Friday, February 10, 2012

To know the world

A few more words about N. C. Wyeth.

He was, as I said, a complex, difficult, demanding man, whom his children stood in awe of and idolized. He lived through and for them.

He was for them a "mentor in general awareness."

As his biographer David Michaelis says, he rarely talked about aesthetics or technique, instead urging his children to know the world. He might suddenly drag them all outside to observe a particular tree or slant of light on a field. The house was full of reference books and reproductions of art by the masters. All great artists studied the world intensely, he told his kids. "A thing done right," he said, "is done with the authority of knowledge."

I think of my own father. He was no N. C. Wyeth, but he lived through and for his children. To me, as a child, he seemed to know everything. Certainly, he spoke with what seemed to be the authority of knowledge. I recognized later that some of his knowledge was half-baked, and some of what I learned from him had to be straightened out. But what stayed unrectified was his sense of curiosity, his sense that more knowledge was to be gleaned from observing the world than from the works of philosophers and theologians. Even as he lay dying of cancer at age 64, he was gathering data, filling notebooks with an engineer's accumulation of numbers, graphs and diagrams. His world had perforce been reduced to his own body, but he observed it in every particular, confident to the end that attention -- general awareness -- was key to the knowledge that would bring him back from the brink of oblivion.