The Herald, Sharon,
PA Published Thursday, March 25, 1999


The Herald's Wyeth interview transcript

Here is the text of an interview with artist Jamie Wyeth conducted by Herald Staff Writer Joe Pinchot on March 13, 1999, at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown.

Wyeth's paintings for Elizabeth Seabrook's children's book "Cabbages and Kings" are on display at the Butler through April 11.

Herald: How did you get involved with "Cabbages and Kings"?

Wyeth: "I did a children's book a number of years ago with my mother. 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. I'm not an illustrator per se. In this particular case I actually was at somebody's house for dinner and this older woman came up to me and asked me, she said, '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.' And I was working on a new, sort of, paint. This paint maker who works with me was making it. So I thought this would be an interesting thing to, sort of, try. It kind of started with that. I got off the plane and I called her and tracked her down. She thought, of course, I had thrown it away months before. I said, 'Let me just try it, and let me take some of the characters, the cabbage and the asparagus.' She, in the meantime; her son is editor of the New Yorker magazine. She called him right up and said this was happening and I was going to try it. He went to a publisher and 'boom' they made a deal before I had even done anything. It was kind of the cart before the horse."

Herald: What kind of paint?

Wyeth: "It's a paint maker that Andy Warhol, a friend of mine, had. He made a lot of his paint. He just tries ... I was trying to get some intense color in something I was working on. He ground glass in the paint, tried all these different things. So if you look at it, the paint on these things, it's almost fluorescent. It's very intense, which is what I wanted. However, when they went to printing the things it drove the printers crazy because they couldn't reproduce it. They tried and tried. They got it fairly close."

Herald: Were you given free reign to paint what you wanted?

Wyeth: "Pretty much, as I said, I'm really not an illustrator; so they said 'Here, do what you want.' But then, the more I got into it, and that's probably why I'd never be an illustrator, then they said we need 15 paintings. And then there's the painting where they said it was too violent, it would traumatize the child. I kind of went. 'What?' They're watching television, heads blowing off. What it was a hand cutting asparagus and coming near Albert (the asparagus character in the book) with it. 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."

Herald: The paintings' perspective is from the ground.

Wyeth: "That was intentional. I illustrated it as if it were being illustrated by the cabbage or the asparagus. And then the paper looks like it's dirt. I had a paper maker make a sort of cardboard-type paper with all these chunks and whatnot to give it more effect. It's almost as if it was a journal."

Herald: What attracted you to the story?

Wyeth: "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. 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.' Rather than put a big face and funny little eyes and so forth. I as a child ... even now, I love children's books. I always go into a bookstore and end up in the children's section. I think particularly great children's illustrations for a child ... when you read 'Wind in the Willows' or something, in the illustrations 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."

Herald: How long did it take to finish the illustrations?

Wyeth: "A long time. Too Goddamn long. Jesus, about a year and a half I worked on them. Because I was going on with my own work and then work on these. Those are small, little paintings. They're not just quick drawings."

Herald: You gave the vegetable faces.

Wyeth: "I tried to form the leaves to look like it's almost a face. I think people will look and say, 'Oh my god, there is a face,' rather than having a big nose sticking out of it."

Herald: Were the illustrations of your grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, in your mind when you painted "Cabbages and Kings"?

Wyeth: "To a certain degree, because I grew up on his illustrations. I was fascinated by them. His illustrations were enormous. These are little teeny things, so we're quite different in our approaches. I'm very proud of the fact that he was an illustrator. His best work 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. He agonized over illustration. He felt it was a secondary form of art and relied too much on other people. I think he's wrong. I think some of the greatest painters in the world were illustrators. What is painting? It's illustrating life. He was more thinking commercial illustration, churning it out. I think Degas certainly illustrated wonderful books. Rembrandt illustrated the Bible."

Herald: How do these paintings compare to your regular easel work?

Wyeth: "A little off, but not really. It was sort of more of my life. Most of the animals in the illustrations are animals that live with me. They're pretty much based on my life. That's a bit of a difference between N.C. Wyeth and I. He used his life a lot in his illustrations, so maybe there isn't such a difference. I tried to use the things around me, the birds. 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."

Herald: Where do you live?

Wyeth: "A lot of the time I live on an island off the coast of Maine. I still have a farm in Pennsylvania. I'm spending more and more time in Maine."

Herald: Describe your recent work.

Wyeth: "In the last couple of years, a lot of island stuff I've been doing, portraits of people who live on these islands and children on the islands and whatnot. So it's more focused on the islands right now. That may change. It's beautiful country. It's really another part of the world. It's fascinating."

Herald: Do you work by commission or by your own choice?

Wyeth: "I pretty much do what I want, or I force myself. It's not easy; I'm pushing myself all the time. But luckily, I don't have to do too many commissions, so that makes me a little happier. In a way, it's good. The problem in my discipline, in painting, is there really is no boss pushing you to do it. So you have to kind of force yourself. Doing a thing like this book project made me all the more thrilled to get back to my real work. God, I don't have to deal with art editors, design people, or worry about the shapes of things. What is painting? It's the most individual of all those professions. It's just you and a stick with some hair on the end of it and a piece of cloth; that's it. It's not like music where you require musicians, writing where you require printing. It spoils me, painting. But I'm happily spoiled. I want to be spoiled."

Herald: Will there be a fourth generation of Wyeth artists?

Wyeth: "God I hope not. I wouldn't want to wish that on anybody, Jesus, God, please. Not from this end."

Herald: Do you mind comparisons to your father, Andrew Wyeth, or your grandfather?

Wyeth: "They're just inevitable, so what can you do about it? As a kid it bothered me a bit. Those considerations are so ... I have a difficult time enough painting that those 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. I don't lie awake at night worrying about that too much."

Herald: You're known for figurative painting. Have you ever made abstract paintings?

Wyeth: "My painting, if you came in my studio, my paintings begin as very abstract. And then they finally evolve into a shape or a form, a recognizable thing. My interest is, I sort of get off on the fact that working within the framework of an object, and I think you can get unlimited into that. To abstract something is certainly valid and I love a lot of abstract paintings. But my milieu is such that it excites me more to keep within that confine. I like the act of recording. I still feel that I'm recording something that no one has ever really looked at. Which, of course, is wrong, but I'm under that kind of impression. I always say with the advent of the camera the act of recording left art. Art then became in a way very self-conscious. It became sort of the idea is more interesting, or the painter is more interesting than the painting. I kind of like the idea of just recording. I'm here to record that. That's my ability. Not like I want it to look exactly like something, but the emotion of something I'm trying to record. That's the way I work."

Herald: Do you like to look back on your work?

Wyeth: "It horrifies me. God, I hate it. That's why I hate exhibitions, Jesus. Having to look at this stuff is kind of like, I tell my writer friends, it's like if they walk in a room and a lot of people are reading their book. It's embarrassing. You see all the inadequacies jumping out at you. You think, Jesus. It's interesting because when I work on something I become totally immersed in that. And then you reach a point of diminishing returns. I finally have to stop. I can work on a painting for 20 years, I think, but you finally have to say, enough, and back away and move on to something else. And then you came back a year later and you look at it and wonder, 'What sort of psychoses were you into at that time? Why was that raven so important to me?' Or, 'Why was that pig so important?' It's interesting."

Herald: "Portrait of Pig" is one of your best known works.

Wyeth: "That pig. I am sent letters once a week by schools; they send me drawings of that pig. It has a funny appeal, that pig. It was a pig I knew. It was just a pig that lived with me and I decided I wanted to paint it. I felt no one really looked at a pig closely. She posed and there's this life-sized portrait of it. It will probably haunt me the rest of my life."

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