For a fascinating look at the creation of American art over the years, nothing beats a visit to where it was made. That’s the idea behind the Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a coalition of 55 individual museums in 25 states dedicated to preserving and interpreting a single artist’s (or group of artists’) working environment. “The power of place is very potent at these sites,” says the program’s director, Valerie Balint, who notes that they often include the artists’ actual materials and tools. Each a touchstone of our cultural history, these six sites should get the inspiration flowing.
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Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York
Step into the Long Island studio of the two artists who painted here, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Lee Krasner (1908-1984), and you’re immediately swept into the frenetic movement of their art. When the newly married couple moved to this 19th-century former fisherman’s house in 1945 and converted its barn into a studio for Pollock, he was on the verge of pioneering his groundbreaking technique of placing his canvas on the floor and spontaneously pouring and dripping liquid paint onto it. Today, the floor is covered with his over-splash and a few of his footprints, and the walls of the studio — which Krasner used after Pollock’s 1956 death — bear traces of her own action paintings. By contrast, the house exudes a stillness, with the couple’s books, jazz records, hi-fi and furniture just as they were when Krasner passed away in 1984.
How to visit: The museum is open May through October, Thursdays through Saturdays, for one-hour guided tours at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., and Sundays at noon and 2 p.m. ($15 for adults). Advance reservations are required.
Chesterwood, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
You may not know the name Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), but if you have ever stood in solemn awe before his white marble sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, you know the power of his work. In 1896, when French was America’s preeminent sculptor of architectural and public monuments, he bought a 122-acre farm, established a summer studio and home there, and christened the property Chesterwood. The three-floor, nine-bedroom residence retains its original tasteful elegance, the formal gardens now host an annual show of contemporary American sculpture, and visitors can hike woodland trails laid out by French himself to take in views of the surrounding Berkshires. The studio’s walls soar to 26 feet to accommodate oversize works, and his ingenious solution for viewing sculptures outdoors as he worked on them — part of the studio floor is actually a movable flatbed rail car — still functions.
How to visit: Chesterwood is open May through October, Thursdays through Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided and self-guided tours are available; purchase tickets online or in person at the admissions desk ($20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $10 for grounds only).
Melrose Plantation, Melrose, Louisiana
For all the somber notes of African American history evoked at this preserved antebellum plantation in central Louisiana, visitors also come away with indelible memories of the deeply moving paintings of Clementine Hunter (ca. 1887-1988). Born on a nearby plantation, Hunter moved to Melrose with her sharecropping family at age 12 to work as a field hand and later a domestic servant. But in her 50s, and already a grandmother, she began to paint using leftover art materials she found, and during the second half of her life she sold her naive, folk-style works to collectors who sought her out. Today in her cabin, you can see her worn work table, her brushes and paint tubes, and the photo of John F. Kennedy she kept. But in another building you’ll encounter her masterwork — nine radiant murals of washing day, a funeral, a honkey-tonk and other scenes of the plantation life she knew so well.
How to visit: Historic Melrose is open to the public Thursdays through Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours last about an hour ($15 for adults, $13 for seniors and veterans, $10 for a self-guided grounds tour). Note: Walking up and down multiple staircases is part of the tour. Call 318-379-0055 for reservations (not required).
Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, Alta Loma, California
What’s it like to live inside a work of art? The house that America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman, woodworker Sam Maloof (1916-2009), built about 40 miles east of Los Angeles is a marvel of wood shapes, finishes and joinery. Maloof purchased it in 1953 as a six-room house in a lemon grove, and slowly expanded it without plans or drawings; in 2000, threatened by a new freeway, the entire structure was moved three miles to its current 6-acre location. Visitors can roam the wild-feeling garden and take a guided tour of the interior, where they’ll encounter Maloof’s touch everywhere — from a humble kitchen spice rack to an ethereal spiral staircase and the near-sculptural benches, tables, music stands, rocking chairs and other furniture usually seen only in museums. The tour ends with a rare treat: the chance to run your hands over, and sit in, one of Maloof’s chairs.
How to visit: Docent-led tours are available Fridays and Saturdays, at 10 and 11:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended ($25 for adults, $22 for 65 and older). A self-guided tour of the Maloof Water Wise Discovery Gardens is free and open to the public Thursdays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site, Kansas City, Missouri
In the mid-1930s, when Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) became the first artist ever to have a work featured on the cover of Time magazine, he was at the peak of his career as a painter known for his powerful murals depicting rural and populist themes. His success is evident in this imposing, 7,800-square-foot limestone edifice purchased in 1939. The interior remains much as it was when Benton’s wife died, just 11 weeks after his own death, and the furnishings include the baby grand piano that figured prominently in the life of the family. The artist’s studio was in the carriage house, where today his easel, tubes of paint and coffee cans jammed full of brushes evoke the spirit of the artist, who died on this spot unexpectedly one evening before he could sign his last work, The Sources of Country Music.
How to visit: Guided tours are available Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ($5 for adults). Note: Stairs are required to access the second floor of the house.
Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio, Abiquiú, New Mexico
Among America’s most iconic painters, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) adopted a pared-down, restrained style in both her art and her personal appearance. Located about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe, this 5,000-square-foot compound — parts of which date to the 18th century — shares the same aesthetic, with adobe walls in neutral shades, the spare courtyard with the black door she painted multiple times, and choice modernist furnishings arranged meticulously alongside weathered rocks, a snake skeleton and other objects O’Keeffe collected in the desert. But it was a flesh-and-blood woman, not an icon, who made this her permanent home in 1949, and in the kitchen you’ll sense that in the many jars of dried herbs (some from her own garden), the shelves filled with pots, pans and crocks, and even the yogurt maker that O’Keeffe, an avid cook, used often during her life.
How to visit: The home is open for tours seasonally with advance reservations ($55 for nonmembers age 10 and up).
San Francisco journalist Christopher Hall has covered cultural topics for a wide variety of national publications, including Smithsonian, Architectural Digest, National Geographic Traveler, Saveur and the New York Times.