The Three Amigos
Cindy Davis Meixel
Tucker Worthington’s first memory of painting reaches back to sixth or seventh grade. “We didn’t have any art classes then, but someone had handed me some supplies,” he recalls. “I’d been affected by reading something on World War II and I drew this downed pilot—a solitary soul in a rubber raft out on the open sea—all in pastels.”
Seven decades later, recollection, reality, and obsession continue to move across the canvas as Worthington explores his world—and other worlds—from Stony Fork Creek to Guatemala to Mars.
Movement is slower these days, though, and painful. A deteriorating hip has left the Whitneyville resident, 77, with bone-on-bone agony and difficulty standing in front of an easel.
“I could sit, but I don’t like to do that. I prefer to stand to move the paint across the canvas,” he says.
An invitation by the Gmeiner Arts & Cultural Center in Wellsboro to hold a one-man show turned from exciting to overwhelming. “It became obvious that my physical disabilities were affecting the output I was capable of,” Worthington explains. He worried about filling the space.
Enter two of his favorite artistic colleagues from the past: Mike Biddison, 54, a Wellsboro High School graduate now residing near Philadelphia, and Dale Witherow, 76, a retired Mansfield University art professor who lives near Olympia, Washington.
Considered by many to be three of the most talented artists to ever call Tioga County home, the trio will stage Departures and Returns at the Gmeiner during the month of July. The exhibit opens on Sunday, July 5, with Worthington’s hip replacement surgery following the next day.
“It’s all coming together at one time,” Worthington says of his big July events. “The two of them are doing me a great favor by coming all this way to exhibit with me. They are coming to pick my ass up. They didn’t have to do this. I’m forever indebted to them. “I enjoy the idea of showing with Mike and Dale—they’ve had a profound affect on me, my life, and my painting. Dale is one of the best abstract expressionists and one of the finest designers I know, and Mike is equally talented and just a wonderful young man who helped open up my limitations years ago.”
The last (and first) time the three artists exhibited together was thirty years ago at the Gmeiner when they took part in the Peeah Dey Woofda exhibition in May 1985 with a handful of other artists. Wildly experimental in its day, the display centered on the fine art collection of an imaginary, mysterious character from Eastern Europe. Its opening was playful, profound—and memorable.
“The most fun of all was people being assigned a name card with their relationship to Peeah Dey Woofda, and being asked to take on that role,” Witherow recalls. “And the opening ended with people dancing, which was a first in terms of art openings—for me, at least.”
The exhibit was the result of a master class led by Witherow in the infamous “art hut” at Mansfield University (MU) in 1984. That was the first time the three men merged, although Witherow and Worthington were college colleagues (Worthington worked on MU’s public relations staff in graphic design and media capacities).
The art hut proved to be a fertile meeting ground for the trio. At the time, the Mansfield artists were in their forties and Biddison was in his early twenties, fresh from attaining a B.F.A. in painting and drawing from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“We explored not only painting but the underpinnings of our explorations, indulging in the mysteries behind our visions and creations,” Biddison says of the intense master class.
Worthington adds, “It was such a pleasure encountering a mind like Mike’s. We had a fundamental rapport. He was someone who could cut through all the crap I had—all the veils and ways I had of disguising myself. Mike forced me to paint outside my edges—which, of course, Dale always did.”
All three had migrated to Tioga County in the ’60s and ’70s: Witherow from western Pennsylvania, Worthington from the Philadelphia area, and Biddison as a boy with his family from Louisiana.
“Wellsboro and Mansfield were a wonderful melting pot,” Biddison cites, “creating an inspiring and unusual mixing of local business folks, farmers, educators of all stripe, artists, poets, thespians, and musicians—a perfect place to encourage the wide open exploration of the arts. In this atmosphere, it was easy to have the impression that art can go anywhere and be for everybody to participate in.”
From this free-thinking realm, the three explored their artistic processes, informed each other’s work, and diverged.
