Sprawled over 12 wooded acres atop the peaceful, serene Valley Forge Mountain in southern Pennsylvania sits a multi-building art museum. The studio on the grounds is filled with gorgeous pieces of sculptural furniture made from natural elements. Free-flowing and expressionist yet functional. The windows of the edifice let in plenty of natural light. In the fall, the forest around the building is ablaze with red and yellow leaves, and in the winter, the landscape is blanketed in snow, the treeless branches dusted with white. Located in the small town of Paoili, Pennsylvania, which sits along the Delaware River, the museum feels a world away from Fairhope. And yet, this museum houses something unexpected: wood prints of Spanish moss-covered oak trees labeled “Alabama” and another of a looming pier rising from the water, labeled “Daphne Pier.” There is a travel chess set made at the Organic School in Fairhope and ceramic animals made in Daphne. This is the Wharton Esherick Museum and, according to Holly Gore, the director of interpretation and associate curator, “Wharton Esherick’s journey to Fairhope in the winter of 1919-20 was a world-shifting event for him.”
Wharton Esherick was born in 1887 to a prominent family in Philadelphia. Despite his parents’ wishes for him to pursue what they considered a “respectable” career, Esherick had a passion for art, particularly drawing and painting, from a young age. After completing school, he went to work for the newspaper and married a free-spirited social worker by the name of Letty. She had a special interest in organic education, ignited after hearing a speech by the founder of Fairhope’s Organic School, Marietta Johnson.
Johnson had been a lauded teacher for over a decade when she experienced a change of ideals, believing that traditional classroom instruction “violated the order of development of the nervous system. I realized that my enthusiasm was destructive, and the more efficient I was, the more I injured the pupils.” Johnson developed a method of teaching that was radical not just at that time. but still feels so today. She eliminated grades until high school, as well as textbooks. In fact, she discouraged young children from reading until the age of 9. “Young children,” she said, “were not ready for print.”
Instead of sitting in the classroom, children were encouraged to explore their natural world, and the emphasis shifted from focusing solely on academic performance to nurturing the whole child — mind, body and spirit. Students were encouraged to follow their own interests, with teachers providing structure and steering students away from “unwholesome activities.”
Educators challenged them to do their own personal best, rather than compete with others or earn a certain grade. John Dewey, a renowned philosopher of the day, visited the school in 1913, and deemed it “how the ideal of equality of opportunity for all is to be transmuted into reality.”
Letty was captivated by the words of Johnson and had an interest in opening an organic school herself someday. However, it was a tragedy that served as the primary catalyst that launched the family’s move to Fairhope. In 1919, the Eshericks’ daughter Anne suffocated in her crib, leaving Letty stricken with grief. Wharton and Letty decided to depart for the warmer climate of Fairhope for a change of scenery, and for their 3-year-old daughter Mary to attend the organic school. Letty looked forward to shadowing Johnson and learning more about organic education under her tutelage.
Fairhope, at the time that the Eshericks ventured there, was still heavily influenced by the Single Tax Colony and the utopian ideals they brought with them to the bayside community. In November of 1894, 28 people had arrived from Des Moines, Iowa, led by Ernest B. Gaston to establish a colony based on the theories outlined in the book “Progress and Poverty,” written by social reformer and economist Henry George. They called themselves the “Fairhope Industrial Association of Iowa,” as they felt that their social experiment had a “fair hope of success.” A single-tax colony operates on the principle that taxing land values alone eliminates the need for other taxes, such as income or sales taxes. The aim was to reduce speculative landholding and reduce wealth inequality, while the increasing value of land would contribute to public finances.
The colonists bought up the land that was available for sale at the time — which led to patchy land ownership and interspersed the colonists with existing residents — and leased it to settlers for 99-year, renewable leases. In theory, the lessees would own all the improvements of the land and would be charged an amount equal to the full rental value of the land, but this plan was never realized. The Fairhope Single Tax Corporation was incorporated in Alabama in 1904, but this model would only last four years. Realizing that financial survival depended on a more inclusive approach, in 1908, they opened themselves up to non-members to become lessees. Gaston hoped that people who relocated to Fairhope would adopt the ideals of the colonists, but this rarely occurred. Nevertheless, the socialist ideals of the organic school and the single tax colony appealed to the values and beliefs of the Esherick family.
