Jamie Wyeth; The artist is a lonely hunter
Monhegan Island, Maine — Monhegan Island lies off the coast of Maine like a prize. To get there you drive to Thomaston, take a left, and descend a dangling peninsula to Port Clyde. Then if you have been clever and come for one of the three weekly trips that the mail boat, the Laura B., makes, you climb aboard with about 14 other people and sit around the bow. At first everyone sprawls against the heap of luggage and groceries the island has ordered, soaking in the faint warmth of the autumn sun. But as the Laura B. cuts through 15 miles of steel-blue ocean, through pine-furred islands and golden light, a breeze picks up and waves rise. You arrive an hour later, having begun to squint and grip the side of the little boat, at a small wooden town on the end of a hump-backed island that looks like a whale.
In the light that splashes up off the water, everything turns poetic, even ordinary objects, of which there are few on this ruggedly independent, unelectrified, eminently hand-hewn island. Everything seems special, if only because it's so hard to get here, and wherever you look you see pictures, because the sea is in the background everywhere, constantly changing color.
Yours is not the only gaze. There were probably eight cameras and several watercolor kits among the luggage on the Laura B. Here, every funny little out-of-the-way house sports a shingle with visiting hours for a gallery within. Monhegan's principal export seems to be luminous shades of blue, green, and gray.
But the best-known artist on the island says ''I don't pick it for its light.'' Jamie Wyeth, illustrator N. C. Wyeth's grandson and son of American realist Andrew Wyeth, picked it for its remoteness. ''As a child, I always wanted to live on a boat,'' he says. ''I see this island as being what a boat has to offer. Fall, you know, that's the great time. There's a wonderful sort of melancholy. Nobody's here. Houses are closed up, sheets are pulled over furniture. I love it.''
He likes to be alone, which you realize on first meeting him. He comes into his living room and greets you sidelong, a handsome curly-headed man with a tan, wearing a blue shirt and an apron over soft wheat-colored corduroys streaked with blue and green paint -- as close as we got to seeing work in progress. He says who he is, and immediately begins a house tour. The house was built by another representational painter, Rockwell Kent, in 1906. It is an upright, white and gray Maine house, very clean and airy. It could get lonely. It is full of sea mementos -- valentines made of tiny shells sent by absent sailors to sweethearts that forlornly spell out ''Forget me not,'' and ''Think of me,'' a model ship, whale bones on walls.
But that must be what he likes. He doesn't even look at the ocean much, at least professionally. ''There is so much, I suppose, paintable, and that almost drives me just to stay inside and not look out the window. It's all up here,'' he says, tapping his head. Instead of painting pounding surf, he feels that in a seagull's tiny yellow eye he painted ''there's all the sea and the surf I ever want to paint.'' Part of the process is choosing what to paint. His choices seem ordinary: Laundry hanging on a line. Wicker chairs. Seagulls. Not too rare, except when you see what Jamie Wyeth does with them in watercolor or oil paints. Then something happens to them. He has a strong narrative sense and an eye for abstract design like his father's, but the stories the objects tell -- and the technique -- are his own.
He makes the objects look like prizes, too. The laundry in ''Sheets and Cases'' is a vision. The pillowcases are white buckets for light coming down from above, and they gleam in a deep green lawn. The pole of the collapsible clothesline they're hung on is invisible, so the sheets look as if they had just swooped down from some exalted flight, yet they still exude an earthly comfort. To describe a Jamie Wyeth painting always seems to require a story. Rusty pieces of a wrecked tugboat do a graceful dance across the grass, trying to tell you something. Sheep wander toward you. Human subjects seem to have just said something interesting. Whether the subject is animal, vegetable, or mineral, the younger Wyeth's paintings can all communicate.
