Photographer Peter Ralston on Betsy and Andy Wyeth
Yankee classic from February 2000
Peter Ralston is telling me about a boy he once knew. In 1957, when the boy is seven years old, he moves to an old gray stone house in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The house was part of a once-prosperous Quaker farmstead with its own mill and dam. The Brandywine River flows beside the house, and when the boy stands on its banks, he sees birds and tree-covered islands, and except for the distant waterfalls, it is quiet. In summer, with the neighbor’s children and with his two brothers, he swims to the islands.
A split-rail fence divides the boy’s house from another large stone house, because once the two houses were part of the mill property. In 1958 an artist and his wife and children move into the other old house. Beside the house is a barn, and that is where the artist occasionally paints. The boy leaps the fence and hides in the tall grass; he crawls on his belly, his elbows scraping the dirt, until he finds the high grass close to the back door of the barn. The barn door is open, and sitting on an old box in the corner of the barn is the artist. The game, Peter Ralston tells me, is for the boy to be still and silent, to hold his breath and actually crawl inside, close enough to watch the utter intensity and concentration of a grownup at work.
“The great lesson Andy Wyeth gave me was that you could be an adult and get by in life by being curious and expressive and artistic,” Peter says. “I was like the Wyeths’ dog, just always running through the house. The magical person for me in that house was Betsy Wyeth. She was so motherly and nurturing and nourishing. A very powerful, very astute woman. Andy is as tough and as forceful a person as I’ve ever met, but it was Betsy who painted me into this role I’m in today.”
Where Peter Ralston is today is in a chair beside a row of windows in a third-floor, high-ceilinged, sun-filled Rockland, Maine, studio, where his walls are lined with framed photographic prints from Sightings, A Maine Coast Odyssey. The book is a collection from his 20 years of photographing the coast of Maine and the lives of its fishermen that most of us never see. He is dressed in jeans and flannel shirt and fleece vest, and throughout his boyhood story his eyes have not left the window and the streets below. He wears thick tortoiseshell glasses.
He sees a policeman in a parking lot place a ticket on the windshield of a green car with Vermont plates. “Hey!” he calls out. “Give ’em a break!” The policeman looks up, waves, and smiles. From his windows Peter Ralston looks out upon the new Farnsworth Art Museum and the Wyeth Center, which houses one of the largest collections of Wyeth art in the country. From a window to the rear of his studio, he sees the bay and breakwater. From another window he can see the hills of Rockport, where his own large graceful house looks out over a pond. He can walk to a spot on his land where he can see Penobscot Bay and far beyond, to the mountains on Mount Desert.
The simple act of looking out his window, the simple fact that he is here, talking, remains Peter Ralston’s miracle. Two years ago he suffered brain aneurysms and a major stroke, all aftershocks from what was supposed to be a simple nasal-passage operation. What doctors did not know then was that a hidden tumor sat on an adrenal gland. The anesthesia, coupled with the tumor, caused a near-lethal rise in his blood pressure. After two operations, he lay in a coma for three days. Doctors thought that if he survived, he’d be blind, perhaps paralyzed. He survived — but he needed months of recuperation. He lived in dark, silent rooms. He sometimes sat with a book upside down and thought he was reading. When I sit in his studio, surrounded by his photos, I am reminded that he has
not taken a photo in more than two years.
“I’m told that I’m the first one to ever survive this,” he says. “I look at everything differently now. Some days I wake up, and when I look at my kids [he has three], I just cry from joy. I’m still me now, but I’m changed. So many people helped me get better. The people from my community. The people I’ve come to know by tying up to their floats. When you’re on the receiving end of that caring, you can never shake it.”
We walk together, looking at the photographs on his walls. He looks fit, healthy. “I’ve never felt better,” he says. “Life is so sweet to me now.”
On his wall I see the hands of a young Port Clyde fisherman gripping the wheel of his grandfather’s last boat. I see a Frenchboro lobsterman, his hand lightly touching the shoulder of his young great-grandson, who proudly holds his first cod. A print of the photograph hangs today in the American embassy in Bosnia, a symbol of tradition, permanence, family. Here is a flock of sheep tightly huddled in a boat, bound for Allen Island, where they will live and keep the land clear.
“This is 20 years of my life,” he says. “The one thing that counted most with Sightings,” says Ralston, now 49, “was what Andy and Betsy thought. They said, ‘You did well.’ ”
He was a restless boy. No matter what private school he was sent to, he soon dropped out. “You have to realize the family expectations for me,” he says. “When I was born, there was a silver baby mug engraved with my name and Princeton Class of ’72.”
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