For the first time in its 43-year history, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Delaware County, has commissioned an artist to make a site-specific installation in the galleries. It is the first of a planned series of commissions to embrace contemporary landscape art.
The Brandywine is best known as the repository of work by the Wyeth family, chiefly Andrew Wyeth along with his father, the illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and his son, Jamie Wyeth. That artistic dynasty drew inspiration from the farmlands surrounding the Brandywine River.
Now, the museum has asked Matthew Jensen, a young artist from Brooklyn, to interpret that same landscape. Jensen, a photographer, is something of a walking artist.
“Walking is a natural part of most photographers’ lives,” said Jensen during a recent stroll along the Brandywine River. “I realized years ago that the process of making a photograph — being in the landscape — was a lot more exciting than anything else. Many photographers would agree.”
Jensen spent countless hours this summer walking along the Brandywine River and its tributaries, photographing what wild landscape is left along Routes 1 and 202 for the “Alongside Tall Grasses” exhibit.
“202 is a site-specific phrase in this town,” said Jensen. “It means the dreaded line of strip malls. Every town has a strip like this where it’s all traffic lights and lots of cars.”
That doesn’t mean it’s off limits to the nature photographer. Jensen took pictures of seemingly virgin forests which, just outside of the frame, abut a Subaru dealership. He is drawn to the edges of parking lots, where wild grass and manicured flowers square off and painted parking stripes crisscross with property lines.
The result is a three-part series of large-print photographs mounted on plywood and propped up against each other on the floor of a hallway outside the Andrew Wyeth gallery. Near this humble presentation is a stack of printed maps, encouraging museum-goers to stretch their legs outside.
“I’m reducing the importance of the final image, and increasing the importance of how people engage the work,” said Jensen.
Engaging the landscape
The Brandywine River Museum is the exhibition arm of the Brandywine Conservancy, overseeing the preservation of almost 60,000 acres of undeveloped land in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Built from the remains of a 19th century grist mill, the museum’s core is three-story rounded window offering 270-degree vista of the slowly rolling Brandywine River just a few feet away.
“The museum is designed so landscape is the first thing you see,” said museum director Thomas Padon. “But rather than the landscape being this passive element, I wanted to see how we can engage it. That goal ties in very well to some of the other thinking here.”
The Jensen commission launches what Padon said will be an ongoing embrace of contemporary art, which has not been the museum’s strong suit. It will also tie together the organization’s two missions of art exhibition and land conservancy.
The self-guided walking tour can be as challenging or breezy as visitors wish. The point is just to walk, and look.
“When you’re walking for a whole day, you’re alone, it’s quiet, and all of a sudden you have these little moments,” said Jensen, whose own discovery of a small piece of antique blue glass caused a minor flutter. “They seem like an explosion, but it’s really just a little discovery, and it’s really personal. The importance of things get elevated when you’re on a walk.”
Chadds Ford is not designed for walking. The small community has many acres of rural property that has inspired thousands of paintings and drawings, but Route 1 — the only way to get to the Brandywine River Museum — has no pedestrian crosswalks. Visiting the diner across the street for lunch can be treacherous.
That diner, Hank’s Place, one of Andrew Wyeth’s favorites, has a small parking lot in the back. Behind the parking lot is a large swamp. It has no official name.
“It’s blocked off by cars, but one of the most beautiful moments in Chadds Ford is this swamp,” said Jensen. “It’s so beautiful. There’s no lookout. No vantage point.”
Jensen’s points out a tree fallen across a stretch of swamp, acting as a very narrow bridge to nowhere. It allows one of the best views of wild Chadds Ford, afforded only to the brave and the balanced.