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From JFK to Warhol, contemporary artist Jamie Wyeth paints what he knows

August 10, 2014 at 11:53 AM EDT
Painter Jamie Wyeth, a descendant of one of the country's most famous artist families, recounts the rich details of 60-year career, spanning from the rugged coast of Maine to painting President John F. Kennedy to befriending Andy Warhol. WGBH's Jared Bowen reports.

JAMIE WYETH: I had no idea what, sort of, inspires me. The things that I paint are things that I know very well.

JARED BOWEN: And Jamie Wyeth will tell you, it’s all he’s ever known. Sixty years of the prolific painter’s work are now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in his first major retrospective. It takes us from Wyeth’s boyhood promise to late-in-life reflections.

Seeing all of your work from very early on to the most recent pieces, what is it like to see it in one space?

JAMIE WYETH: The emotion is sheer terror on my part. I mean, I’m really — and I’m not being cute about it — I find, you know, I try to tell writer friends of mine, it’s as if you’re in a room, and everybody’s reading your new novel or your new poem. You know, all the inadequacies stare out at me. You cringe and say, ‘What was I thinking? Why did I get obsessed with that?’. So it’s not a pleasant experience. I’m obviously incredibly honored.

JARED BOWEN: In truth, he’s always been in the spotlight as the third generation of the famed Wyeth family; the son of Andrew; the grandson of N.C.

Were you conscious of who came before you in terms of your father and grandfather and what they depicted?

JAMIE WYETH: Well, I love their work. I mean, I, as a very young child, of course, my grandfather — he would die before I was born — but here was this physically huge studio up the hill from our house, full of costumes and cutlesses and flintlock rifles all from his props from his illustrations, so it was magical to me. And I always say, then I’d go back to our house, and there would be my father painting a dead crow or something; that was kind of boring.

JARED BOWEN: Wyeth’s earliest pieces,  saved and annotated by his mother, reveal a child’s fascination with adventure. More significantly, though, they show his early mastery of the line. He was an artist to the canvas born.

Is it something you could ever even conceive of not have being central to your life?

JAMIE WYETH: Well, actually, I have a brother, Nicky, who — an older brother — who at the same bacon and eggs and he had no interest in painting. So it wasn’t forced upon us, but, you know, the tools were there. I mean, we lived in my father’s studio, so there were the brushes and the pencils and the paint. So it would, it was very natural for me to want to paint, I think, and it was never a question.

JARED BOWEN: By age 17 in his Portrait of Shorty, Wyeth’s skill was already long-cemented and consuming.

JAMIE WYETH: I would get up in the morning and just want to paint. I’m a very boring person and all I do is want to paint and to record what I feel moves me or what interests me, and that can be in the form of a pig or in the form of President Kennedy.

JARED BOWEN: His portrait of John F. Kennedy, recently acquired by the MFA, was painted after the president’s death at the request of his grieving family.

JAMIE WYETH: I was taken up with Kennedy as much as everybody was at that time. And then I realized, I started doing this very, sort of, glorified portrait President Kennedy, and then I felt the need to have life, so I did a lot of drawings of the two brothers, of Bob and Ted. His widow, Jackie, showed, gave me all her films of him, and so forth. So I always say it added up to maybe if I sat with him for 10 minutes — the least to create a memory of a living person. I didn’t want to just work from photographs, you know.

And actually, there’s a portrait of Ted under the actual painting.

JARED BOWEN: Really, in what way?

JAMIE WYETH: I literally did him and then changed it into his brother, just to have, I was so desperate, I didn’t want it to look like a posthumous portrait.

JARED BOWEN: Dancer Rudolf  Nureyev, though, was someone Wyeth knew incredibly well, having studied the Russian ballet star intensely for a year and a half.

JAMIE WYETH: On stage, he was extraordinary, of course. But then offstage, he was as fascinating. I mean, he would come and stay at our house and it was like having a panther in the house. You know, he had this amazing presence and this remarkable look so that just drew me. He was just beyond dance and beyond, he just was this amazing figure.

JARED BOWEN: Wyeth met Nureyev during his days at Andy Warhol’s factory — that 1970s New York hotbed of the avant-garde, exploration and sexuality. It was a most unlikely combo.

JAMIE WYETH: Sometimes, opposites attract. And I always, I was intrigued with his work. And the resonance he has today, I think, is remarkable with young people still, I mean. And the quality I most loved in Warhol — it was his sense of wonder. I mean, he was, absolutely everything was, ‘Oh my god, isn’t that wonderful!’. You know, and so it wasn’t that he was cool and kind of calculated at all. He was very childlike.

JARED BOWEN: Personalities aside, much of Wyeth’s work has been about painting place — specifically, where he grew up. The rugged coast of Maine and the bucolic Brandywine River Valley, stretching between Pennsylvania and Delaware.

JAMIE WYETH: I’m not interested in traveling. I never travel, and painting the Himalayas, or, I don’t care about scenes. I don’t care about interesting-looking trees. What I do care about are trees that I know, that I’ve grown up with and touched, and so forth. I just think it makes the work more meaningful. The more you’re familiar with something and comfortable and have a love for it or a hate for it even, the better the result.

JARED BOWEN: For Jamie Wyeth, his life’s work is life story.