The rain pelted down on a long line of people outside a gift shop in Stow, Ohio. For one woman it was a two-and-a-half-hour vigil before she reached the man they’d all come to see. The welcome was for Charles Wysocki, 57, and he was surprised at the turnout. “You people must be crazy!” Wysocki said. “I wouldn’t wait this long to see me.” That becoming modesty somehow fits the man who is probably the nation’s foremost living painter of Americana and thus the artistic heir of Norman Rockwell. After Wysocki signed the waterlogged woman’s $165 print, she declared, “We wouldn’t have waited this long to see the President!”
Funny she should say that. Wysocki’s homespun paintings are just what Ronald Reagan likes (though it is not known whether the President would stand in line to buy one). But when he was Governor of California, Reagan did hang Wysocki’s New England River Farm, a maple-sugaring scene, in his office. Reagan even wrote the artist saying how much the painting cheered him each morning.
The Today show commands his work too; Wysocki was recently profiled on the telecast. His celebrity, in fact, is widespread even without the help of Reagan and TV. Autograph seekers besiege him and students flood him with mail. As fast as his acrylic originals leave his studio in the San Bernardino mountains (about once every six weeks), they’re sold to collectors for as much as $30,000 apiece. An American Celebration: The Art of Charles Wysocki (Workman, $25) sold out within three months of publication, and Wysocki’s annual Americana Calendar ($9.95) and posters are best-sellers as well. All this activity has added up to $7.25 million in sales since 1979.
Wysocki’s only beef is never having had his work reviewed by art critics, a complaint that makes William Wilson of the Los Angeles Times testy. Says Wilson: “If they’re inside the art system, they don’t get ignored.” That verdict doesn’t keep other painters from following in Wysocki’s brush strokes. “There are probably a half dozen artists all trying to do what Chuck does,” says Dave Usher, who publishes Wysocki’s work. “But none can touch him.”
Wysocki began painting his rural scenes 22 years ago, after discovering the San Fernando countryside and the pristine timelessness of New England. His work evokes not only the stylized sentimentality of Norman Rockwell but also the simplicity of Grandma Moses, and yet manages to defy categorizing. “I’m too citified to be folk and too trained to be primitive,” says Wysocki.
The results are paeans to the past: colloquial scenes of neat clapboard houses and industrious apple-cheeked families working and frolicking under wind-stiff star spangled banners. Into these scenes Wysocki inserts familiar details—window boxes, doorsteps and lanterns, a cat on a sill, a vase on a table, tiny children’s drawings in the panes of a schoolhouse window. “Kids study all the little things,” Wysocki says, “and they’ll say to me, ‘Every time I come back and look at your paintings, I find something new.’ I think it makes for a more interesting painting to see all these little things going on. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun.”
A cheerful, dumpling-shaped man, Wysocki fairly blushes when his name is linked to that of Rockwell. “That’s quite a compliment, isn’t it?” he asks. “I think it’s an exaggeration. To fill Rockwell’s shoes, that’s an awful lot.” He prefers to think that his work is a vision of America as he’d like it to be. “In my paintings you don’t see empty bottles or rags lying on the road,” he says. “I don’t think nostalgia has to be grubby. Maybe secretly I’m an environmentalist and would like to clean up America.”
Born and reared in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit, Wysocki remembers that “walking down the street on holidays was like walking through a tunnel of red, white and blue. As I started painting, these memories came through the brush and into the painting. That’s one of the reasons I feel very patriotic. It’s a reversion to my youth.”
The younger of two sons, Wysocki could easily have grown up as disillusioned as his father. A Polish immigrant, the elder Wysocki was a Ford assembly-line worker who suffered four embittered years of unemployment during the Depression. Young Charles’s mother, a cleaning woman, made the difference. “It was her companionship that kind of took the curse off my father’s attitude,” he says. “She was always upbeat, and I made up my mind to be the same way. I wanted to prove something my father didn’t believe.”
After two years in the Army, Wysocki started training at the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles when he was 26. He was a free-lance commercial artist in 1960 when he met Elizabeth Lawrence, a summa cum laude art graduate of UCLA. Six weeks later they were married, and in 1964 Wysocki switched to his outdoor scenes.
The couple lives with two of their three children (the oldest is away at the Wharton School) in the village of Cedar Glen. Their home is an anomaly amid the California chic—and straight out of a Wysocki painting: a custom-built New England colonial appointed with oak sideboards, antique tobacco tins and needlepoint. A stickler for order, Wysocki uses a ruler to line up houses, rooftops and fence posts in his paintings, and his home studio is just as neat. He is at his easel by 8 a.m. and works until 5 p.m. six days a week, often with movie classics on TV to keep him company. His optimism and enthusiasm seem endless. “There’s just so much in the world to paint,” he says, “and so many things to put down on canvas. I wish I were an octopus and had eight hands painting at once.” He could also sign more autographs, which would shorten the wait for his fans.