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Wyeth's Pa. world opening to public for first time

CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Andrew Wyeth's humble studio in the picturesque Brandywine Valley isn't something the average day tripper would stumble upon, but the late artist made his wishes loud and clear for anyone who might have found their way down the winding wooded path to his door.

"I AM WORKING SO PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB. I do not sign autographs," announces a small white sign at the entryway.

Now for the first time, the public will be able to get past that sign and venture into Wyeth's world.

Starting July 3, the studio will be open to the public for a handful of tours each day. Shuttle buses will transport a maximum of 14 people for the short ride from the museum to the studio for each tour. Timed tickets go on sale June 1.

"He did a great job of keeping the place under wraps," said Christine Podmaniczky, a curator at the Brandywine River Museum.

The fieldstone A-frame structure was built as a schoolhouse in 1875 and purchased by Wyeth's father, the celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, in 1925 when the school closed. Andrew Wyeth married his wife, Betsy, in 1940 and the old schoolhouse became their home, where they raised their sons Nicholas and Jamie, as well as Wyeth's art studio. The family also spent many summers in Maine.

They moved to another house nearby in 1961 but Wyeth kept the place as his studio for the remainder of his life. He painted thousands of egg tempera paintings, drawings and watercolors there, from the dark self-portrait "Trodden Weed" to his hundreds of secret Helga paintings, which generated worldwide publicity and controversy when they were suddenly revealed in 1986.

After Wyeth's death in 2009, his wife donated the studio to the neighboring Brandywine River Museum. Extensive work was necessary before the building could open to tours.

"Structurally it was a mess," Podmaniczky said, noting that the wood-shingled roof needed replacing, the foundation had to be stabilized and the chimney was pulling away from the rest of the structure. Every piece of the studio's contents also was scrutinized, from the smallest paintbrush to the largest piece of furniture.

"We sent things out to conservators," she said. "Everything was catalogued and numbered, all the artwork was copied and the copies were hung in the exact same places as the originals."

The rooms are both austere and cozy, lacking in decorative flourishes but filled with cherished mementos and personal collections that shed light on Wyeth's inspiration and interests.

Charming family photographs are interspersed with celebrity friends like Henry Fonda and Errol Flynn. In one photo, Wyeth is fencing with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; in the next room, fencing masks line a windowsill and phone numbers are jotted down on a wall next to the telephone. There are collections of World War I uniforms and helmets, Sheperd Paine dioramas, shelves upon shelves of art books, stacked film canisters and 1,250 military figurines — some from Wyeth's childhood and subjects of his earliest drawings.

An old film projector in what was once the living room points to the wall where the family frequently watched the epic World War I silent movie "The Big Parade," Wyeth's favorite film. Its landscapes and other imagery made their way into his paintings.

In the same room is a recreation of the little cordoned-off workspace, created by a then-teenage Jamie Wyeth with a couple of black fabric partitions, where he would paint his famous posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy in 1967, among other works.

"A lot of what we relied on is oral history," Podmaniczky said. "They were not a family who took a lot of photographs."

The main space where Wyeth did his actual painting is the most bare in the house. The unpainted plaster walls are adorned only with sketches and studies for his paintings and a few photos, while the dominant features are a huge mirror, paint-stained apron, round stool and brushes.

Long cracks run along the ceiling and a plywood sheet covers one window, concentrating the sunshine through the north-facing windows that brought the best light.

"He was very unassuming," Podmaniczky said. "The trappings didn't matter. He just wanted to paint."

Next to an artist's palette sits an egg crate for making his signature medium — egg tempera, a thick mixture of yolks, pigment and distilled water. Mary Nell Ferry, a guide who will be walking visitors through the site, said the famous artist's preferred eggs came from a local convenience store.

"He always used Wawa extra-large eggs for his egg tempera," she said. "They had to be white eggs because he thought brown eggs had an oilier consistency."

At the Brandywine River Museum, a companion exhibit brings together works featuring architectural elements and objects visitors will recognize after touring Wyeth's studio.