Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Family of Art

by Zinta Aistars

The family that paints together, stays together … maybe so. I had inherited a love of the Wyeth family art from my father, artist Viestarts Aistars. It’s hard to say if the talent for a skilled stroke of the paintbrush, or a fine turn of phrase, or a sweet-sounding musical note, or an eye for balanced composition comes to us in our genes or by training. Or, by exposure.

My family has many artists in its fold—visual, literary, musical, photographic talent abounds. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, nieces—I am surrounded by family finely attuned to the arts. Indeed, almost no one among us has any idea how to properly wield a hammer or how to check the oil in the car. 

We look upon my son, who changes my oil and installs new brakes on my car as something of a godlike figure with a divine touch. He wires up new lighting in my house and solders broken pipes. We understand nothing of what he can do. We, painters, writers, photographers, musicians, stand back and watch in awed wonder at the turning of the screw.

My father in the KIA lobby
Even so, when I invite my father to accompany me to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) on a snowy Saturday to view the Wyeth family art exhibit, he accepts near breathlessly. He has been wanting to go, longing to go, but getting about these days is a grand undertaking … having me along gives him courage to make the journey. 

We meet downtown Kalamazoo, and there are times, I admit, that I enjoy the handicapped privilege his van allows him. We park a few feet from the door of KIA, so close I can toss my coat in the car and walk in unhindered, only taking my father under his arm. We discover we are some 40 minutes early, coming in the door that is unlocked for staff. Yet the museum curator greets us kindly, invites us in, and we buy our tickets and sit on the leather bench in the main lobby of the building. We are given beautiful programs to read about the exhibit while we wait. 

Andrew Wyeth
The Wyeth exhibit includes more than 90 works by members of the Wyeth family. Both my father and I lean heavily toward the work of Andrew Wyeth, but each family member brings his or her own style, mood, perspective, and creative brand. The patriarch of the family is N. C. Wyeth, whose vivid illustrations made such books as Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson magical.  He illustrated many children’s books that dealt with the Middle Ages, pirates and warfare in colonial America. 

Andrew Wyeth, N.C.’s son, was carefully mentored by his father in his artistic education. He is among the best known American artists of the last century. His work appears everywhere, everywhere, in prints, posters, public lobbies and waiting rooms across the country—to the point that most everyone recognizes his work if not always his name. 

Andrew Wyeth
Andrew was drawn most to watercolor, but was drawn also to egg tempera and pencil drawing. When he had his first one-man show in New York City at age 20, his paintings were sold out in two days. Critics hailed him as the great new talent of the art world. Combining wet watercolor washes with drybrush technique, using a limited color palette of earth tones, Andrew’s paintings achieve an uncanny realism. He died in 2009, leaving an exquisite collection that spans seven decades.

Henriette and Carolyn Wyeth, Andrew’s sisters, are far less known as artists, but their work shows a similar attention to detail and ability to capture light on canvas. Henriette is known for portraits and still lifes. Carolyn shied away from publicity, didn’t wish to show her work, and took a bit of a rebellious approach by painting odd compositions out of perspective and in bright colors. 

Henriette Wyeth
Carolyn Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
N.C. Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth
Jamie Wyeth is Andrew’s son, and his work does show a tie with his father, exquisitely detailed, but he paints mostly in oil, portraits with interesting props in the background that hint at untold stories. His portraits of celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Nureyev, Arnold Schwarzenegger are well-known, and, like his father, he has exhibited his work since age 20.

My father and I sit on the bench in the KIA lobby reading the program and talking quietly to each other about our admiration for the art of the Wyeths. The KIA curator comes over to chat. It had taken years to arrange the exhibit, he told us, and it is not a traveling show. Kalamazoo, no great metropolis, gets yet another kudo for bringing such renowned artists to our small but artistically vibrant city. Nowhere else but here! 

He checks his watch, and it is still a good 20 minutes to opening time, but he smiles at us. “I’m pretty sure you two won’t touch any paintings in there,” he nods at the special exhibit area. “I’ll let you in early.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” I make a mock-mad face. “We are a little Wyeth crazed …”

He laughs, unlocks the special exhibit area, and escorts us in, taking my father’s coat for him and bringing it to the coat room. 

My father, artist Viestarts Aistars
But my father and I are already lost, lost to the world, mesmerized. There are lines placed with black tape in front of each painting, marking how close one can step to that artistic treasure, but I lean in close, closer, toes edging over the line, holding my breath, examining the brush strokes. There are few to see. Andrew Wyeth knows how to use a watercolor brush like a magician his wand. His painting, for all its realism, can be remarkably free. 

“How beautiful,” I whisper with reverence. My father, too, leans in ever closer. “How divine, to be able to paint light like this, its radiance, its glow … look at these skin tones. How does one even do this?” I marvel.

“Layer after layer of wash,” my father says, moving his hand across an invisible canvas. “First wet, one color upon next … then the dry brush … ”

He is lost in his own world, connected with the world of Wyeth, two artists for a moment seeing eye to eye. My father, too, is a master of watercolor. Where others strain to control the paint in its watery flood, my father knows when to let go … there is the mastery. 

Yet even he is awed. We look at the paintings together, but sometimes wander apart, each drawn to our own liking. Now and then, my father sits on a bench, and simply gazes at the paintings, lost in thought.

I am drawn to a painting called “Her View,” done in egg tempera. A great white shell set on an old wooden chest makes me audibly gasp. I even feel tears come to eyes. The light! The light on the shell! And the rough texture of the old wood … ah, when a human being in his devotion to capturing beauty touches on the divine … 

We move from room to room. Each room is devoted to its own Wyeth. The second room has the works of N.C. Wyeth, and under glass cases, actual books he has illustrated. There are also exquisite pages for a bible he has painted. And again, this divine light. I stare long at the paintings that eventually became book illustrations. I recall these from my childhood days. Perhaps these vivid and gorgeous paintings had something to do with why I grew up believing books contain actual worlds inside them. That, somehow, we melt into the pages, travel through them like portals through time and space, and enter into another world. 

Jamie Wyeth
The curator comes to talk to us again as we rest on a bench in the hallway from the third room, where portraits done by Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son, hang along the wall. Directly in front of us is the portrait of an Asian boy, and behind him, a huge red truck. 

“Shall I tell you a story about the red truck?” the curator asks.


“Jamie was going to paint the boy, and behind him, that farm house. But on the street he saw this truck parked, and so he went to ask the truck driver—may I paint your truck? The truck driver frowned at him and said, no! I like my truck red, just as it is!”

My father and I laughed in glee. 

Jamie Wyeth
“Of course, once he understood …” the curator chuckled, then strode away as he heard a running child in the next room. His watchful eye, everywhere. 

Once more, my father and I walked through the first room, with Andrew’s work in it before at last we were done. We left the museum with reluctance, yet wealthier. 

“I have this itch to go home now and paint,” my father said in a dreamy voice when we were back in the van.

It is why we go to pay our respect to the masters. To learn, to admire, to be inspired. To walk away, richer, and hungry to create. KIA has brought wealth to our community, and who can know the ripple effect of showing us such light as this, on the white sea shell, in the grooves of old wood, through the lacy curtains on a window overlooking the ocean. 

Andrew Wyeth, from the Helga series

Andrew Wyeth

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
The Wyeths: America’s Artists

January 15 - April 17, 2011

...The Wyeths - rarely has American art spawned a family of such artistic talent and renown. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts presents an exhibition of works by three generations of artists in the Wyeth family - N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), an illustrator and painter, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), known by many as "America's Painter," Andrew's sisters, Henriette Wyeth Hurd (1907-1997) and Carolyn Wyeth (1909-1994), and Andrew's son Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946). All have explored the people and landscapes around Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania, where N.C. Wyeth established the family's home, and the mid-coast of Maine, where N.C. purchased a summer home.

The exhibition includes 90 works of art by the Wyeths, as well as several photographic portraits by Maine photographer Peter Ralston. The paintings (oils, tempera, and watercolor) and drawings are on loan from the Farnsworth Art Museum, Brandywine River Museum, Terra Foundation for American Art, and three private lenders.


  1. Anonymous11:40 AM

    Lovely essay, Zinta. I can see you, your father, the KIA, and those Wyeths. Your father's desire to go home and paint moves me. Good to check in with you again. I'm now in Brooklyn, writing my memoir, and taking care of my grandson. Having a wonderful time!


  2. Best on your memoir, Shirley! Do stay in touch and let me know how it progresses. As for my father's painting, you can view his work at