OGUNQUIT, Maine — Wyeth. The name is inescapably tied to Maine art.
So when Jamie Wyeth made an appearance at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art last week, a crowd was waiting. The 18 paintings in the museum’s new exhibit, “Jamie Wyeth: Private Collection,” reflect his dedication to the sea, the stern nature of gulls, island life and his friendship with ’60s pop star Andy Warhol.
“Maine has always been very important to me,” the son of painter Andrew and grandson of illustrator N.C. Wyeth told those gathered for MPBN’s live radio show “Maine Calling,” which was broadcasting from the museum. “It’s in my makeup, my DNA. I couldn’t survive without it.”
Growing up painting by his father’s side on the midcoast, a teenage Wyeth did his own take on Olson Farm, the site of Andrew Wyeth’s famous “Christina’s World” painting. Jamie Wyeth’s version of the stark Cushing estate is devoid of the woman in the grass and marked with an dead bird and grim blueberry fields.
“It looks like it could be the hand of Andy Wyeth,” Andres Azucena Verzosa, the museum’s interim executive director and curator, said.
Like breathing, putting paint to canvas is automatic for Jaime.
“We lived in the studio as a child. Painting to me is a very natural thing. It’s not like this is where I go to be creative,” the 70-year-old told the BDN. Being in Maine, amid the crashing Atlantic as opposed to a cushy studio in SoHo, is inspiration enough. “I’ve painted on the toilet.”
On most days Wyeth works in his studios either on Monhegan or Southern islands. The wildness of Maine “permeates my work. The light … I love islands because it focuses you.”
The feeling permeates the artful abandon with which he gets paint on the canvas.
He’ll retreat to the private Southern Island, pull up the dock and disappear.
“I have to physically isolate myself, and it sure is isolating on an island. No one’s going to drive up and say, ‘Come on, Jamie, let’s go,’” he said. “I could paint for two weeks without seeing a soul, except for the gulls and whatnot. It’s a device I use. I’m not some anachronism. But as far as people and focus goes, I need it. We are bombarded — just bombarded,” he said. And after a self-imposed painting exile, “I’ll go to New York City to shake it off.”
N.C. Wyeth died in a train crash before Jamie was born, but Jamie Wyeth was more influenced later in life by the illustrator of “Treasure Island,” then by his father Andrew. He recalls his father blasting records in the studio — “I spent my youth with cotton balls in my ears” — and learned devotion to the craft at his side.
“My father said he was not a good teacher, but he was the best teacher. He was almost more dedicated than I was,” Jamie said. “That’s all he did.”
His family — along with great painters such as Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley — has captured Maine since the 1800s, but he says the stunning state is underrepresented in the art world.
As a whole, “Maine has produced more terrible paintings that are so emblematic and touristy, not the toughness of Maine. My father was similar to Robert Frost, who writes about a sleigh going across the field on a snowy evening. But if you listen to the poem, it’s not really about that. Andrew Wyeth’s work is scary, very disturbing,” his son said.
The most disturbing images in Jamie Wyeth’s show at OMAA include a large, toothy fish approaching a seagull and the pale and ghostly visage of Andy Warhol on the Maine coast. “He was a wonderfully peculiar, sweet little man,” Wyeth said of the mysterious soup can artist. Wyeth painted at Warhol’s Factory in New York in the ’60s. Did Warhol ever come to Maine and sit on the rocks with a camera, as he depicts?
“He always wanted to come to Maine, and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work.’ He was so urbane. His idea of going for a walk was down in the subway. He fascinated me as a person,” Wyeth said.
Wyeth, who painted many portraits, recalled painting Arnold Schwarzenegger at Warhol’s Factory.
“Every queen in New York heard Mr. Universe was there and showed up. He thought they were beautiful women,” Wyeth laughed.
To paint a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy, he followed the Kennedy brothers around and watched film clips. He prefers immersion versus painting from photographs.
“Painting is very interpretive. What I do is not realism. I’d rather see the person I’m painting. I drive myself to paint many times,” Wyeth said, and when it works, it’s magic. “The opiate is when Kennedy came alive in the studio.”
Some pieces in this private collection have been seen before. Some were given as gifts or collected by his parents.
“My mother was a big buyer of my work, but I hate having shows,” said Wyeth, who looks around and sees the imperfections in his work. “This is a wonderful little museum.”
“Jamie Wyeth: Private Collection” is on display until Oct. 31 at Ogunquit Museum of American Art, 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit.