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Nudity, explosives and art

There's more to Andrew Wyeth than Helga. His granddaughter, who also posed, shares the family's wacky history -- and it's a real piece of work.

July 18, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Rockland, Maine — 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."

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."

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