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COLUMN ONE

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

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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