When 13-year-old Karl J. Kuerner showed a drawing of cows grazing on a hill to artist Carolyn Wyeth, she abruptly dismissed him.
Go home and draw what means something to you, she ordered. The boy walked back to his family's Chadds Ford farm, devastated.
So began Kuerner's lifelong obsession with celebrating visually the people and places closest to him - his wife, Louise, in her garden surrounded by dahlias and moonflowers; the family cats sunbathing in the barn; the fishing pond near his house.
Carolyn Wyeth, in her 60s when Kuerner first approached her, tutored him for seven years. As Kuerner cultivated his craft with scenes of his rural boyhood, the world's eyes already were turned on his family's 33-acre farm, made famous by the watercolor and egg tempura paintings of Carolyn's brother Andrew.
Many of the hundreds of Wyeth paintings of the Kuerner farm focused on Karl's grandparents, Karl and Anna, and the farm was also the inspiration for such famous works as
As an adult, Kuerner is known for art closely associated with the Wyeth name. It's a delicate connection. Kuerner, now 50, has grappled with the challenge of making his mark while proving he's not leveraging his career on the Wyeth name.
"I don't think you can grow up near the Wyeths and not be influenced by them," Kuerner said. "If people say you're riding on their coattails, what are you going to do?"
The answer: Produce quality work, Kuerner said.
Kuerner recently published a 117-page compilation,
All in a Day's Work
, which he calls a "visual diary" of his life on the famous farm. The book also is a handheld declaration that Kuerner has his own story to tell.
"So much is written about the Kuerner farm by the Wyeths. This is the Kuerner farm from the Kuerners' viewpoint," he said after a book signing at the Brandywine River Museum last Sunday.
The Kuerner farm was turned into conservation land in 1999. The Kuerners now live across the street.
The text of the book is chock full of childhood memories - jumping with his siblings in the horse trough to keep cool in hot summers; his grandfather driving the tractor while Kuerner threw bales of hay on the wagon for his father to stack; fishing in the pond built by his grandfather.
In the introduction to the book, Andrew Wyeth writes: "I have watched him grow into a true artist with his own vision. His work is inspiring and deeply introspective. It exhibits a strong, honest quality that comes from deep within."
for instance, portrays a moment of quiet reflection during a New Year's Eve celebration. Nine of Kuerner's friends got together at the last minute, nicknaming the gathering their "Pathetic Party" since no one had been invited to a party, he said.
They played charades, donned party hats, and gathered on the porch to watch fireworks through the fog. Kuerner quickly sketched in pencil his guests watching the fireworks.
Kuerner superimposed the partygoers on a forest to evoke the eeriness of the fog on canvas. Wearing gowns, suits, and party hats, the guests look like spirits dancing in the mist.
The Kuerner farm at night also sent Andrew Wyeth into fits of frenzied inspiration. One floor above where Kuerner signed the books hangs Andrew Wyeth's
According to Wyeth's 1995 autobiography, he was walking at 1 a.m. in back of the Kuerners' stucco house. The full moon illuminated the melted patches of snow. He made a few quick pencil sketches before hurrying back to his studio. Wyeth painted the scene in watercolor in about a half-hour, leaving swaths of naked paper to replicate the pure white snow.
Andrew Wyeth had keys to the Kuerner home and complete freedom to roam the farm, said Kuerner. The two artists never painted together. But
All in a Day's Work
includes one portrait of the master.
Andy at Work
shows the artist curved over his sketch pad in the Kuerners' barn. Wyeth is white-haired and wearing a tweed jacket; his face in profile reveals an inner peace as his pencil moves across the page. Kuerner painted the portrait without Wyeth's knowing, rationalizing that it's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
He said he was glad he didn't ask for permission - Wyeth was pleased with the painting.
Kuerner, who works largely in acrylic, said his style is influenced by Carolyn Wyeth as well as Robert Henri, a leader in the Ashcan School, a group of eight realistic painters who worked mostly in the early 1900s.
Kuerner said that Andrew Wyeth took a keener interest in his life after Carolyn's death in 1994. He recalls the biggest compliment he ever received from Andrew: "Karl, you're painting like you have something to say."