Rooted in Art
Edgar and Joyce Rinehart Anderson ’45 enjoy a lifelong dialogue in wood
by Sherri Kimmel
April 1, 2010
Edgar and Joyce Rinehart Anderson ’45 relax at a table that they crafted. They also created the dark-brown decorative sculpture and the “Wood Book,” which, in their typically whimsical fashion, is literally made of wood. The Andersons made the bookcase, at left, for a physician client. It illustrates their use of natural wood.
“As responsible citizens we don’t own our land; we are stewards of our land. We hope to pass it on in better shape than we received it.”
Sixty years ago, Edgar and Joyce Rinehart Anderson ’45 were launching a career that would gain them renown as two of the foremost American craft artists. But they also were starting to steward the arresting, wild and rolling piece of land they had just purchased with all the money they had.
In 1950, they paid $350 an acre for the 15-acre heavily wooded plot in Morristown, N.J., and spent years clearing it—with Joyce running the bulldozer and sharing two-person saw duties. Reflecting back on those days of hard labor, Edgar recounts how, one weekend, the saw slipped and sliced into Joyce’s leg. With their doctor off duty, Edgar improvised by taping together Joyce’s leg, until she could be attended to on Monday morning.
The couple has done a lot of improv work over the years. They made the tools they used to craft the wooden furniture—tables, chairs, bookcases, stools and so forth that show a clean Scandinavian influence—as well as more mercurial pieces.
Some of their most celebrated works are “Chest of Drawers”—literally named, as it depicts a curvaceous female torso built of stacked shallow drawers—and “Time Piece,” a six-foot-high carving of a hand and forearm (modeled on Edgar’s own) with a working wristwatch. Many of their highly collectible pieces have been displayed in the homes of private collectors and museums, including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Newark, Montclair and New Jersey State museums, Yale University and Bard College.
As their ability to design and fashion furniture, jewelry and decorative pieces has declined due to health issues, they’ve focused their formidable intellects on preserving their other life’s work—their land, barn and hexagonal wood-and-stone house, which is resonant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Ensur-ing their property will be protected from what they call “predatory real-estate developers” has consumed much of their time for the last decade.
After much legal wrangling, they hammered out a deal for their crafts studio, house, pristine woods and the Primrose Brook that trickles through the property to be responsibly preserved. The Harding Land Trust, Harding Township and New Jersey Audubon Society gathered $1 million to purchase the property—a fraction of its market value—which will be overseen by the Audubon Society once the Andersons no longer live there. The plan is for their house to be the residence of an Audubon Society executive and their studio to become a small, by-appointment museum.
A major concern, says Joyce, was “that there would be no hunting on the property. Our idea is to keep the woodland in good shape. This is a very good woodland, and [the brook, an important trout production stream that feeds into the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge] is good for research on water resources.”
Always interested in literature and writing, she recently composed an essay stating her philosophy of living harmoniously with nature:
“... We have always had a certain anthropomorphic feeling of responsibility and think the animals feel secure here from hunters, since they gather here and bring up their young without fear of predators. Occasionally a mother deer will leave a newborn fawn in the tall grass just 20 feet from the house for two weeks as she comes back and forth for feeding through the day. We are trustworthy babysitters. ...”
Joyce reinforced her written thoughts by remarking how one year she and Edgar invited three motherless baby raccoons to share their home. “They would come in and watch television, get into the wash basket. That was a year we didn’t get much done [workwise]. Yet we brought up the three little ones in a way that they could go outside.”
“We would teach them what we knew about raccoons,” adds Edgar.
For decades the tall, slim couple worked through local government to “keep developers out” of Harding Township, says Edgar. “We got people to run for township council and would go to meetings to fight for particular things.”
Through nearly 65 years together, they’ve been “a fighting team,” says Joyce. The couple dated when they attended high school in West Orange, N.J. But at Dickin-son, where she was a languages major, copy editor for The Dickinsonian, Chi Omega president and the May Queen (“it was like being a bride,” she recalls), Joyce was engaged to a fellow student. He was killed in World War II. When Edgar, a Pratt Institute architecture graduate, returned from the war—having chosen service over the prospect of apprenticing with Frank Lloyd Wright—they reunited, marrying in 1946.
Edgar’s continuing adoration is evident. Pointing to their kitchen table, which they hewed from one huge log, he notes that Joyce lathed the smooth metal spindle legs and applied a special blue coating.
“How could you do anything so simple in such a difficult way?” she comments, examining a graceful table leg.
While she had begun as his woodworking helper, she evolved into a true partner, with a specialty in lathing. Breath-ing fine sawdust for years left her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which requires dependence on oxygen.
She’s been invoked as the first or second female designer in the American craft movement and, as such, was interviewed by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Edgar also was interviewed, and their papers are being collected for the archives.
Besides wood, Joyce has a penchant for weightier materials, having dug out and cut the stones, then constructed the walls outside the house and the floors inside. “I like to find the right stone then find where it should live,” she says.
Where she and Edgar should live right now is still their handcrafted residence overlooking the brook. They’re anticipating the impending installation of a sign outside the driveway marking their property as Anderson Woods. It will read, in part, “The beauty of the land inspired their renowned art and their dream to protect it and its wildlife for all future generations.”
The transcript of an oral history conducted with Joyce Anderson ’45 as part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America is available at www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/andersj02.htm.
In 1956, Joyce Rinehart Anderson ’45 is depicted with some woodworking tools.