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Nudity, explosives and art

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Times Staff Writer

IT doesn’t have to be July 4, or thereabouts, for Victoria Wyeth to tell her wildest fireworks story -- the one about how they blew up Aunt Carolyn’s ashes.

“She was crazy in a really fun way,” Victoria explains in her museum tours that are like no others. “She hated people so she had like eight dogs around the house.... So we decided to do something really cool for her funeral, so we cremated her ... then we took a big bomb with a big shell and stuffed her in it ... and we lit her up in front of her father’s house. It was so loud it set off all the alarms and the priest was there and he was drunk.

“It was too much,” she sums it up, and if the nature of her family isn’t obvious, she drives that home too. “I always talk,” she says, “about how nuts they are.”

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She’s been doing that for more than a decade, telling strangers about the Wyeth art, sure, but mostly overflowing with the stories about how Aunt Carolyn “went kaboom” or how Uncle Jamie played classical music to calm his pigs or how Grandma Betsy came to buy up islands like other women buy shoes. And, of course, about Grandpa Andy and his models, and not merely the famous Helga. It seems there’s always another one he’s coaxing to take off her blouse. “All jokes aside, one reason he likes to do nudes so much, they’re timeless,” says the only grandchild of Andrew Wyeth, before offering a personal testimonial to how harmless that posing is.

“Well, I posed nude for him,” 28-year-old Victoria says, “and I didn’t have sex with him.”

Yes indeed, these are a tad more intimate than most museum tours, these freewheeling journeys into the heart of the Wyeth clan, whose patriarch turned 90 last week, meaning another milestone comes up for discussion as well -- even how they might try to top the send-off for Carolyn when his time comes.

“I told my grandfather, ‘We gotta do something good with you.’ I told him we’re gonna stuff him and put him on display in the museum,” says his grandkid, though we would learn by the end of the day that Andrew Wyeth has his own idea on that matter, and it’s not being stuffed or kaboomed.

“The most important thing is Andrew Wyeth is not dead,” Victoria Wyeth tells the 20 people gathered in the lobby of the Farnsworth Art Museum. “I just talked to him five minutes ago. So I guess he’s not dead.”

SHE’S an art object herself, layers of white and black: slicked-down platinum hair, black shirt, white skirt and, on her feet, black Ferragamos. Her words come fast; “hyper,” she calls herself.

She gives the basic genealogy: How Andrew’s father was N.C. Wyeth, the illustrator of such adventure books as “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” before he was killed in 1945 when his car was struck by a train near the family’s main home, in Chadds Ford, Pa. Andrew, married for 67 years to the former Betsy Merle James, whom he met during the Wyeths’ summers in Maine, has two sons: Jamie, who inherited the art gene, and her father, Nicholas, who did not but became an agent for the pair.

“Daddy sells the paintings, my uncle and my grandfather paint them, my grandmother titles them, and I talk about them,” Victoria says.

She began giving occasional tours at the Farnsworth at 15, continued through college (at nearby Bates), then took “a break from the Wyeth thing” during graduate school before the pull of her heritage drew her back three years ago.

Now she spends spring and fall leading groups through the Wyeth-packed Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, then migrates here with the clan in July and August to offer two tours four days a week. This summer she added field trips to the Olson House in nearby Cushing, the setting for her grandfather’s breakthrough work, “Christina’s World.”

“OK,” she says, “what we’re going to talk about is how he’s painting his life,” and she leads the group to 1982’s “Adrift,” depicting a bearded fisherman reclining -- or dead -- in his small wooden boat.

She gives a short lecture on painting with tempera -- made in part from egg yolks -- then it’s on to how the man shown here is Walt Anderson, her granddad’s best friend from boyhood, when they’d sometimes steal boats together, and whom Andy painted through the day of his death, when he went into the hospital room and sketched Walt’s stilled face. “My grandfather said, ‘I wanted to paint him in a dory because that’s how I knew I was going to remember him, you know, floating around all day, drifting.’ ”

“OK? How are we doin’?” she asks while heading to a dry brush watercolor of Uncle Jamie, at 6, in a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and boots. “Jamie had little toy soldiers [and] lost a soldier, burst into tears,” she explains, so her grandfather’s way of comforting him was to say, “Oh, sit there so I can paint you.”

“Vic,” as the family calls her, confesses that she can get jealous hearing art historians talk about her grandfather’s works, perhaps noting his varying “focal lengths” or how obscured corners help create, as one termed it, “a psychological chamber of privacy and loneliness.” What she can speak to is how he was affected, at 28, by his father’s train track death. “My grandfather just said, ‘Vic ... it just totally changes your perspective,’ ” and thus was he drawn to Walt, the hard-working fisherman who died without a wife or children, or to crippled Christina Olson, whom he portrayed in 1948, pulling herself up a hillside from her family’s cemetery toward her weathered home, like a crab crawling along the bottom of the sea, yet in a pink dress.

THE problem for Wyeth was that he came of age in a postwar art world dominated by Abstract Expressionism, the antithesis of representational art. Many critics dismissed him as a rural sentimentalist, dime-store existentialist or as mere illustrator better at self-promotion than art, even as the masses hung prints of “Christina’s World” on their walls -- they liked art that told a story.

“OK, this is absolutely my favorite,” Victoria Wyeth says before “Dr. Syn,” a 1981 self-portrait showing her grandfather as a skeleton, gazing out a window in an ancient military coat, done after he had his hips replaced. “He said, ‘Vic, you know this guy’s X-raying me. All I could think about is when I’m dead I’m going to be sitting there in that casket and all that’s gonna be there are my bones.’ ” The jacket? It’s from the War of 1812 and a gift from his father, who painted it too, as did his son, Jamie, later on.

“Do you paint?” a woman on the tour asks.

“Oh, I have no talent,” Victoria says. “You know what I wanted to be? An FBI agent. I saw ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ so I went off to graduate school in clinical psychology, I worked in a forensic mental hospital for the criminally insane. Then one of the patients fell in love with me, and I decided it’s much safer to give the tours here.”

Maine humorist Robert Skoglund, who does commentaries as “The “humble Farmer,” a few years ago fessed up to being a “Wyeth cultist” in response to critics who put down the family of artists that for a century has chronicled local characters and whatever ramshackle structures strike their fancy. “An ignorant public spends millions on Wyeth prints, key chains, cups, books, calendars, postcards and anything else that will bear their magic signatures, which annoys intelligent artists who cannot sell their own work,” the satirist wrote. It would not surprise him that last year’s Andrew Wyeth show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art drew 177,000 visitors, the largest attendance for a living artist there.

Skoglund keeps a 1920 Model T Ford in front of his bed-and-breakfast in St. George, and hopped in it the other day to show an old house he used to own that “Andy” painted, and naturally “the painting’s worth more than it is now.” Then he puttered to the home of boat builder Jimmy Parker, whom, he says, “Andy had pose in a coffin.”

That was the summer before last, the bearded Parker confirms -- and it was hardly his first Wyeth encounter. A decade ago, the artist stopped by and announced, “I want to paint your house.”

“I asked him, ‘What color?’ ”

Wyeth came early each morning for two weeks, “like a boy with his paint box,” and once in a while would say, “Come look at this.” Parker says he asked why the rusty TV antenna wasn’t on there, “that’s what makes the house,” and the next time he looked, lo and behold, there it was. He got a signed print when the painting was done, and after that Wyeth occasionally would drop in to watch how he fashioned a dory from wooden planks. Then Wyeth said, “Your hands remind me of Walt’s” and asked him to model for perhaps a final depiction of his long-dead pal -- this one in a coffin, surrounded by mussel shells, as in a Native American burial.

It’s like a civic duty, as Parker describes it: If the man wants to paint you, how can you refuse? The only time he did refuse, he says, was when he saw the living legend with the paint box eyeing his teenage daughter. “I said, ‘No way.’ ”

“Hey, Billy!” Victoria Wyeth calls out. “Some guy gave me a tip! A hundred bucks!”

Billy is William Basciani, a 26-year-old artist she met in Chadds Ford and with whom she might be Mr. and Mrs. already had not Grandpa Andy so kindly advised him, “Don’t you marry her -- it will ruin your career.”