When Esherick arrived in Fairhope, he was trying to find his niche as a painter and artist. Wharton spent much of his time in Fairhope exploring the natural environment, painting and sketching. He walked along the water of the Bay and wandered through the woods. According to Gabriel Gold-Vukson, director of the Fairhope History Museum, “Fairhope’s founding and early years took place during the American Impressionism art movement, which Esherick was a part of. One characteristic of the movement was the migration of artists to rural or scenic locations such as Fairhope to capture impressionistic subjects. Fairhope appears to be more special to Esherick, who described it as ‘the town with a soul’ and ‘sacred ground.’ According to “Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind” by Mansfield Bascom, “Wharton became a familiar sight around the colony. On warm days he would set up his portable easel on the beach, in the meadows, in the gullies, in the pine woods or in the shade of one of the large oaks dripping Spanish moss from its branches. He worked in oils, watercolors and pastels.”
It wasn’t just the natural environment that inspired Esherick. He was also known to frequent Black churches in Fairhope, sketching the preacher and congregation. The sketches convey the movement and passion of the sermons and worshipers.
While Esherick was content to travel around the countryside painting, he inadvertently found himself in the role of educator. According to Wharton Esherick museum curator and program director, Laura Heemer, “When he voiced criticism of how art was being taught at the school, Johnson challenged him by asking what he was going to do about it — and so he became an art teacher. He chose to teach in the afternoons, so he could save the best part of the day, the morning for himself.”
Not only did Esherick teach at the Organic School, but he also became an art teacher at the Black school in Fairhope as well, against warnings by locals that he might be run out of town. A lawyer in Fairhope wrote to him, “The people are very much disturbed at you. They know you’re going out and teaching at the colored school and they don’t like it … When you’re away, they will come here and they’ll gather all the things in your house and put them on the wharf there and kick you out of town.”
According to Heemer, Esherick was undeterred and “chose to walk two miles out of the way so that the locals would not know he was headed to the Black community. At the end of the school year, Esherick held an exhibition of his paintings at the
Organic School and invited students from the Black school to attend and see their instructor’s work. This caused a major uproar in Fairhope, but Johnson stood by Esherick and allowed
everyone to enjoy his paintings.”
Left Esherick teaching at the Organic School. Courtesy Fairhope Museum of History.
Right Esherick in Fairhope, 1919. Courtesy Esherick Family Photo Albums, Wharton Esherick Museum
This exhibition proved to be a turning point for Esherick as an artist. Along with his impressionist paintings, “he carved a series of ornamented frames for the works,” says Gore. “This was the beginning of a slow but certain transition from being an underappreciated painter to a sought-after maker of sculptural wood furniture.” Johnson recognized Esherick’s talent for woodwork and encouraged him to try woodcarving while he was teaching at the Organic School. “He began exploring printmaking, turning his many sketches of Fairhope’s trees into block prints.”
After that winter, the Eshericks decided to return home to Pennsylvania. According to Gore, “For Letty, the Fairhope trip turned out to be far more than a panacea for grief — a life-changing experience.” The Eshericks met and formed lifelong friendships with writer Sherwood Anderson and his artist wife, Tennessee Mitchell Anderson, as well as curator Carl Zigrosser and his wife, Kinglet. They also met Mary Marcy, an author who used Esherick’s woodcuts to illustrate her book, “Rhymes of Early Jungle Folkways,” which was published in 1922. Letty had also become involved in modern interpretive dance while in Fairhope, which reinvigorated her and helped her process and heal from her pain.
Marietta Johnson tried to convince Esherick to return to Fairhope to teach the following year, even offering him the opportunity to teach however and whenever he wished. She described Esherick as the “most organic teacher” she had ever met. However, Esherick declined, having moved on from teaching and shifting his attention to his other creative and artistic endeavors.
The Eshericks did return to Fairhope off and on throughout the years, according to the Fairhope Museum of History. Their final time, the winter of 1929-30, was under quite different circumstances. The couple’s relationship was strained, and they were going through a divorce. Letty had suffered from encephalitis and required a hired caregiver to assist in her care. Despite this, Esherick continued to find artistic inspiration in the little town by the Bay. He met a potter named Peter McAdam, who worked at O’Neal Pottery in Daphne. McAdam was known for his playful, creative ceramic pieces, including jugs with human and monkey faces on them. “Esherick and McAdam collaborated on a series of ceramic garden sculpture animals — horses, elephants, monkeys, frogs, giraffes, a pelican and a bear with a conical nose called Winnie the Pooh,” says Gore.
While, altogether, Wharton Esherick only spent a short time in Fairhope, the influence of the natural beauty of the Bay, the open-minded spirit of the Organic School and the fellowship of artistic minds they met during their stay cannot be overstated. This “town with a soul,” this “sacred ground” left an indelible mark on the artist. “The influence of the Organic School, specifically, on Esherick can be seen in his later work,” says Gold-Vukson. “Not only was he transformed from a painter to a wood sculptor at the school, but his style — described as concerned with form, not technique— is a direct reflection of the Organic School philosophy. His signature works, which are sculptural furniture, are functional but flow organically and are free of conformity.”