For the current inhabitants of Fairhope, the name Wharton Esherick is rarely remembered. But in his day he had some impact, and there can be no doubt that the years he spent in Fairhope (1919-1920) changed him forever.
I heard from my friend Chock McInnis about a symposium on Esherick at the University of Pennsylvania October 1-3, and we both planned to go. He was bringing some people from Fairhope, he hoped, and had great expectations for the conference. His special interest was in learning something about Sherwood Anderson, the writer who was Esherick's great friend in Fairhope, and picking up more information about Esherick himself. the symposium promised sessions on the many influences on Wharton Esherick, and Chock and I both knew he had always said he got his start as a woodcarver in Fairhope. I knew that Esherick had come to Fairhope to teach art at the School of Organic Education, and left with a new set of carving tools that was to change his life. But there was much more to learn.
At the prestigious UPenn symposium, I was astonished to hear "Fairhope, Alabama" ringing clearly any number of times in almost every lecture about Esherick. The picture these talks painted was of a Bohemian Socialist-leaning settlement in a remote and seductive place. I yearned to jump up and take the lectern to throw in a few choice facts myself. I had learned of Esherick when I worked at the Marietta Johnson Museum in Fairhope some ten years ago. A picture he had painted of Marietta Johnson hung in over the mantelpiece at the School Home, but I never knew that. It was not a flattering likeness, and as I child I always secretly hoped it wasn't her. Esherick was not very successful as a painter, but when he learned to carve he became known as the country's premier wood sculptor. His woodcuts are elegant and simple; his furniture is breathtakingly bold and practical as well. His relationship to his medium seems organic and fundamental. Along with a few other artists, he was present at the birth of what has come to be called Modernism.
Chock, Marlene Cavanaugh and I were all pleased to introduce ourselves at the coffee breaks to those who would listen by saying "We're from Fairhope!" although I had to qualify it since I no longer live there. At last Fairhope emerges from the shadows as more than a classy retirement community--a place that nurtured an artist who came to be in the vanguard of the Modernists. We watch Power Point presentations that showed snapshots of his family, him working in his woodshop, and samples of his paintings, woodcuts, sculpture, furniture, utensils, and even houses, designed by Esherick. His amazing oeuvre has a whimsical personality of its own, both practical and unique. It in many ways embodies what I think of as "old Fairhope," created as he himself evolved and lived what he thought of as an organic life. A very stimulating two days that left me with a wish for more--more recognition for Esherick and more information as Chock and I separately seek to research the Fairhope of the past.
Update in 2012: Wharton Esherick makes a cameo appearance in my book That Was Tomorrow, now available as an eBook. Esherick and his friend Sherwood Anderson make a brief appearance at a Fairhope party, which they may well have done in 1921. Esherick had left Fairhope but returned from time to time to visit, and he and Anderson did enjoy the party scene. That Was Tomorrow is now available on my website my website or on amazon. com, Barnes & Noble. com or on iBooks.