On Writing, Preservation, and Andy Wyeth: Catherine Quillman

539178_10150646974301640_2108133034_nCatherine Quillman is the author of several books covering regional culture, including 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, which showcases painters and sculptors. More recently, Catherine co-authored (with Sarah Wesley) Walking the East End: A Historic African-American Community in West Chester, PA. Catherine spent several years covering the arts and culture scene for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is known for advocating for the preservation of historic structures in West Chester. In addition, Catherine is an artist herself. She had a piece of artwork recently featured on the cover of Philadelphia Stories. I’ve known Catherine for a few years but wanted to learn more about her roots, her interests, and her upcoming projects.

Jim: Your books, whether 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, or Walking Uptown (which you co-wrote with Sarah Wesley), or Between the Brandywines are about the local area. Did you grow up in or near West Chester? If not, where are you from?

Catherine: Ironically, considering I write about local history, I’m from the planned city of Columbia, Maryland. When I think about it, I must have been history-minded back then because I saved the poster from the city’s first anniversary – it’s a very 1960s design and was silk screened by hand! I remember I pulled the poster out of a trash can and biked home with it at the age of 7 or so. It’s now hanging in my laundry room. (May be I should sell it on eBay!)

Jim: Walking the East End, your first walking tour book, is a fascinating look at the East End, the historical African-American neighborhood in West Chester. How did you and Sarah come to collaborate on this project?

uptown-cover-2Catherine: I met Sarah when she worked as a receptionist at the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) and I covered art/history with the Inquirer. Remarkably, this was way back in 1995. She had just finished a walking tour of the same area. The artist Mark Cole drew illustrations but the booklet was never published. Fast forward to 2010 and I was looking for a short project to do. I remained friends with Sarah and knew that she didn’t like leaving her East End booklet languishing in the proverbial drawer.

Fortunately, we had an added incentive because I was able to get a grant from the Leeway Foundation. The writing of that grant made me realize that Sarah had a lot of material but the draft wasn’t yet focused on the East End as the birthplace of Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rob Lukens, the president of CCHS, later came up with the idea of having a book signing on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on D.C. which Rustin famously planned ( and introduced Martin Luther King’s “I have A Dream” speech.)

Jim: What’s something about the Chester County Art Scene that you think would surprise most people?

Catherine: Well, if you are only vaguely aware that there is an art tradition known as the Brandywine Art Tradition, you might be surprised about the number of professional artists here. I could have written a book titled 150 Artists of the Brandywine Valley and still had more artists to spare! You might also be surprised to know that “nontraditional” artists now outnumber the artists who paint traditional watercolor or oil landscapes. The Brandywine Tradition, dating back to the late 1800s, is a realist based movement, in case you wondered.

Jim: I understand you interviewed Andrew Wyeth a few times. Can you tell us about a memorable moment from one of those meetings?

Catherine: Well, first off, any encounter with Wyeth was memorable! You may remember that he painted his model Helga in secret for 15 years and then became America’s best-known reclusive artist. He just hated answering the same question over and over again: did he have an affair with Helga? That became known as “THE question.”

I remember my editor at the time thought I should pull a “Barbara Walters and ask THE question in an off-hand way, as we were walking the grounds of Wyeth’s property and looking, for example, at the millrace. I doubted that I could arrange that – it was hard enough getting an interview – and sure enough I was glad that I even got a chance to speak to him alone, at his house in Chadds Ford.

Alone is the operative word because Wyeth actually greeted me at the door himself (I was expecting a maid) and sat down next to me on a loveseat. He may have wanted to be near the two tape recorders I had running on the coffee table, but still it was a little disconcerting since he had a way of studying your face when you were asking him questions (truly a portrait artist).

Years later, I discovered that I wasn’t alone with Wyeth that day. His biographer Richard Meryman, said he was there that day, sitting in the kitchen. He joked that he was jealous since I was allowed to use a tape recorder whereas he was first banned from using one.

A few years before Wyeth died in 2009, I traveled all the way to Maine on a magazine assignment and he changed his mind about the interview. Or rather, he wanted me to “come back another time” or wouldn’t’ I prefer to interview “his son” meaning Jamie Wyeth? I think he was just tired because this was after his two-city retrospective. Anyway, we were suppose to meet in a restaurant, which is a terrible place for an interview but I suppose he didn’t want me taking a rowboat out to his private island.

I remember that the magazine piece was about a collection of Helga drawings that were being sold, and I carried a stash of copies so that I could show them to Wyeth and he could have a visual reminder. The restaurant was a tucked-away old tavern so it seemed like I was going to make some sort of spy top-secret exchange – the drawings for Wyeth’s memories. It’s a shame he canceled – it would have been fun telling him that. He enjoyed the idea of secret encounters!

Jim: What’s your next project?

Catherine: I like to have several projects going at once, mainly because the creative, personal ones take longer with no immediate income. Also, my business, Quillman Publications, gets various commissions. Most recently, I was commissioned to write an illustrated history of “Johnstown,” the historic Italian-American section of Downingtown ( and home of the annual frog dinner for those in the know!) Also, I’m finishing a book on an antique ice tool museum on the edge of West Chester. (It was closed in the winter; go figure as they say.)

I’m also helping an 80-something artist with the third edition of his watercolor book, A Watercolor How-to : Tips and Techniques My Instructor Never Taught me. As its title suggests, it’s a fun book! You can see it on my web site too ( http://www.quillman-publications.com).

My long-term projects include a children’s book on a 19th century tavern and a YA (young adult) novel on the poorhouse. I know – every writer has a children’s book idea – but I continually get help from the Highlights Foundation. You may recall the name from the Highlights magazine everyone read in the dentist’s office but the foundation now includes a publishing house and workshop retreat place at their headquarters in Honesdale, PA.

I attended a workshop last summer and literally a pair of bears and their cubs showed up the morning the New York literary agents arrived! The bears hung out in the word garden — which had words like “Inspire” and “Creativity” written on stones you could re-arrange like those little word magnets you used to see on people’s refrigerators.

Anyway, I highly recommend the Highlights Foundation if you are interested in children’s books. It’s like joining a long-term support system once you attend your first workshop.

Jim: You are known for being an advocate for the preservation of historical buildings in the borough of West Chester. How did your passion for preservation begin?

Catherine: I think I became “known” in an official way in 2013, when I received a “preservation service award” from the West Chester Downtown Foundation, mainly for documenting the East End.

As for the “beginning,” Inquirer policy probably would have prevented me from speaking out at borough meetings (even though I’m a resident), but I have been thinking about preservation at least since I covered West Chester’s Bicentennial in 1999.

In the last few years, I have drawn more and more on my research (including vintage postcards) in my preservation efforts. In fact, I joke that people must see me as the “100 year-old woman” because I seem to know so much about the historic streetscape and the former uses of buildings.

I call it my occupational hazard as the de facto town historian – I know how many architecturally important buildings we have lost. Sadly, it’s been a lot and makes me think of the expression “demolition is forever.” I’ve read old newspaper accounts of events like the demolition of the Market Street train depot and the Warner Theater, and I see the same story again and again. There’s always a line that the building is “an eyesore” and the borough needs blank-blank for what we now call a “revitalization” project. In a recent Main Line Today magazine story, a friend and fellow historian had the perfect quote. It was “some say you can’t save everything. But if you start with that position, you won’t save anything.”

Lately I’ve heard a new line and it’s related to what I call the “Super-Size-Me” trend of small towns. They say that West Chester has already changed dramatically and we need new buildings to accommodate more people. So I think my “passion” is really a sense of urgency on my part.

Without mentioning specific projects, I think we have lost the idea of adaptive reuse – it’s either razing the building and maybe saving the façade. At many borough meetings, I feel I’m in a “the Emperor has no clothes” scenario because only a few people consider the historic streetscape. I should clarify: With the exception of Market Street (designed originally for a market house), West Chester was built to have small-scale streetscapes and through the decades, developers have retained that for the most part. Today, when a change is made, the new structure dominates – it looks urban, massive or like a soundstage for My Fair Lady to me. Hopefully, the borough’s new comprehensive plan will serve as some kind of protection for the historic character of the borough’s downtown areas and we’ll have more zoning “overlays,” as they call them, to control growth.

Jim: Thanks Catherine!

Catherine’s books can be purchased at Chester County Book Company or at Amazon. To learn more about Catherine’s work, and to see a photo of her with Andrew Wyeth, click here.

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