Jamie Wyeth lives his life and paints his pictures from the vantage point of isolated islands.
Monheghan is a small, rocky isle 10 miles from the coast of Maine. Scarcely a square mile in area, it’s accessible only by boat, and there are no cars or paved roads. Some 60 people live here year-round, mostly within shouting distance of one another. Another summerhouse and studio is set on Southern Island which can be seen in the distance from the picturesque village of Tenants Harbor.
“The ocean is so enormous, such a force,” Wyeth said. “It changes every day. I’m up there in the winter as well, and honestly, I almost prefer it. It’s so stark and the storms that roll through and the seas and winds, it’s fantastic.”
He designates his farm near Chadds Ford as yet another one.
“I find it as much an island as up there,” Wyeth explained. “When I’m here I pretty much stay on the farm and tune into everything that’s part of that environment there. It certainly has a strong pull for me with the history of my grandfather and father, so I could never imagine not being here.”
Shortly after noon on recent Wednesday, Wyeth turns up at the Brandywine River Museum. With his square jaw, curly brown hair swept off his forehead, Jamie, now 63, carries the mantle of the Wyeth legacy in an easy-going way.
Still, he is animated and engaged as he talks about his solo-rowing trip across the choppy seas to the safety of his island refuge a mile away.
Spending most of his time alone at his island studio is what gives the artist focus.
After decades of observation Wyeth chose seagulls for the subject material of his latest exhibition, “Jamie Wyeth — Seven Deadly Sins” on display through Nov. 22 at the Brandywine River Museum. In the series of seven paintings the artist depicts the gulls as pugnacious rivals in their needs and desires.
Sin and the seagulls
Unleashing dramatic power Wyeth captures the day-to-day life of the devilish birds as they act out their sinful behavior. Four years in the making, the paintings address human frailty and the sins of pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, gluttony and lust, a popular Christian theme dating back to the fifth century.
“They represent the seagulls for me,” observed the celebrated artist. “I think the eye of the gull says more than a big, sudsy surf scene. I tried to make the gulls bi-sexual, neither male or female, a little bit of each, because I think women are as guilty of these things as men are,” observed the celebrated artist.
Wyeth was first inspired by the theme in the early 1960s when he spyed Paul Cadmus’ otherworldy beings (1945-’49 paintings) at the Manhattan home of his mentor Lincoln Kirstein.
“They were very small temperas, kind of cartoon-like, but sort of horrifying and impressive,” Wyeth recalled with a wry smile.
Later on Wyeth started reading about the theme in Dante’s famed Divine Comedy, in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in playwright Christopher Marlow’s (a Shakespeare contemporary) The Tragical History of Dcotor Faustus.
“I think it was a dream that got me started on painting this series,” Wyeth recalled. “I woke up and wrote almost some hieroglyphics on a piece of paper, some studies of how the scenes would work with gulls. You know, I found that piece of paper recently in my studio and it’s amazing how close they are to the original ephiphany or whatever you want to call it.”
Over the years it’s always been a bone of contention for Wyeth that gulls have been portrayed, particularly in Maine art, to look like white doves.
He calls them “nasty birds, filled with their own jealousies and rivalries.”
“Most of these behaviors are actually things I’ve seen these gulls do, so it wasn’t a stretch for me at all,” Wyeth related. “I love their independence, that’s what makes them nasty. I love nasty things, and evil sides. So gulls are right up my alley.”
In Envy, the bond of friendship between two gulls rankles a third gull sitting still below, eyes closed with a disgruntled expression, the odd one out.
In Gluttony, a gull in a feeding frenzy tries to choke down a fat fish whose upward glace seems reveal its understanding of its fate. The action is highlighted by the contrast of the gull’s white neck and head against an ominously dark background.
Painting in whatever works
The paintings are done in combined mediums that include watercolors, wash, varnishes, charcoal, ink, pastel, tempera, even day glow paintings.
“I use everything — dirt, sticks, what ever works,” Wyeth related with a chuckle. “You know people think of watercolor as washy and pale, but I use watercolors like oil.”
The glossiness in the paintings comes from varnishes the artist uses in selective areas to add depth. The gulls’ bodies and their gray and white plumage are luminous with reflected light, dazzling highlights, and rich velvety shadows. He also uses buoy paint.
“Part of the flames are done with these florescent paints,” Wyeth explained.
“It is buoy paint from lobster buoys up there that fishermen use. I just mixed it with enamel.”
Wyeth learned his master skills as a draftsman from his father Andrew Wyeth.
Those skills can easily be seen in the captivating light he creates when the wing feathers are illuminated from behind.
“I spent a lot of time drawing, I love drawing,” Wyeth observed. “To me it helps get the movement of the painting. This is also the first series I was more involved in the sound of the painting — the shrieking. I wanted it to be shrill, so I guess that motivated me.”
The epilogue to the exhibit is a 2006 painting, Inferno, Monhegan. It shows a scene Wyeth witnessed for many years when living on the island, a crude oil tank on wheels that was carted around from beach to beach to burn garbage. Its hellish fire is stoked by a local youth, a brother of Orca Bates of whom Wyeth did a series of paintings.
It wasn’t the Monhegan vista most artists have in mind.
“It stunk, the gulls were streaking in and here is this kid shoving garbage in with his oar,” Wyeth explained. “It was absolutely out of Wagner. Black smoke and fire belching out. It was unbelievable.”
The series of paintings took an emotional toll.
“I totally threw myself into it,” Wyeth acknowledged. “This series was a little unlike my work. If anything, it was like my grandfather’s work and the series of books he did. So that was a little bit different for me.”
Obsessed with critters
Over the years, the artist has been obsessed with chickens, ravens, dogs and various other critters. He paints what is familiar, and does not travel to paint. The gulls were a logical choice as a subject.
“I live on an island pretty much alone most of the time, so the gulls are around everywhere,” Wyeth said. “I’ve found with any wild animal, when you spend a lot of time with them, they kind of view me as one of them. The gulls fall asleep with me when I’m just sitting there.”
Back in 1968, Wyeth purchased the former Monhegan home of artist Rockwell Kent and has spent much of his time on the infamous island. He’s been collecting Kent’s work since he was 16.
“He’s been a huge influence, as a young person when I moved to the island he had done the finest paintings of anyone’s work out there, very primeval, very abstract,” Wyeth related. “So I’ve always considered Kent sort of a kindred spirit. You know he was a hugely popularly painter in the 1930s then he was charged with being a Communist and that killed his career. He still hasn’t recovered from it.”
As fate would have it, Seven Deadly Sins is on display at the River Museum along with the Kent exhibition, “Intrepid and Inventive.”