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Union Rags is Wyeth's new canvas

JAMIE WYETH left school in sixth grade, so, in his formative years, he interacted far more with animals than people.

Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth, at their home in Chadds Ford, Pa. they will head to Churchill Downs where their horse, Union Rags, will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth, at their home in Chadds Ford, Pa. they will head to Churchill Downs where their horse, Union Rags, will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. David Maialetti / Staff PhotographerRead more

JAMIE WYETH left school in sixth grade, so, in his formative years, he interacted far more with animals than people.

"I spent a lot of time alone; I left school to be tutored,'' the 65-year-old artist said last week. "So most of my companions were animals. It's as simple as that. I knew more animals than I did people.''

He was talking about his life on the porch outside the throwback home he shares with his wife Phyllis at the glorious Point Lookout in Chadds Ford, the land spreading out below almost as far as the eye can see, the rolling Brandywine Creek and a railroad track sharing the foreground, a perfect frame for the deer lounging near the faraway tree line.

Wyeth remembers meeting Phyllis at an "aunt and uncles dinner of hers'' in Wilmington, Del.

"I was just drawn to her,'' he said. "I was, of course, much younger than she. I remember I went and asked her to dance. I think we jitterbugged. She was, like, appalled, 'Who is this little kid?'?''

Phyllis was working at President Kennedy's White House. Jamie thinks he was 16 or 17.

Not long after that dance, Phyllis was crippled in a car accident. Jamie went to a horse race in Maryland in the mid-1960s and somebody said "You know, that person you were interested in is here, Phyllis Mills.''

So, Jamie did what came naturally.

"Instead of watching the race, I sat with my binoculars and watched her sitting there,'' Wyeth said. "She is such an interesting-looking person. I immediately wanted to paint her.''

The race that day was the Maryland Hunt Cup, an annual 4-mile timber race in the rolling hills north of Baltimore, land not unlike their land. The race, with a $75,000 purse, was run against last Saturday. It is an annual early-spring social event as much as it is a horse race.

This Saturday, Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth will be at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., where the Kentucky Derby will be run for the 138th time; it definitely is a social event, but also the most famous horse race in the world. The purse will be $2 million, the prestige incalculable. They will be in Louisville to see Union Rags, the 3-year-old colt Phyllis had been dreaming about her whole life, the horse she bred and Jamie drew; the horse she sold and bought back because the dream kept recurring, the horse that will be one of the favorites to win a race that comes along only once in horse's lifetime.

Jamie was an animal person when he married Phyllis in 1968. He became a horse person. Horses went back generations in her family. Her parents' Hickory Tree Stable was among the most famous and successful in American racing.

Jamie learned to ride on a horse called Good Scotch. Later, they dug up a photograph of Good Scotch when Phyllis was at the White House. They figured he was 27.

" 'So, I ended up painting him,'' Wyeth said.

The chance Hunt Cup meeting was after her 1962 accident that left her with a broken neck but not a broken spirit. She got around on crutches and braces for years. Now, she is omnipresent on her motorized scooter.

Fifty years after that accident changed Phyllis' physical life, Union Rags has changed her emotional life. How is Jamie's wife sleeping these days?

"Not well,'' he said.

Jamie grew up a half-mile up the Brandywine, son of the legendary artist Andrew Wyeth, grandson of N.C. Wyeth.

Jamie's studio sits just a few paces up the driveway from the house, atop a horse barn, naturally, the place where the young Union Rags once roamed.

One can debate "best'' labels, but Andrew and Jamie Wyeth certainly have a prominent place on any list of the great American artists. You don't just view their work; you feel it.

"It's all I do,'' Wyeth said of his work. "I'm actually a rather boring person, because all I do is paint. This horse thing is kind of tense right now.''

Now, this colt, this Union Rags, the last son of a mare that traces back forever in the Mills' horse operation, has made the Wyeth name famous in a venue far from the artistic world.

"Animals interest me anyway,'' Wyeth said. ``I was just sort of fascinated. I view anything on this farm as model. I actually painted Union Rags as a yearling.''

Hanging in a prominent place, among the dozens of Wyeth paintings in the house, is a tapestry, with a young Union Rags down in a corner kicking out at some chickens, surrounded by a menagerie of farm animals, and Phyllis herself.

"To have him develop him what he's developed into is just extraordinary,'' Wyeth said. "And the story is true. It's something you couldn't make up.''

Jamie led Union Rags into the winner's circle at the Feb. 26 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He had led horses before, but not "with every vein distended. It was like holding on to fire.''

So, he has become involved. And he will be in Kentucky all week with his wife, wanting to experience every moment of Derby Week, Derby Day and the race itself. He most wants the moments for his wife.

"It's a culmination, a dream,'' Wyeth said. "Phyllis is unique in horses?…?Most owners are corporate face or the Tony Soprano face, neither of which know which end of a horse eats.

"So, for Phyllis, she really rode before she walked and after the accident?…?She's just been indomitable. So what more can you do with horses than this.''

Jamie has won the artistic Kentucky Derby – many times over.

He does give himself some time off, but, mostly, he lives in his studio on the farm and another in Tenants Harbor, Maine.

"`Once in a while, things click, and that's the opiate of painting, when things really come alive and you want to go to the studio,'' Jamie said.

The public sees the finished product, some of which hangs in the Brandywine River Museum, just a few furlongs away from Point Lookout.

"I don't find painting easy,'' Wyeth said. "Technically, it's difficult for me. I fight it. I go back and forth. It knocks me out when people say, 'I love painting as a hobby.' I think, 'Holy [bleep]; it's me doing brain surgery as a hobby.'?''

Painting, Wyeth said, is like anything: "You practice, practice and practice, and then you hope things click.''

Things have "clicked'' so well that Jamie Wyeth paintings are every bit as desirable as having a horse with a chance to win the Derby.

There are absolute classics like "Draft Age'' and "Portrait of a Pig," the wonderful portrait of Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev and the then-controversial portrait of John F. Kennedy, commissioned not long after he was assassinated in 1963.

Phyllis never liked the pigs on the farm, because the horses were terrified of them.

"Finally, she was complaining, complaining,'' Wyeth said. "Then, I ended up selling the painting for considerably more than she'd won with her horses, so that was the end of the argument. The pig stayed.''

When he does a portrait, Wyeth wants to become whom he is painting, "almost like an actor,'' he said. "I try to remove myself as much as possible.''

He spent a year painting Nureyev, a man who had a very famous Kentucky-bred, European-raced horse/sire named after him. "They give me one piece of hoof'' as his piece of ownership, Nureyev lamented.

"With him, it was a particularly difficult painting, because he was very concerned with how he was going to look,'' Wyeth said.

When Wyeth drew his toes, Nureyev told him, "Is that my toe, more beautiful than that.''

They became great friends. Nureyev was a regular visitor to Point Lookout.

"He adored Phyllis,'' Wyeth said. "She was so crazy about him. He kept saying, 'I want to buy farm in America.' Finally, he said, 'I want to buy farm with railroad through it and river through it.' I realized, Christ, he's talking about this farm. Phyllis was so crazy about him, she was about to give it to him, I think.''

Wyeth got a call from Jacqueline Kennedy asking whether "I would attempt'' the portrait of her husband.

"I think their interest was a young person,'' Wyeth said. "It was just a few years after his death. He was this demigod.''

Wyeth started doing if off photographs before realizing he needed somebody live to do it correctly. Brothers Bobby and Ted Kennedy let Wyeth follow them about. He tore up the first painting, a very glorified version.

He ended up painting a JFK with "one eye going off one way, looking a little indecisive?…?I was castigated when it came out on the cover of 'Life' or whatever it was, how could you do that to our president?''

It soon became iconic. Wyeth still owns it. Occasionally, he lends it out.

Today, on request, it hangs in the home of good friends from Delaware, gracing the vice presidential mansion where Joe and Jill Biden live in Washington.

It turns out there is at least one country where Wyeth art is still bigger than the Wyeth horse in the spring of 2012. Jamie just spent a week in China at an exhibition of Wyeth works. After the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a lot of the painters, Wyeth said, did not want to do paintings of people manning barricades.

"That, they tell me, is when they discovered Andrew Wyeth,'' Jamie said. "From little, teeny photographs in magazines and black and white things in newspapers.''

A Wyeth show had actually been scheduled in China. Then, Tiananmen Square (1989) happened. The show was postponed until this year.

"I gave this speech at the Central Academy of the Arts in Beijing. And half the people had old Wyeth catalogues from the Pennsylvania Academy and whatnot, all tattered so it wasn't [made up],'' Wyeth said.

They loved the Wyeths in China.

"What really interested me about the show there was that it was being organized by these painters, one of which is the leading painter in China,'' Wyeth said. "He just sold a painting for $10 million. I don't see much Wyeth in his painting, but he said, 'That's what saved my painting, your family's work.' It was pretty astounding.''

It was an artistic miracle, not unlike an equine miracle named Union Rags. Jamie Wyeth has never painted a Kentucky Derby winner. If his wife's horse wins, that studio above the barn will be filled with unparalleled inspiration.

Contact Dick Jerardi at