The Artist's Refuge
From his home on an island in Maine, Jamie Wyeth discusses the magic and meaning of artists' studios
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | November/December 2011
Southern Island lies less than a mile off the coast of Maine—a vivid splash of green in a landscape of gray granite and blue water. Here, in the shadow of a lighthouse his parents purchased in 1978, Jamie Wyeth has lived and worked for more than 20 years, completing paintings, sketches, and drawings that enhance private collections and museums around the world. This is the setting that informs and inspires his work, the place he returns to, the refuge he calls home.
Approaching Wyeth's island from Tenants Harbor, the first thing I notice is the beacon marking the entrance to Penobscot Bay. Constructed in 1857 and manned until 1933, it's one of the few lights in Maine still complemented by an original bell tower next door. (The lighthouse keeper cranked a massive counterweight up into the pyramidal tower. The descending weight powered a striker that rang the fog bell to warn ships away from the rocks.) As our launch rounds the eastern end of the island, I see Wyeth running toward one of the antique cannons on the lawn. Seconds later, an ear-splitting BOOOOOM floats out across the water. It's the most enthusiastic and memorable welcome I've ever received.
The gesture is characteristic of Wyeth. An acclaimed artist whose career has spanned five decades, he is warm; quick to laugh; contagiously enthusiastic about art, history, preservation, and architecture; and eager to show me around his lighthouse studio. "This is where I live and read and work," he says, tending to a blazing fire. "I think it's important to have a studio in your house, a place where you can work at any time without walking out the door. This place often looks like a bomb hit."
Today, however, it's simply exquisite.
Wyeth has filled the lighthouse cottage with extraordinary works of art, among them paintings by his father, Andrew Wyeth, and one of his favorite Maine painters, Rockwell Kent. (Jamie Wyeth owns the house that Kent built on Monhegan Island, about 15 miles away.) The rooms are also bursting with his collection of collections, which range from wrought-iron lightning rods that once crowned houses and barns across New England, to artifacts from the United States Light House Service. The original plaster walls in the building, all perfectly smooth, are painted a brilliant white. The wood windows have been fully restored and protected by storm panels (Wyeth says each opening is a distinctly different size, which made restoration "a challenge"), and though it's blustery outside and whitecaps paint the waves below, the living room in his historic studio is snug and silent.
Artists' studios have always played a central role in Wyeth's life. His grandfather, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, built a studio on the family farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., in 1911. Now part of the Brandywine River Museum (and of the National Trust's Historic Artists' Homes and Studios Program) the white clapboard building with its enormous north-facing windows captivated Jamie Wyeth early on. "As a child, I spent hours there," he says. "My grandfather died before I was born, but the studio remained as he left it—full of these incredible objects he used when he was painting the canvases that became illustrations for Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and The Yearling."
Wyeth's father maintained a studio attached to his own house in Chadds Ford, and Jamie did some of his best-known work there, including the posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy now on loan to the Vice President's Residence Foundation. "I have to admit that my father's studio was always less interesting to me," he remembers. "Compared to my grandfather's, with its rifles and costumes and wooden chests, it seemed less compelling." (The family donated Andrew Wyeth's studio to the Brandywine River Museum earlier this year. Museum officials hope to open it to the public after restoration is complete in 2012.)
When I ask Wyeth what his island studio reveals about him, he answers slowly. "I like isolation, solitude—and this place reflects that. It also says something about the way I work. I've always hated the idea of 'Now I'm going off to paint … now I'll be creative.' I just get up in the middle of the night here and work. My studio says that my life and my work are connected."
Wyeth says that he derives insight into the processes and visions of artists whenever he visits their studios: "You can't help feeling informed by the space." He points to the Winslow Homer Studio, currently under restoration in Prouts Neck, Maine. Wyeth walked through the historic studio, owned by the Portland Museum of Art, to monitor its restoration—and to honor his father's favorite artist. "Seeing that studio just amazed me because it's so dark inside and so silent. The physicality of the place had an impact on me as I thought of what was produced there. It opened a door to Homer's vision."
He plans to visit another artistic landmark, the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., in the near future. One of 30 properties in the National Trust's studio consortium, the site encompasses the home, gardens, and studio of the artist who sculpted the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, the Lincoln statue in Chicago, and the figure of the goddess Diana that crowned Madison Square Garden in New York. "To me, Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of the giants," Wyeth says. "That's why I've got to go see where he worked."
Wyeth accepts that no visitors experience historic studios in the same way: "Whatever hooks you is interesting. Seeing an artist's studio yourself makes it all more tactile and opens a door to their life and their work. The physicality of the place will affect you. It certainly does me."
With rain falling outside the lighthouse and dusk settling over the island, we walk toward the dock for my trip home. Wyeth leads the way past the banks of wild roses, pointing out a reduced-scale model of Daniel Webster's historic homestead, moved and rebuilt on a foundation here. "I have a theory about historic places," Wyeth says at the dock. "They absorb the lives of the people who've lived and worked in them. You can't help but learn when you visit. I'm just crazy about that idea."
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