He says painting is hard for him, and talking about it seems harder. He folds up his knees, hugs them, and curls his bare toes, like a sea anemone that has been poked. ''I'm a terrible technician and I have a very hard time painting ,'' he says. ''And that's probably a saving grace.'' At 35, he's had a long career. He's been painting seriously since he dropped out of school in sixth grade (''to give me more time,'' he explains). He was taught the basics by an aunt and intangible things like dedication by his father. ''Painting, as I've said before, is a stick with hair on the end of it and you put it in color and put it on a piece of cloth and it's pretty basic,'' he says.
But the job of the representational painter is not just getting every blade of grass down perfectly. It has to succeed as a painting as much as a scene. ''A painting has to exist upside down,'' he says. In fact, many of his works start out as abstract meditations on line and form. ''My sketchbooks are usually just a line on one page or a circle, which to most people must be totally meaningless. But to me they are very important to the thing I am working on.'' A line might represent a ram's nostril, or what he thinks of that nostril that day, he says. His difficulties with stick, hair, color, and cloth, he feels, protect him from sticking to formulas to keep up with the demand. Jamie Wyeth watercolors fetch $15,000 to $20,000 at the Coe Kerr Gallery in New York, and his oils go for $60,000 to $100,000. But the shows, the publicity, the reviews, he says, ''stay outside the island.''
He even finds Monhegan a little crowded sometimes. Unlike everyone else who flocks to meet the mail boat, eager for contact with the outside world, he waits until the crowd has cleared and slips into the post office later. But in the modest gang that noticed him -- how much frenzy can be generated on a piney rock off the coast of Maine? -- he was mindful of his public. Little boys stopped him to exhibit a new unicycle -- an unlikely toy for that unpaved, rocky terrain. He obediently tried to ride it. Two girls hailed him from the Monhegan Store to pick up a package. A friend caught up with him as we ate hamburgers on the lawn of a lobster-boiling establishment, and told him a rapid-fire stream of stories about local eccentrics, punctuated only by the man's saying ''OK!'' at the beginning of each story. Wyeth took it all like Dick Cavett. ''Really!'' he would say, ''I can't believe it. You mean he actually. . . ?'' and he would shake his head pleasantly as three more boat wrecks and a berserk fisherman story followed. He has a sunny, open face, dimples, and is a good listener. But, trudging over the hill back to his house, he said ''That's why this is the first time this summer I've gone there for lunch.''
His works are sometimes even less populated than his father's. One of his portraits is of a hay bale, many are of pigs and chickens, and there are some wild animals. Rusting wreckage, houses, rugged Maine and gaunt Pennsylvania are subjects it seems father has handed down to son. But unlike Andrew Wyeth's works , all of which seem to be haunted with some sorrow, even when inhabited by one or two people, Jamie Wyeth's paintings give you the feeling he has made friends with even the lawn chairs and lobster traps. The animals meet your gaze, and the people look self-possessed, as if the space inside the frame were all theirs.They look well-observed and well understood. There is a Wyeth distance and quietude, but there is also that charm he brings out for his friends.
A lot of the work of a portrait for him is getting to know the subject. This he can talk about. When he describes other people, not to mention animals, he relaxes; his feet touch the floor, and the storyteller emerges. He says he is not interested in ''blank features'' but rather the face of someone he has known a while. He is not interested in a rock someone says he really should paint, but ''whether I've stubbed my toe on that rock.'' And he really knows his animals. He paints masterful portraits of his pig, Baby Jane, and suffers the consequences: ''If I get one more pig in the mail, I'll scream,'' he says.
He finds the current sentimentality about pigs silly. ''Really, if you get to know pigs, they're very moody. They're not sweet little animals at all. That's what I like about them. They get depressed, they get into these snits. They're carnivorous.'' Just as he prefers to paint the rock he's stubbed his toe on, Wyeth isn't put off by the negative aspects of porcine psychology. He's all the more interested in their foibles.