Biddison has carved out an artistic life in Chester County, working as a restoration carpenter and crafting art from wood and reclaimed objects. He has created commissioned sculptures for businesses and was invited to participate in an ode to the late Wharton Esherick, considered the godfather of the studio furniture movement. Sections of a large, dead poplar tree removed from Esherick’s property were distributed to artists, and Biddison’s resulting chair was featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2012.
Witherow has enjoyed great artistic success after retiring in 1996 and moving to the Northwest. He has sold over 600 paintings in that time and has had his work in galleries in Seattle, Portland, Sante Fe, and Scottsdale. His paintings have been purchased for private and business collections as well as for stage set art for television shows.
“The act of painting keeps me connected to the present,” explains Witherow. “Painting for me is an exploration of the self, memory, emotion, and the light and dark of all things. My painting keeps me in touch with my own life changes, and reveals new questions about how I choose to live my life. Everything is a self-portrait.”
Because of the logistics of being 3000 miles away, Witherow has elected not to ship original works in for the exhibit, but will be displaying high-quality prints of original artwork.
“Exhibiting with Tucker and Mike will be nostalgic and fun. They are such great guys with huge talents. I am honored to be asked to show with them,” Witherow says. “Returning to Wellsboro is always fun, and a great opportunity for me to check in with friends and family.”
The exhibit’s title, Departures and Returns, reflects a variety of journeys and how the artists’ works have changed and deepened, and reflects their lives now.
“Thirty years on, of course a lot has changed,” cites Biddison. “The obvious part is that we’ve aged and we’ve become a lot wiser, well, especially Tucker and Dale. Bodies have aged and are challenged in new ways. Family commitments and work have changed and require adjustment and adaptation. Some of us have departed the area. Some of us have departed from our usual way of making art. But, we return, making the old new again. And maybe this is not obvious, but we return because we relish the idea of gathering the wonderful menagerie of juicy humans that will come visit for a time.”
Biddison will exhibit an array of “shrubbi”—the term he uses to describe his transformed rubbish.
“I believe that intimate objects can remind us of soul and can still enchant us into falling in love with ourselves and each other. Falling in love even with the junk—especially the junk. Junk into enchanted beauty,” he offers.
Worthington isn’t intending his portion of the exhibit to be a retrospective, but a glimpse into his current state—obsessions, reflections, frailties, and all.
Also retired from MU, Worthington revels in the time now available for artistic adventures and forays into commercial art projects, including the monthly creation of Mountain Home magazine covers.
He plans to exhibit works from his Stony Fork Creek series, a final piece from his Guatemala series, a forty-year-old “interrupted vision” encountered on the streets of Mansfield, and his recent two-year obsession with Mars.
A dabbler in geology and astronomy, Worthington became transfixed with an image he saw on NASA’s Web site two years ago that was captured by the high-definition camera on a robotic rover appropriately named Curiosity.
“It was a machined tool—a key—embedded in a rock underneath a slate ledge on Mars,” he says, adding that NASA dismissed the visual as an anomaly. But, Worthington couldn’t stop thinking about it as well as the likelihood of water and the possibility of life on the planet.
Closer to home, he’s been mesmerized by another landscape that also holds, for him, infinite mysteries: Stony Fork Creek.
“That creek really did open up my soul,” he says. “The moment I stepped into that creek, it was like stepping into church—it was really profound.”
Worthington says he has worked Stony Fork Creek “from top to bottom,” and it has enlightened him in the concepts of quantum physics.
“The creek refined that for me,” he offers. “I could see the principles underlying all that, and why I was getting a reflection here and not a refraction there. I could see how everything is connected; everything influences everything else. Once I understood all that, I could just sail into the interior of the thing.”
Regaining his mobility and getting back to the creek is one of his fondest wishes.
“I try to look forward,” he says. “I want to get back to walking normally and hiking the creek with my dog—I love that part of life.”
Hope continues to float.
The opening artists’ reception for Departures & Returns is 2 to 5 p.m., Sunday, July 5, with the exhibit running through July 26. The Gmeiner Art & Cultural Center, 134 Main St., Wellsboro, is open daily 2 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.