Maine Author Brings Andrew Wyeth's 'Christina's World' to Life
It’s well known among Maine art lovers that the iconic Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World” is a portrayal of a real woman – Christina Olson – and her real house, in rural Cushing, Maine.
Olson is the subject of the new book, “A Piece of the World,” by part-time Southwest Harbor resident Christina Baker Kline.
Kline grew up in Bangor, and visited the Olson House (now part of the Farnsworth Museum) as a child. “A Piece of the World” tells Olson’s story, in her voice.
Nora Flaherty spoke with Christina Baker Kline about the book, her research, and Christina Olson’s relationship with Andrew Wyeth. She began by describing the painting.
Baker Kline: She’s sitting in a pink dress, and she’s facing this grey house in the distance that’s sort of foreboding and strange. And the painting at first glance is sort of pretty, but as you look closer you realize it has these odd dissonances. It’s strange.
Flaherty: What did you know about Christina Olson when you started working on this?
Baker Kline: When I started working on this novel, I didn’t know anything about her other than that she had been the subject of this painting, and that she had really lived in the house that’s in the painting, and that I had visited as a child.
Of course, my name is Christina, my mother and grandmother are also Christina, and my grandmother Christina grew up within a decade of Christina Olson. They grew up in rural farmhouses, they both had debilitating illnesses as children, they both had no running water, no electricity, no modern amenities.
Flaherty: How did you learn about her?
Baker Kline: I read everything I could get my hands on, I took tours of the house, I became friends with the tour guides, I interviewed, and was lucky to befriend, the chief curator at the Farnsworth house, and I interviewed members of the Wyeth family, and the Olson family, and people who knew them, and I really immersed myself in Christina’s real world.
Flaherty: I’m surprised there were Olsons left!
Baker Kline: Christina didn’t have any children, but her brothers, except Alvaro, the brother she lived with, did. I was fortunate enough to speak with Jean Brooks Olson, her niece, a lovely woman who wrote an incredible book that’s now out of print that’s about Christina Olson ("Christina Olson: Her World Beyond the Canvas," by Olson and Deborah Dalfonso).
Many of the details that she described in a sentence or two I used as the basis for chapters. And so I felt very lucky not only to have access to that book and to have talked to her in person.
Christina’s nephew John, who by many accounts was her favorite, also wrote a book, a sort of autobiography, but a lot of it was about Christina ("John Olson: My story, as told to Christina Olson"). But probably my greatest resource was Richard Meryman’s biography of Andrew Wyeth ("Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life").
I wanted to see if I could do this, even though it’s a first-person narration, by sticking to the facts almost entirely.
Flaherty: What details did you flesh out into chapters?
Baker Kline: Almost everything that happens in the book actually happened. You see her, for example, spend four years on this love affair with this man from Harvard who came in the summertime, and went home in the winter, and they wrote letters, but eventually he stopped writing. And she discovered that he was engaged to someone else. It was a heartbreaking story. Jean Olson wrote about it extensively in her book, and I was able to fill in the details as I imagine them.
Flaherty: Some of the details in this book are really interesting, and really lovely. I enjoyed reading about her cooking and sewing. But there’s also a lot of stuff about farming and fishing and life in the early 20th century in rural Maine. How did you find out about those things?
Baker Kline: I had done some of the research for Orphan Train, but I read some of the books that were published in Maine; one called "Old Maine Woman," and then there was a follow up to that one. One’s called "We Took to the Woods" (by Louise Dickinson Rich), about a family that just went off into this house, in sort of the present day, who lived the way Christina lived. My friend John Veague taught me a lot about fishing – he fished as a child the way Alvaro fishes with his father, with handmade hooks, and handmade lures and everything.
Flaherty: And as you were researching this and trying to get to know how people lived at that time, what stood out for you?
Baker Kline: The way Christina lived in the world, given that she had this debilitating disease that got worse over time (It’s thought to have been the neurological disease Charcot Marie Tooth, and I was lucky to stumble upon a documentary about a woman who has it today.
What I found fascinating is that Christina was incredibly determined, stubborn and obstinate in some ways. She wouldn’t use a wheelchair, she almost until the end, she was cooking, she was even sewing, her hands were gnarled and they got more and more fused, it was difficult to do anything, but she persevered.
She would drag herself around, she dragged herself to her friend Sadie’s house, she would take herself down the field to visit the graves of her parents; she was determined to have mobility, and dignity.
And, by the way, that is what Wyeth, I think, captured so beautifully, and what he was attracted to in Christina. I think he saw in this woman who just absolutely was not going to let herself be bowed, or give in to self-doubt, or self-pity. It was an exciting relationship, I think, for both of them.
Flaherty: You did choose to write about Andrew Wyeth. He’s loved by many people, but his reputation has gone up and down over the years. Where does he stand today?
Baker Kline: You’re right, he’s one of the most celebrated and successful American artists. But he fell out of favor in the second half of the 1960's, and that lasted for a while, with the rise of pop art and minimalism and other art movements that rejected traditional realist aesthetics. A lot of people in the art world did not take him seriously, and in fact his obituary in the New York Times was pretty damning.
But his reputation has been growing, and there’s a fairly new book called Rethinking Andrew Wyeth (ed. David Cateforis), full of pieces from art historians and curators, looking at Wyeth in the context of American art, and basically saying what he did that’s so spectacular is that he heightened the ordinary to reveal fundamental qualities of human existence.
They call it metaphoric realism, or sort of a combination of American regionalism, which is what he had originally been tagged with, and figurative surrealism. And if you look at his work, you can see that surrealism under the surface.
Interview edited for length and clarity