Jamie Wyeth Talks Life and Death
The artist visits Colby to reflect on his father’s Funeral Group drawings
Soon after his father died, Jamie Wyeth received a message from a family friend who said she and her husband had a collection of drawings by Andrew Wyeth. They wanted him to come look at them.
It took some time, but when Jamie Wyeth visited George and Helen Sipala at their home in Chadds Ford, Pa., he couldn’t believe what they had to show him. Andrew Wyeth, the iconic artist best known for his tempera painting Christina’s World, had used their attic as an occasional studio, and in the early 1990s he made a series of pencil drawings in which he imagined his own funeral and depicted the faces of those who came to mourn him.
When George Sipala emerged from the attic and unrolled the drawings, Jamie Wyeth was stunned. “I said, ‘My god, these are extraordinary,’” he recalled during a recent conversation at Colby, where a suite of the drawings, known as the Funeral Group, are on display at the Colby College Museum of Art. “(Helen) said, ‘Well, we were going to burn them, and I said, ‘Thank god I called yesterday.’ And she said, ‘I think your father wanted you to have them. I think it’s in the cards. They’re yours.’”
The early seeds for the exhibition, Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death, were sown when Jamie Wyeth relayed that story to Colby President David A. Greene, who encouraged him to consider showing the drawings publicly. Curated by Tanya Sheehan, Colby’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Art, Andrew Wyeth: Life and Death is on view through Oct. 16.
It’s the first time the untitled and unfinished drawings have been shown, and they offer insight into the artist, his artistic process, and his perspective on life and death.
Jamie Wyeth is the third generation of world-famous Wyeth artists. His father, who died in 2009, was the son of illustrator and artist N.C. Wyeth. Life and Death is an outgrowth of Colby’s ongoing relationship with the Wyeth family. Colby recently acquired Allen and Benner islands off midcoast Maine, once owned by the Wyeths and where Andrew Wyeth had a studio, and this spring Colby gave Jamie Wyeth an honorary doctor of fine arts degree. Colby gave Andrew Wyeth an honorary degree in the 1950s.
Sheehan interviewed Jamie Wyeth Sept. 8 during an engaging, insightful, and entertaining nearly hour-long conversation at Givens Auditorium.
He had been unaware of these drawings until the Sipalas showed them to him. He was surprised by their existence, but not their subject. “Death had always intrigued him, and it terrified him, as all of us,” Jamie Wyeth said. “It’s a major part of life.”
Jamie Wyeth said themes of death and mortality took on a larger role in his father’s life after N.C. Wyeth was killed when his car was hit by a train in Chadds Ford in 1945. The accident occurred near a local landmark known as Kuerner’s Hill, named after a neighbor. Andrew Wyeth, who was 28 when his father died, included literal and figurative references to Kuerner’s Hill in numerous paintings over the course of the remainder of his career, and Kuerner’s Hill is the setting for nearly every drawing in the Funeral Group.
Sheehan projected several examples of Andrew Wyeth’s death-related paintings and drawings on a screen overhead. The first was Winter 1946, in which Wyeth depicts himself in a frenzied descent down Kuerner’s Hill on foot. Painted the year after N.C. Wyeth’s sudden, tragic death, Winter 1946 represents the chaos and confusion Andrew Wyeth was experiencing at the time, Jamie said.
“He felt the hill was really his father’s chest, and that was he, sort of lost and askew, and everything is just topsy-turvy. It was more than just a hill,” Jamie Wyeth said. “It had enormous significance. For the rest of his life, that became a touchstone. Interestingly enough, the hill appears in a lot of paintings that have nothing to do with Kuerner’s. It’s a symbolic thing.”
Andrew Wyeth expressed regret that he did not paint his father after he died. The repeating theme of Kuerner’s Hill is part of his long-term exploration of that lament, Jamie Wyeth said. N.C. Wyeth’s death galvanized his father, he said. Until then, his father said he painted “clever watercolors.” Afterwards, “Then I had a real reason to paint.”
For his wife Betsy’s 60th birthday, Andrew Wyeth painted an unusually macabre self-portrait titled Dr. Syn. It is a painting of a skeleton clothed in slippers and a military jacket from the War of 1812 – a prop from N.C. Wyeth’s studio, passed down through generations. He is seated on a chair in a captain’s cabin staring intently out the window. Off to the side is a small cannon poking out a gunport. In the painting, the cannon is tied off with a rope, to limit its backfire.
When an audience member asked if the painting was a surprise to his mother—had she seen him working on it before he gave it to her?—Jamie Wyeth told a funny story that demonstrated his father’s playfulness, humor, and sense of drama.
The setting of the painting was an outbuilding on family property. To celebrate the gift, Andrew Wyeth hired “a cannon person” to fire the cannon and to provide a literal blast for the birthday celebration. Instead of a cannon ball, they used a tin can full of concrete. “We rolled the cannon back and loaded it—and if you see to the left of the cannon where you tie it down? Well, we failed to tie it down,” Jamie Wyeth said. “We touched the thing off, and there was this huge explosion that blew out two of the windows. Up on the hill, my mother and friends were all cheering.”
He and his father crawled out of the building shaken and singed, feeling lucky to be alive. “Needless to say, it was the last time the cannon was fired.”
Jamie Wyeth visited his father as he was dying in the hospital. Andrew Wyeth pulled him close and whispered, “‘Give ‘em hell.’ Those were his last words.”
After his father died, Jamie Wyeth stayed with him for several hours, honoring his father’s request that his son draw him after his death. “I went in right after he died and sat there for three hours. I haven’t revisited the drawings because it was a terrible thing at the time, but it was amazing. I remember specifically drawing his right hand, that now was totally still and had produced these remarkable things and moving fast over things.”
He has never shown those paintings, but said he might someday. “Maybe at Colby.”
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