Local Writer Catherine Quillman Pens Chester County History And Mystery

Catherine Quillman told Jim Breslin about the time she almost intereviewed Andrew Wyeth.
Catherine Quillman: author, journalist, and publisher.

A local writer’s passion for art and history have painted for her a life rich in Chester County’s roots and full of mystery. Among her greatest highlights over the years are the pursuit of West Chester’s historic legacy and the intrigue of meeting — and planning to meet — famous artist Andrew Wyeth on what seemed like secret missions regarding drawings of a model often gossiped about, according to an account published by fellow writer Jim Breslin.

“Any encounter with Wyeth was memorable,” former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter turned Quillman Publications Owner Catherine Quillman said in the article.

But there was that one time when she sought to interview him about a collection of for-sale drawings depicting a model named Helga, whom Wyeth painted in secret for 15 years before becoming “America’s best-known reclusive artist.”

“I carried a stash of copies so that I could show them to Wyeth and he could have a visual reminder,” Quillman told Breslin. “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!”

070315QuillmanThe article also delves into Quillman’s recently finished works, a tour book “Walking the ‘Uptown’” about West Chester’s African-American East End neighborhood and “100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley;” current projects like an illustrative history of Downingtown’s Italian-American Johnstown section, a book on a West Chester antique ice tool museum, a collaboration for a new edition of “A Watercolor How-To: Tips and Techniques My Instructor Never Taught Me,” a children’s book and a young adult novel; and her passion for historic activism, epitomized by the receipt of a 2013 West Chester Downtown Foundation preservation service award.

“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,’” she said in the article. “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.’”

Andrew Wyeth stirred enormous controversey with his Helga portraits.
Andrew Wyeth stirred enormous controversey with his Helga portraits.

Quillman seeks to translate that appreciation for Chester County’s rich history into a perspective that should inform the county’s future.

“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.”

Read much more about Quillman’s encounters with Andrew Wyeth and her own history on Jim Breslin’s website here.

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