While Victoria has been at the museum, Billy has been painting at the 18th century waterfront house in Cushing where the elder Wyeth summered for years until he and Betsy started buying islands and building homes on them. Victoria recalls the rest of grandpa’s advice to her beau, “And he says, ‘You shouldn’t have babies.’ I’m like, ‘That’s great!’ ”

That morning she’d told her tour, “Let’s have some nudity, shall we?” and pointed out a pencil study of Siri Erikson, a Maine neighbor who became Andrew Wyeth’s obsession after Christina Olson died in 1968.

“When people think of scandal they always think of Helga -- Helga, Helga, Helga,” she said. That would be Helga Testorf, the married neighbor in Pennsylvania whom Wyeth painted scores of times, works that made salacious front page news when disclosed in 1985.

“Before Helga even showed up, Siri was the one who caused the problems,” Victoria told her tour group, explaining that Siri was about 14 when she started posing, “and the people around town just did not think it was appropriate.”

“The Helga thing was really hard for me,” Victoria says in the Cushing house after changing into blue jeans, recalling the pestering she still gets from busloads of old women in red hats. “Did he have sex with her?” That’s when she insists “No,” and tells of her own youthful posing.

“He was so funny, ‘Now Victoria, you can take off your shirt ... I am your grandfather.’ Then he gives my dad a pencil study of my chest for Christmas.”

What irks her is not that her figure may be hanging in the dining room of some doctor but that grandpa never paid her for that modeling, “and he was supposed to. So I went and found out where he had a gas charge in town and I just charged gas to him for like four years.”

There’s one more tour to give, at the Olson House, now owned by the Farnsworth Museum. The house talks are new for her, but there are many stories to tell, such as how the Wyeths would picnic in the cemetery. “Crazy group,” she declares.

The house itself prompts lots of questions when the visitors see how Christina and her brother lived with peeling walls, uneven floors and an outhouse. Lurking around their home, and their lives, brought Wyeth fame and wealth -- so someone wants to know why he hadn’t shared it with them. The answer: He did give them things for the house, but Christina always said “no, no, no” to money. She’d say, “This is my life and I love it.” And her life apparently still resonates with Victoria Wyeth’s granddad.

Forget the banter about stuffing him in the museum. “My grandfather explained to me the other day this is where he wants to be buried,” Victoria tells the tour group when they trek down to the waterside cemetery, the same one Christina Olson was crawling up from the day she inspired “Christina’s World.”

“I said, ‘Really?’ because my grandmother -- I think she thinks they’re going to be buried on the island. Andy says, ‘No, I want to be with Christina.’ So we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. Well, there you go, guys.” It’s her last story of the day.

“She’s a firecracker.”

It takes a few days, but grandpa finally has his say about his granddaughter and her stories.

“Yes, that’s right,” he says of one after another: Carolyn’s ashes, getting Vic to pose, urging the boyfriend not to tie the knot. Many get him laughing.

“I don’t think she exaggerates much,” he says. “She’s like a painter. A great painter can take a very simple subject and through manipulation of a brush add a zest to it. Usually people who give tours like that are rather boring.”

ANDREW Wyeth was getting ready for his 90th birthday party. Everyone was gathering Thursday for a lobster bake on Benner Island. Wife Betsy. Son Jamie. Vic. Her father. Billy. A few friends. And Helga.

“Yeah, certainly. Oh, absolutely,” Wyeth says. You see, their Pennsylvania neighbor of the scandal days now summers here too, nearby on the mainland.

Trained as a nurse, she’s helped care for him for years. The locals have grown used to seeing her by him as he paints or lunches at a dockside restaurant. And if his wife’s neck is hurting, if Betsy’s disk is acting up, “Helga rushes over and gives her massages” -- that’s another Victoria story.

“She’s part of the family now,” Andrew Wyeth says. “I know it shocks everyone. That’s what I love about it. It really shocks ‘em.”

He still wakes early to do his art in the morning light. He recently finished a self-portrait that shows him painting in the snow, in the middle of a blizzard.

He also has become intrigued by a housekeeper they have in Pennsylvania, a “Quaker girl,” though he hasn’t popped the blouse question “yet.”

Vic made five batches of chocolate chip cookies for his party, and they had cakes with candles too, like any family. OK, Jamie shot off four loads of dynamite in the cannons they have out there.

“Totally normal,” Vic says when it’s time for the birthday boy to blow out the candles, “except for the cannons.”

paul.lieberman@latimes.com


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