Artist Jamie Wyeth opens a copy of "Cabbages and King," the Elizabeth Seabrook childrens book he illustrated, during a signing at the Butler Institute of American Art. Wyeth's works for the book are at the Butler through April 11.
But Wyeth, the son of painter Andrew Wyeth and nephew of painters Caroline Wyeth, Peter and Henriette Wyeth Hurd and John McCoy, does not consider himself an illustrator, at least not in the sense of books and magazines. He would rather paint a picture of his own creation without having to subject it to the concerns and comments of editors and page designers.
Still, Wyeth, who was in Youngstown recently to open a show of his paintings for the children's book "Cabbages and Kings," does not feel illustration has any less value than the his art-for-art's sake works. His philosophy differs from his grandfather's.
Read the transcript of The Herald's interview with Wyeth
Wyeth, who lives on an island off the coast of Maine and in Chadds Ford, Pa., is frequently sent book manuscripts from authors who hope he'll feel an artistic spark from them.
"I did a children's book a number of years ago with my mother," he said of "The Stray," published in 1979 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux and authored by Betsy James Wyeth. "It was something we did between ourselves and then it was published. It had a certain response and since then a lot of people send me manuscripts."
Wyeth, 52, was approached by "Cabbages and Kings" author Elizabeth Seabrook at a dinner.
"She came up to me and asked me, 'I've written a children's book; can I send it to you?' I kind of groaned and said, 'OK.' She sent it and I didn't read it. I carried it around for a couple months, I think, in my satchel. Finally it fell out on a plane and I read it. I thought, 'Aha. This has kind of a quality.'
"The story is very simple. It's a cautionary thing about the evolution of the life of an asparagus and a cabbage. I was more interested that I could lift the characters into something else."
Wyeth didn't make a commitment to Ms. Seabrook right off the bat. "I said, 'Let me just try it.'"
Ms. Seabrook, a former journalist, told her son, the editor of New Yorker magazine, about Wyeth's interest. "He went to a publisher and, boom, they made a deal before I had even done anything."
The book, aimed at ages 4 to 8, was published in 1997 by Viking Childrens Books, Penguin Putnam Inc.
Wyeth painted the scenes from the perspective of Albert the asparagus and Herman the cabbage, garden friends who try to look appealing to humans and unappealing to a rabbit that hides under the rhubarb.
Wyeth said he was given "pretty much" free rein to paint what he wanted, but as he went along the publisher started becoming more involved, telling him they would need 15 paintings and rejecting one that showed a hand cutting an asparagus.
"They said it was too violent, it would traumatize the child. I kind of went, 'What?' They're watching television, heads blowing off. I had an argument with the editor of Penguin books and I said the whole thing about television, and she said 'Yes, but a book is very different. Usually a child is read to by their parent. They keep the book in their bedroom; it's much more lasting than a TV show, which comes and goes. That can affect a child.' I must say I agreed with her, finally. And so the painting went out."
The publisher went along with Wyeth's attempt to make the paintings realistic.
"What I didn't want to do is cuteify it. A lot of children's books turn them into cartoon characters. I wanted to keep the cabbage and the asparagus looking like a cabbage and an asparagus. So then when a child goes to the grocery store, 'Oh my god, there's Herman.'"
Wyeth is an avid children's book fan -- "I always go into a book store and end up in the children's section," he said -- and has a strong opinion on what he considers the most effective illustrations.
"When you read 'Wind in the Willows' or something, it looks like a real rabbit. When you see a real rabbit you can kind of connect with it. I think it makes it a little more richer."
Like his father, Wyeth paints scenes or subjects he connects with personally. He used the same approach for "Cabbages and Kings."
"Most of the animals in the illustrations are animals that live with me. They're pretty much based on my life."
Wyeth changed one element of the story to strengthen his association with it.
"The book opens with a wren going down and hunting for seeds and whatnot. I changed that to a raven because I was painting ravens at the time. The author was sort of taken aback when she first saw that illustration but it was much more interesting to me."
In the published text, no bird species is specified.
Wyeth said his grandfather's work was in the back of his mind "to a certain degree," when he was working on "Cabbages and Kings."
"I grew up on his illustrations. I was fascinated by them. I'm very proud of the fact that he was an illustrator. His best works really are his illustrations. There is such an interest now in the golden age of illustration and he was certainly the leading proponent of it with all his pirates and knights and whatnot."
Wyeth takes the inevitable comparisons of his work to his father's and grandfather's in stride.
"As a kid it bothered me a bit. I have a difficult time enough painting that those considerations become sort of irrelevant and immaterial. People are always going to compare you, and I think if I'm to be compared to anybody, I'd rather be compared to my father and my grandfather because I like their work a lot."