''I've done portraits of animals I consider identical to people. . . . There's nothing like an animal. When you have eye contact, you really sense that something's going on that's maybe limitless and absolute. Words couldn't fill it up. So I'm always a bit distressed when, with this last exhibition (last year), lots of articles come out about 'these barnyard animals, these cute little things.' The things I do with animals, I hope to God, aren't cute. . . . I've done very few animals with heads larger than humans', but there's something about that feeling about a creature who could physically overpower you.
''Like the wolf dog from Alaska who lived with him in the little house on the rocky coast. ''I got him so he would roll on his back and I could play with him, but if I made one sudden move, he'd be off and just staring. He ended up sleeping in my room and I would wake up in the middle of the night and the wolf would be just staring at me. He was an arctic wolf so he had these white eyes, '' he pauses for a general shudder. ''I actually did it right here --'' on the porch where we are sitting -- ''because I couldn't let him loose. He would have just gone through the entire island and cleaned out every living thing. And so I just brought him back here and got him to pose.'' He says ''pose'' a bit ironically, but you get the sense that somehow Wyeth and the wolf came to an understanding about the portrait.
Other wild creatures have posed for him. A ram, raised by a hermit on the island of Manana, off Monhegan, ruled the island after the hermit passed on. He would charge and butt anyone who approached. Wyeth's Newfoundland dog was knocked into the water and refused to come back. But Wyeth persisted, rowing over and bringing grain and hay, until the ram, too, posed. He imitates him, raring his head and looking proud.
Then there was Rudolf Nureyev. ''Having Nureyev in the house was like having a wolf in the house,'' he says, talking of Nureyev's ''strange quality'' of seeming to be ''a cross between an animal and a human.'' Nureyev was so busy during the months Wyeth took to do his portrait that it was as hard to get him to pose as the wolf. Finally he decided to paint another dancer with a body similar to his for the preliminary studies and then paint on Nureyev's face. Nureyev was furious. ''That peeg! Pose for me?!'' he said in front of the other dancer, and after that, ''posed like mad.''
Though he says Nureyev will say to people, ''I am Rudolf Nureyev and you are nothing,'' Wyeth is impressed with his dedication. He tells about watching him prepare onstage just before a New York performance. ''It was the most incredible sort of Dr. Jekyll thing. He started doing these exercises. . . . It's not so much of a physical thing as more of a mental thing. He was psyching himself. Dance has a silence . . . there was no music, just his breathing and the thumping noises. And behind the heavy curtain you start to hear the house coming in, people floating around, you could barely hear voices, and here would be this creature in white makeup, and occasionally he'd look at me and he wasn't seeing anything; he was totally immersed in it. . . . Finally he'd reach this sort of pitch, sweat pouring off him, and he'd walk off stage, go to his dressing room. It was unbelievable.''
He recently looked at his portrait ''Bale'' and wondered why he had sat so long in front of a bale of hay. His answer was that ''I thought that was the definitive bale of hay. There's got to be, again, a sort of Nureyev syndrome, that 'I am the best.' You sort of push yourself that way. . . . I hope I never lose that sort of excitement. Whatever I'm doing, I feel I'm the first one that has really looked at this thing.'' He cocks his head and brings out the dimples. ''Of course, it's totally wrong. But then you get the feeling. You've got to be convinced.''
The singularity comes out in his painting of Nureyev's tightly leotarded body lounging in the midst of a large, soft fur coat. Likewise, the wolf's hungry, wary look comes through; the ram's pride is there. Wyeth stalked them all, even if he sometimes feels silly rowing to Manana or sharing a bedroom with a wolf or sitting on the floor at Nureyev's dancing feet. But no matter how far he had to climb to find them, how long it took to tame them, you feel he takes them on their own terms, and that is how they come to seem like prizes. In a sense, he is always painting Monhegan, or at least a view that was as hard to get to as an island. Looking into animal eyes or at a rare gray sky in a Wyeth painting, you feel the elation of stepping out of the Laura B. for the first time.