Andrew, Jamie, & Me

by Scott Kelley

When I was 13, I saw the Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I saw it a lot, in fact, since my father had recently started working in the city, and the Met was the one place I could be left alone with only a bare minimum of ways to get into trouble.

The work was amazing: paintings from the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, and the Olson house in Cushing. Beyond the awe-inspiringly detailed tempera paintings, the museum had also curated a trove of working drawings, preparatory watercolors and other fragments that showed how the paintings had developed, from sometimes just a swath of ink and some scribbled lines to a trampled painting that had simply needed to go further, and became so much grist for the mill.

This, I thought, is how an artist works.

Andrew Wyeth was, to me, Maine. His son Jamie was Monhegan. Both places had an enormous hold upon my imagination even into college, as they still do, and it was because of them that living here seemed like something to aspire to someday. My family had always spent part of each summer in Maine, and I loved being here. It always seemed like a more interesting place than anywhere else, and not just the coastline; I remember one year driving through The County on our way to Montreal, all tar paper shacks, stacked firewood and huge lumber trucks. My parents couldn’t get through there fast enough, but I thought it was one of the most amazing trips we had ever been on, and for years begged them to go back, without success.

In college, Wyeth was “The Name That Shall Not Be Mentioned”, and while many of us had been influenced by their work as teenagers, we knew better than to press our luck. The professors were uniformly dismissive, but I couldn’t betray my early influences, so instead developed a critical reappraisal of Andrew’s work, ultimately having little patience for the portraits or figurative works, and instead taking great pleasure in his landscapes and interiors. Nobody in the history of American Art has ever painted light better than Andrew Wyeth, or taken such joy in whiteness, or absence of color, or the sun coming through a window.

Jamie’s paintings of Monhegan were deeply moving to me, not least of all because they have since come to represent a Monhegan that no longer exists, the Monhegan of my childhood. I lost touch with Jamie for a while, save for seeing random things in reproduction, but a few years back, I saw a large number of his paintings at the Farnsworth, and liked them quite a bit more than I was prepared for. He has Andrew’s thing for light, but in a more offbeat way that gives the work a curious mix of levity and foreboding. Either something really, really good has just happened, or something really, really bad is about to. They are, in my mind, like great short stories that you aren’t sure you are reading quite right, and I love that about them.

So it was with no small degree of surprise that, this past January, the Portland Museum of Art, as part of their Masterworks on Paper exhibition, hung one of my watercolors, Self Portrait as Ishmael’s Arm, next to Jamie Wyeth’s Milk of  Magnesia, which is all about a lovingly rendered little blue bottle of the stuff sitting in a window. And, as if that weren’t enough, halfway through the shows run, they reinstalled works and put one of my Children of Lost Whalers paintings, Maximillian Makepeace, next to Andrew Wyeth’s A Maine Room, which – love him or hate him – is an absolutely gorgeous watercolor, full of light and almost achingly beautiful color, particularly the blue of the bed frame, which just resonates at a frequency seldom allowed mere mortals. If angels sleep on beds, they are almost certainly this color.

It was strangely moving to have my work hung next to the Wyeth’s. In my youth, I could have never imagined that such a thing could be possible. In my twenties or thirties, I would have found it, well… perplexing. Now, however, in my fifties, it feels like something of an accomplishment of the most unexpected kind, and for that, I am deeply grateful to have lived long enough to see it.

Below: Installation views, Masterworks on Paper, Portland Museum of Art, 2016.