Wednesday, July 08, 2009
More Wyeth Lore
I’ve already posted My Andrew Wyeth Story in this blog twice; once two summers ago and again last winter when Andy died. And since this Sunday, July 12 is Andy's birthday, and proclaimed A Day for Andrew Wyeth by Governor Baldacci, I thought it was appropriate to share this latest yarn.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to drive to New York for the wedding of one of my nieces. I stayed at my sister’s house in north Jersey for the whole weekend. As Saturday turned into another one of our all too common rainy days, she suggested we drive down to Montclair, NJ and visit the Montclair Museum of American and Native Art. The sister explained that they were currently exhibiting The Wyeths: Three Generations and that she had been there a few weeks earlier with her kindergarten class. She was knowledgeable about My Wyeth Story although I reminded her of some of the highlights and the post script involving Andy’s granddaughter Vic. The sister howled.
We arrived at the Montclair in the early afternoon and learned that there would be a gallery walk and talk starting in a few minutes. It turned out that the docent that was giving the walk was one of my sister’s colleagues and I was introduced as being the brother from Maine who had had some personal experience with the Wyeth family.
As we had viewed the collection shortly before the gallery walk began, I told the sister a few more recent Wyeth stories that I had heard Jamie tell on the local TV station a few weeks earlier. But I made her relieved/proud when I indicated that I would be keeping my mouth shut once the gallery walk began.
The young woman giving the presentation did a beautiful job and clearly had done her homework. Although I know a lot about the family and the history of many of the paintings, this woman had a few tales that even I had not heard before and it was all very interesting.
A crowd of about 30 people following the walk as we strolled through the large gallery and there were only a few questions asked, all of which the docent securely and authoritatively answered. The exhibit sponsored by the Bank of America is traveling around the country and would be in NJ until mid July.
We were almost through the end of the walk and coming to the last few painting by Jamie Wyeth when the docent stopped in front of one of larger pieces. Called (I believe*) “Harbor, Monhegan,” this is a very colorful painting of a young boy, standing in front of a large oil tank that has been converted into a furnace riding on spoke wheels and spewing large orange flames and thick black smoke. I remembered seeing the painting on the television and hearing Jamie telling a little about the background of the painting. It seems that because of the limited ability to landfill trash on Monhegan Island, that summer, the locals hired this young boy, Cat Bates, to burn the trash in this makeshift furnace which he dragged up and down the beach each day. As the smell of garbage attracted the sea birds, the air and ground in the image, and in the real scene, was full of sea gulls flying and clamoring around the boy.
As the docent was finishing her presentation one woman in the crowd asked about the meaning behind the image of the boy and the fire. I think she may have half expected to hear some wild tale evoking images of Satan and Hell. The docent looked furtively through her notes and then admitted the she didn’t know the origin of the painting. I looked over at my sister who gave me a knowing glance and non-verbal permission to finally open my mouth. So, never being a shy individual, I piped up and detailed the story about Cat and the reason for the conflagration.
I immediately noticed that the flock started to gather around me as I detail more of the specifics. There was soon a dialog. “Is the boy still there? What happened to him? Is his name really Cat?”
I answered to the best of my knowledge that Cat was all grown up now and that Jamie had included him in several other paintings. And, no, I don’t know why his mother named him Cat, but that was indeed his name. (More info about Cat on this website)
We talked for some time about the Maine ecology, sanitation and the independent thinking individuals who inhabit Monhegan Island, Maine.
I was on a roll; I had a captive audience.
Next, I moved to another series of two paintings of sea gulls and told story that I recalled from the television interview with Jamie Wyeth. In this, I explained that Jamie indicated that while painting the gulls one day one bird came very close to his canvas. “I always wondered how much a sea gull weighs,” the junior Wyeth explained. “So, I just reached out and grabbed the bird.”
It seems sea gulls, like most wild creatures, don’t take too kindly to being handled by humans and put up quite a fuss. “The bird started pecking at me and took a nip out of my eyelid,” the artist pointing to some wrinkles above his eyelid to show the scar made by the bird. “They don’t weigh very much at all,” he added.
The small, thinning crowd went wild with enthusiasm.
I decided that I had probably said too much and deferred back to our leader to continue with the tour. But I could see that I had impressed even her.
Soon the walk was over and sister and I joined to thank the docent for her presentation and apologize for perhaps speaking out of turn. She warmly indicated that my contribution has clearly added to the presentation and that she would be using this new-found material in her future gallery walks.
We talked for several more minutes about my experiences and where in Maine I lived. Several others from the tour gathered around and wanted to know if I was a relative. Demurely, I explained I was a mere mortal and that I had was just a big fan of Andrew Wyeth and had seen a number of their exhibits in Maine. I didn’t waste any time and put in a good plug for our wonderful state and invited them to all come and visit us this summer. The Maine Tourism Bureau would be proud.
But before we ended our little Wyeth Love-fest, my sister encouraged me to tell The Story. Coyly, I set the mood and told a much abbreviated version of the tale. My new fan club glowed in approval and absolutely loved the story. They of course wanted to know if I ever took Vic up on the offer for coffee. I told them no, but that may be some day I would.
Perhaps I’ll head down to the Farnsworth this weekend and look for Andy’s granddaughter.
* In listening to the WCSH6 interview with Jamie Wyeth, I learned that there are five paintings of this same theme. Not sure which one is in the Montclair exhibit