Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Monday, May 11, 2009

In the Nethers


KARL KUERNER, SR.: "Andy spends a lot of time over here, painting. We don't pay him any mind. We let him alone. That's what he needs. To be let alone. To know that we don't care how long he stays, or when he comes, or when he leaves. He could just as well be a rabbit coming and going. That's what he likes."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  When we arrived at Kuerner Farm Tuesday morning there was a red pickup in the driveway. Although we worried that it might be someone who would try to countermand our mission, fortune was smiling. We quickly discovered that the pickup belonged to Karl J. Kuerner, the grandson of Karl Kuerner, Sr., Andrew Wyeth's surrogate father and friend. Karl J. is a painter who learned to draw as a child, "watching Andy," and studied painting with Andrew's sister, Carolyn. Karl was happy to answer our questions and talk about art, and soon he was showing us through the barn and then showed us how to close up after he left.

Beyond the red door we passed between horse stalls into a deep, crypt-like space forested by columns. At the front and side of the barn, light poured in though several windows but barely seemed to penetrate the shadows. At the back, where the barn was dug into the hillside, a yellow glow came from a bulb above a steep, narrow stairway. How could I help but imagine Andrew Wyeth on his first adventure here perhaps as many as seventy-seven years earlier. Even though Wyeth rarely drew the barn, I sensed his spirit among the cobwebs and, I'd like to think, lurking in this image.

Karl Sr's spirit was quite evident everywhere. Karl J. writes of the, "No electricity needed here...stubborn independence that marked the Kuerner's 75 years of farming." Karl Sr. has been portrayed as a hard-working individualist who lived a utilitarian life and prided himself on his capacity for labor-saving, home-spun innovation. We'd already caught a glimpse of how he harnessed the underground spring. Most working barns are practical, make-shift affairs, added on to and altered as needs or crops change. Barns are studies in "form follows function," and Karl had made sure his barn was as functional as possible.

Kuerners' is a bank barn, a large one. The lower stories are dug into the hillside. At the back wagons can load hay bales and grain directly to the two upper floors. Inside, the arrangement of spaces was filled with surprises. It was clear it was the result of a careful plan integrating vertical spaces with horizontal layout. Making sense of them would require a longer visit or an expert tour, but I'm sure it's all geared to what needs to be where at which season. Various chutes and ducts seemed to have been added or altered as practices changed slightly. What was the adaptation that scooped a bit of daylight onto the steep, narrow stairs. Light was a necessity there before electricity. On the other hand, extra space for stair wells and in some cases stair rails were an absent luxury. I could imagine someone lugging an awkward bundle down the stairs and how a rail might make that impossible. Few bundles are lugged now. Hay bales are stored, but no cows are milked now and the dust has settled.

Later we visited Karl J. at his home, just behind Kuerner Hill, and I especially enjoyed his clean sense of design and the thoughtful characterization in two of the portraits I saw there.