Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Walking in the footsteps of the Wyeths

06/07/2018 12:20PM ● By J. Chambless

Catherine Charlton says of the CD project, 'I really feel like I've created lasting art here.'

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The same way that Andrew Wyeth used a thin line of watercolor on stark, white paper to evoke a tree branch, Catherine Marie Charlton places perfectly spaced notes in a composition to draw us into Wyeth's world.

Charlton's “I Dream About This World: The Wyeth Album,” which was released by the acclaimed pianist last July, is an airy, richly nuanced musical exploration of the creative process. Deftly blending classical music with subtle notes of jazz and delicate improvisation, the 11 tracks on the album are wrapped in a book that delves into the Wyeth family, Charlton's eloquent musings, and her dazzling photographs, which were taken during her many walks through the Brandywine Valley, where Andrew Wyeth drew his own inspiration.

 Sitting at her kitchen table for an interview, Charlton recalled how she first encountered works by Andrew and N.C. Wyeth after moving to the Brandywine Valley from Virginia after college. She came here for a job at a credit card company in Wilmington, but during concerts she gave at the Wilmington Institute Library, she got to see N.C. Wyeth's paintings for “Treasure Island” displayed on the library's walls. Visiting the Brandywine River Museum, she saw the breadth and depth of the family's art, particularly that of Andrew Wyeth. “You can't help but see them around,” she said, “both originals and prints, everywhere. I did not know a lot about Andrew Wyeth, but I had started seeing his paintings at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. One of the things that started this project is that I coincidentally had a series of daytime concerts at the museum at the same time I was looking for a topic for my next album.”

She toured the N.C. Wyeth home and studio in Chadds Ford, “and that's when I made the connection that I should try to find out more about the Wyeths, because it would be a good topic for me.”

After seeing “Memory and Magic,” a major exhibition focusing on the Wyeths at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Charlton was hooked. “That was probably my first in-depth introduction to Andrew Wyeth,” she said. “I really connected with the paintings. I remember being really impacted by that exhibit. When I started this project, I thought it was going to be in response to specific paintings. I had no idea what journey I was setting out on. I thought it was going to be a one-year project, and it ended up being four years. It ended up being more about the creative process – and not just Andrew Wyeth, but the whole philosophy of the family. The more I delved in, the more I found parallels between the way I approach my music and the way he approached his paintings.”

Andrew Wyeth passed away in 2009, so Charlton never met the artist. His sister, Ann Wyeth McCoy, who passed away in 2005, was a composer whose works gained acclaim during her lifetime. Charlton performs one of McCoy's original compositions on the new album.

“My biggest sources were all the interviews by Richard Meryman,” she said of the Wyeth biographer. “I heard him at the Bradywine when he came to speak about the last book he wrote on Andrew. That was my first introduction to the words of Andrew Wyeth. What struck me was how Andrew Wyeth was able to express the creative process so succinctly, eloquently and beautifully,” Charlton said.

After talking to Meryman, Ann's daughters Anna B. McCoy and Robin McCoy, and the staff at the Brandywine River Museum, Charlton was building a mountain of information, but realized that her research was long on facts and short on heart.

So she decided to begin a series of “Wyeth Walks” around the woods and fields that both N.C. and Andrew Wyeth had explored thousands of times. “I would find these quotes from both of them, and they both had ways of describing creativity so succinctly,” she said. “I was looking to experience the Brandywine Valley and the woods the way they had. There's a sort of spiritual essence to the land. That became, for me, the way of looking at the world. I take these walks without expectations of what I'm going to find.”

Charlton documents each walk by taking photos – eventually more than 9,000 of them – and posting just one image from each walk to summarize the experience. Walking through the landscape again and again brought her into the same creative space that inspired the Wyeths for decades. She traveled to Maine, where the Wyeth family spent the other half of their lives, and walked the rugged coastline. Deeply immersed in nature, she sought to distill the experiences into music that is as soft and sparing as one of Wyeth's landscapes.

Her piano playing is augmented by contributions from cellist David Darling, guitarist Carl Weingarten and others, as well as nature sounds originally recorded by Charlton and then enhanced by producer and chief engineer Phil Nicolo, who Charlton called “my equal partner in this project.” For his part, Nicolo “said this is one of the proudest projects of his career,” Charlton said. The Wyeth CD is the first full-length release on Nicolo's own Phil's Records label.

The immersive musical landscape comfortably spans new age and classical genres, and the compositions echo themes and works by the Wyeths, whether listeners notice them or not. The extensive liner notes, essays and illustrations in the book that holds the CD is the kind of deluxe package that usually accompanies best-selling rock bands. “I had so many intricate stories about the inspiration behind every piece,” Charlton said. “I wanted to get the stories down, and at some point I decided that I wanted a visual to go with each song.”

Working with journalist Catherine Quillman, who had interviewed Andrew Wyeth several times, Charlton honed insightful stories about each track, pairing them with a few paintings by Andrew and N.C., and her own photographs. “We started talking about this package,” she said. “We decided that we needed it to be a gift item for museum gift shops. It needed to be a book, not just a CD, because CDs are a dying breed, and more and more people don't even have CD players.”

The album is featured at the Brandywine River Museum, as well as the Seattle Art Museum, and through Amazon.

The four-year process, Charlton said, “has changed my creative process,” particularly her photography skills. “I always had a camera with me on hikes, but I never delved into the photography in this way. This is brand new, directly as a result of this project. On my new website, I'm going to actually call myself a photographer,” she said, smiling. “As it evolved, I became a visual artist, because I did a lot of back-end digital manipulation of the photographs. That became something that I really enjoy doing.”

Since the CD was released, critical and public acclaim has been pouring in. Charlton cited Amy Morey, the director of the Wyeth Study Center in Maine, “who said what was so refreshing about this project is that it's about my own art. It was inspired by Andrew Wyeth, but the result is my own voice. That was what they really appreciated. It's important for them to see that his legacy is expanding and influencing the next generation in an impactful way, and not just an imitative way.”

The Andrew Wyeth Estate also granted permission for some of the artist's paintings to be used in the CD booklet, and at Charlton's lectures and concerts. “I know that permission is not given lightly,” she said. “During his lifetime, he said that he never wanted his art attached to someone else's art. That's why I don't have a Wyeth painting on the cover of the CD, for example. He wanted other people to have their own art, and not to be riding on his coattails. I was always respectful, and I wanted to make sure I was respecting the legacy.

“I really feel like I've created lasting art here,” Charlton said. “It's changed my entire life, not just my creative process. It's really reinforced the way I parent as well.”

Charlton's two children were toddlers when the Wyeth project started, and now they are in elementary school. She is inspired by the way that N.C. Wyeth raised his remarkable family, getting them out into nature, playing classical music for them in the evenings, putting on plays at home, and encouraging them to read and paint and write on a daily basis.

During the process of producing the Wyeth project, Charlton worked on three other CDs, including her “Maiden's Voyage” solo release in 2015. The past few years have been chaotic personally and momentous in her professional life, but Charlton is looking ahead to showcasing “I Dream About This World” in a new surround-sound version produced by Nicolo that may be released on a DVD, incorporating her own photos and concert footage. She also wants to perform the piece in concert with full visual accompaniment. “The surround sound is amazing, and it's an incredibly immersive experience,” she said. “I'm really looking forward to showcasing it.”

For more information, visit www.catherinemariecharlton.com.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline