|Andrew Wyeth: His Mill
An Interview with Betsy Wyeth
A new exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum, Andrew Wyeth: His Mill, features 42 works of art by Andrew Wyeth painted at the site of the artist's home beside the Brandywine River in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The exhibition reveals the development of Andrew Wyeth's artistry over 43 years as well as the historic restoration of The Mill and related buildings by his wife, Betsy.
In a rare interview for the media, Betsy Wyeth recently recounted her earliest memories of The Mill and discussed her unique approach in restoring it from an assemblage of neglected, historic structures to her family's home for the last four decades.
Q: What was your impression of the property when you first saw it in 1958?
A: Weeds were everywhere and the buildings were starting to fall down. We took 15 truckloads of tires out of the millrace. The village used it as a place to throw old tires.
Q: Did it take time and several visits for you to envision the property as your future home?
A: No, not at all. I always see things finished. I just instantly saw the possibilities. The first time I saw it, there were people still living in the house. They said the rats, which were as big as cats, had been there since the American Revolution. I was terribly polite and really didn't want to upset these people. They hung around for awhile and told me all kinds of stories. This one is hard to believe. One day, after we had bought the property, a woman and her daughter drove in, and the daughter said, "Momma wants to tell you something. I know you have been cleaning out the race, and she is awful afraid." So, I said, "What's wrong?" The mother timidly replied, "We buried my son in the backyard." Those are the kind of things that happened in the early years.
Q: Did Andy share your vision the first time he saw it?
A: No. He was looking at it as an artist. He was intrigued by the dilapidation and the dogs chained up.
Q: In 1958, was it difficult to find research materials to restore the buildings?
A: Well, that's not how I went about it. I've always picked people that will go along. I've had carpenters work for me that just couldn't believe the floorboards I wanted. They would say, "You must be crazy? What do you want those for?" By the time we were finished, they had become restorers. I would go to farms and buy windows in chicken houses and give them new windows so I could get the glass.
Q: The property includes one of Pennsylvania's only working millwheels. Was that a major part of the restoration?
A: The millwheel had turned by turbines. It was just jammed with machinery all the way through. So, we called the Smithsonian and offered the machinery to them. They were thrilled to death because they had never had an offer like that. I said, "Just take it, take everything." Then I began researching how a mill operates. The master carpenter, George Heebner, and I realized that it was a very broad, undershot wheel. The toughest thing was finding a big enough axle. Finally, we got word that a big tree had fallen down at Radley Run near here. We got the tree, and that's the axle.
Q: Were you conscious that, in the process of restoring the property, you were actually creating subject matter for Andy to paint?
A: That's like somebody saying, "I have the most beautiful daughter would you mind doing a portrait of her crawling across a field." That's the kiss of death. No, absolutely not. I'll do exactly what I want to do, but I'm always aware of how (Andy's) paintings will look in the house. I need simple walls; there are no curtains. It's terribly important. Paintings are tried out in the house and if they look good, it pleases Andy. It's very exciting to see his work and how it effects him. I'm only conscious of Andy's paintings after they are finished. I have posed, of course, that's why Maga's Daughter is in the exhibition. I posed for it in the living room there. I'm very bad at posing. I get bored.
Q: Did the property turn out exactly as you envisioned it?
A: Yes. It's funny. There are certain things in architecture that fascinate me. I'm not a conformist. I'll take what's there and save it. The Mill is a perfect example. I wanted to bring it back to its simplicity.
The house has been through two fires and stone walls won't take a third. It's called "dead" stone. You have to be very, very careful. You can still see where the flames from one of the fires came out through the door that faces up river. A woman actually lost her life in that fire, I understand. She jumped into the millrace, and that's the worst thing you could do. That's history, along with the child buried there.
This is a great place because you hear the river all of the time. I have to be surrounded by water. Put me in a desert, I would die. An artist does paint his life. If you want to know who Andrew Wyeth is, well, here it is.
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