The morning after painter Jamie Wyeth arrived in Salt Lake City, he walked to the State Capitol to take in the stunning valley view. Then he descended to Temple Square, right next to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' "Seagull Monument."
It didn't take long for two female missionaries to approach Wyeth. "Have you ever heard the story of the seagulls?" they asked.
Had he ever, Wyeth replied. But his was more of personal vision, very different than the pioneer legend.
After finishing a large-scale painting of seagulls lashing around a trash incinerator on an island off the coast of New England, the painter wanted to rid them from his sight.
The birds, however, chose him. Finally, after uneasy dreams, Wyeth awoke in the middle of the night to sketch out seven seagulls, each acting out one of the early Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins.
One seagull steals. Another gorges himself. Two of the birds mate with lascivious stares.
Over the months when he transformed his sketches into paintings, Wyeth found himself so caught up by the project that he lettered each of seven frames to delineate each sin.
"I probably told them a little too much," said Wyeth of the sister missionaries on Temple Square. "I think their heads are still spinning."
For LDS faithful, Wyeth's "Seven Deadly Sins" exhibition of paintings turns a bird perceived as symbolic of God's miracles upside down, or at least sideways. That's not to say that more secular Utah residents, who know it as simply the official state bird, won't find elements of disturbing beauty in the series as well.
Both camps may take in the painter's vision, as the exhibit "Jamie Wyeth: Seven Deadly Sins" -- after a brief stopover at the Utah Capitol -- will hang at the Salt Lake Art Center through May 22.
If the artist's last name sounds familiar, it should. He's the second son of the late Andrew Wyeth, whose work is often cast as a dividing line between modern art aesthetes and those who prefer more traditional art styles. As part of what's considered "the first family of American art," Wyeth first learned to paint at the knee of his famous father.
"Jamie does not travel with his exhibitions often or at all," said Adam Price, executive director of the Salt Lake Art Center. "These particular works have never been outside the Northeast, and there's really no better place to have an exhibition of seagulls than in Utah."
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Wyeth's interest in painting came naturally. Yet he never stopped to consider his own art in the context of his father's legacy.
After scoring his first one-man exhibition before the age of 21, Wyeth made his next big splash with a portrait of John F. Kennedy, finished four years after the president's assassination. Using his "portrait by osmosis" technique, Wyeth spent time with the late president's brothers, Robert and Ted, before starting. He finished with a vulnerable and less-than-regal image of a man many considered the iconic leader of America's Camelot.
Wyeth received heated letters criticizing his judgment, but today that portrait hangs in the Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Mass., and landed on Ireland's official postage stamp. "I wanted to paint him as a man, which was infinitely more interesting than the demigod he was seen as at the time," Wyeth said.
That intention carries over into "Seven Deadly Sins." Working from his lighthouse studio on Southern Island off the coast of Maine, the 63-year-old Wyeth has spent years among seagulls. Tired of seeing paintings that turned seagulls into doves, he wanted to portray them as he saw them: evil, vicious birds.
The series premiere exhibition was held two years ago in New York City. That's when it was viewed by Matt Simmons, a prominent Salt Lake City businessman and friend of the Wyeth family, who suggested the work be mounted in Utah. Wyeth took the advice. His paintings hung this week in the statehouse rotunda for the opening of the legislative session. The painter said he was surprised at how closely people examined his work.
"A lot of people thought I'd painted these as a special commission for Utah," Wyeth said.
In fact, Wyeth said he paints for himself, hinting that he may be guilty of one of the deadly seven: greed.
Why he chooses to paint a certain subject, though, is a motive best left cloaked with mystery. "I find painting so difficult that those considerations always stay outside my studio door," he said. "They're really immaterial to making art."
When » Through May 22. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays.
Where » Salt Lake Art Center, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City