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A Chat with Jamie Wyeth

Jamie Wyeth. Photo by Jennifer Corbett

Jamie Wyeth. Photo by Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal.

Jamie Wyeth. Photo by Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal.

In honor of artist Jamie Wyeth’s birthday today, I am posting some snippets from my interview with Wyeth this winter.  Crystal Bridges will host a retrospective of Wyeth’s work from July 25 through October 5.  And Wyeth himself will visit the Museum on July 24 for a Keynote Presentation in the Great Hall.  More of this interview appears in the current issue of C magazine, the Museum’s membership publication. You can read a previous issue online here. –LD

You said that while you were in New York you worked with an anatomist who arranged for you to spend some time drawing in the New York City morgue.  Not a lot of people could do that. Well I was just curious, I had a real reason to do it. He cautioned me to not bring friends. He said people were curious, they’ll hear you’re doing this and it’s not fair to them, it can affect people if they have no a reason to do it. I did bring down my future wife, and she was totally horrified, of course. You know, 300 cadavers hanging there, from infants to old people…

Did that have an impact on your work, play into the slightly ominous quality… Not so much that, it was more just curiosity and I knew I was very interested in portraiture and so I wanted to know what was under the skin.  And I think it helped me, even today, that knowledge of how things work. I wanted to know as much as I could. And in art school they go to anatomy classes to observe … well it’s sort of absurd because it’s a disection of a stomach or something and it makes no sense for a person in the arts to study that.

I understand that some of your works came to you in dreams? Yeah, I don’t dream that much, but some of them have been so incredibly vivid that I thought the only way to kind of work them out is to paint them, so I have. I don’t dream and paint from the dreams, but there have been several. And one was my father after his death, so I think  obviously I was sort of consumed with that, but it was such an incredibly vivid dream. I don‘t know if you dream, but there’s some times when you feel that it absolutely happened, and sort of recurring, so I worked it out by painting.

Did painting help keep it from recurring? Well not really, but it helped to a degree. At least I was able to sort of visualize it. And it is there, it’s sort of a series of paintings. They’re very strange. I look at them now and wonder “what the hell?” in fact one of them is owned by Stephen King, so that gives you an idea.

Jamie Wyeth, b. 1946 "The Sea, Watched," 2009 Oil on canvas Photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Jamie Wyeth

Jamie Wyeth, b. 1946
“The Sea, Watched,” 2009
Oil on canvas
Photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Jamie Wyeth

This is the series of paintings you have of your father and grandfather, and then in two of them, there’s Andy Warhol by the seaside. He [Andy] was sort of a voyeur, which was sort of his quality. I mean Andy was … with somebody that he didn’t know, he wouldn’t say a peep. I mean he‘d come here to Chad’s Ford (laughs) and people would come up to me and say “oh I had the most interesting talk with your friend Warhol.” And I knew his side of the conversation was “oh… oh… really?…oh.” I mean, that’s all he would say. And he bugged himself; he had tapes on him and stuff, you know—microphones in his sleeves—he taped everything of his life and at The Factory these little kids would sit there transcribing all this nonsense talk about how much to tip the taxi. The Warhol Museum in Pittsburg is just full of boxes of these things that they’ve barely gone through.

And what was it like to have Warhol do your portrait? Andy used a Polaroid, and then he would do silkscreens, but he was very mysterious…at night he would go in the back and work on these things. He loved to say he didn’t work on them, that just the kids in The Factory did it all, so in fact, you know, it was bullshit. He worked like hell. He just loved the idea. He wouldn’t even sign the paintings, if you look at them.

How do you go about setting that eerie mood when you’re contemplating a painting? You know, I don’t know, it’s always a mystery to me. It just kind of happens. And oftentimes I’ll know a person, or a tree, or whatever, my whole life and all of a sudden I’ll get out of bed one morning and say “Oh my God, I have to record them!” And then I become completely absorbed and sort of obsessed with it. But what is the formula? I have not a clue and I don’t think I ever will. It just happens. And I’ve got so much popping out of my head at this point that I can’t even see straight. You know they say people get writer’s block or painter’s block. I can’t imagine it.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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