyeth exhibit) when your kids need a break. SAM’s entire first floor is free-entry, and makes a great place to have a snack and wander. Find tips from museum educators for engaging small children in art.
Saturday, Nov. 11, 10 a.m.–12:30 p.m., for young artists (ages 6–10). Bring a picture of a landscape you love and paint it with help from a teaching artist. This workshop is already full.