Jamie Wyeth, Kalounna in Frogtown

Jamie Wyeth, Kalounna in Frogtown, 1986, oil on masonite, 91.4 x 127.3 cm (Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.163) ©Jamie Wyeth, a Seeing America video speakers: Taylor L. Poulin, Assistant Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art and Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re here in the storage room of the Terra Foundation for American Art, looking at a large, arresting portrait by the artist Jamie Wyeth.

Taylor L. Poulin: [0:14] The painting is called “Kalounna in Frogtown,” and it shows a young boy, probably about 10 or 11. He is a Laotian immigrant. He’s standing in front of a large truck and an old Victorian-looking house, and he’s in this potentially springtime field with a great big sky behind him.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] The horizon line is especially low, and so he does tower above this landscape, and because of his frontal position, he’s imposing and [it’s] impossible to avoid his gaze, his humanity.

[0:47] This portrait feels unexpected, not only because of the incredible presence of the child, the vast sky, the directness of his gaze, but also because we have the trappings of Americana around us. Here we are in Frogtown, Pennsylvania, yet we have this figure who does not come from Frogtown, USA.

Taylor: [1:11] Jamie Wyeth painted this near the tail end of the Vietnam War. From 1966 to 1971, Jamie Wyeth served in the Delaware Air National Guard. He was going to be deployed in 1969, but the Tet Offensive resulted in a cancellation of all non-combat units.

[1:28] One could read this as a connection between an experience Wyeth did not have, and thinking about that experience through this young boy who came from that war-torn country.

[1:40] The story of a lot of Vietnamese, Laotian immigrants in the 1970s included treacherous boat trips from their hometowns to safety, to places without war. Kalounna’s family was part of that group who fled war in Vietnam, in Laos, during the 1970s.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] This is the reason so many of us and our ancestors have come to the United States, to seek prosperity, to escape economic hardship, to escape war, and so in a way this is the American story.

Taylor: [2:12] Jamie Wyeth came from a long line of New England-based artists. His father Andrew Wyeth, his grandfather N.C. Wyeth, and then N.C. Wyeth’s teacher Howard Pyle before him, all worked within a similar style deeply rooted in what we might consider American ideals or values, and so he comes from this long tradition of painting the people around him.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] But often there’s a sense of mystery, of a narrative that we can’t quite pull together entirely.

Taylor: [2:42] Jamie Wyeth connects reality to a sense of strangeness, and we see that very clearly in this painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] Wyeth is using light and dark to give us a sense of the three-dimensional presence of his body in this landscape. We can clearly see the light coming from our right, hitting the left side of his face, casting the right side in shadow. The trees, the truck also cast very stark shadows.

Taylor: [3:08] But then Wyeth includes this darker space at the bottom. We don’t know if it’s a shadow. We don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s a little ominous. He puts the boy in that space. It adds tension to the painting. Is there something looming behind the viewer?

Dr. Harris: [3:23] Is that a shadow that’s being cast on the landscape behind him? Is it some sort of dug-out space that he’s standing in? It really does add to the mystery that’s in this painting.

Taylor: [3:34] And he adds a tension with Kalounna’s hands. His right hand is outstretched and his left hand is clenched.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] It is hard not to read those hand gestures symbolically. The left hand with that fist suggests a kind of entrapment, and the right hand, which is open, feels the opposite, has a sense of freedom, but of course there’s also tension in that right hand, but I bet those hands can be interpreted in different ways.

Taylor: [4:02] I see in his left hand a sense of difficulty or contemplation, and in his right hand is a sense of determination that whatever challenges he faces, he’s going to succeed.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] We can’t even interpret those gestures with certainty.

Taylor: [4:16] This adds to the mystery. What is Kalounna thinking? Why is he standing in this landscape? What did he experience as an immigrant to the United States? What did he experience coming to the United States as a young child? These are all questions that Wyeth asks, but doesn’t answer.

Dr. Harris: [4:32] His t-shirt reminds me of that. His t-shirt almost reminds me of a t-shirt he could have gotten secondhand in Laos and gave him this impression of what America would be, this grand American city of Dallas, and yet here he is in Frogtown, Pennsylvania.

Taylor: [4:49] It’s another one of those incongruities that Wyeth is so skilled at, connecting this urban skyline to this very rural, tree-filled horizon behind Kalounna. We have this contrast of realities. He’s contrasting American realities, but he is also contrasting Kalounna’s realities between his very faraway native land and his current hometown.

Dr. Harris: [5:13] And what he might’ve imagined America to be. The point of view doesn’t entirely make sense. We’re looking straight at him and we’re looking across this very deep landscape. There is a kind of disconnect between the figure and the landscape that might also be related to this idea of immigration, of being a refugee in the United States.

[5:34] One of the things I’m noticing is the red, white, and blue of his t-shirt, and the American flag, the sort of symbol of America, but also the red in the shutters, and the house behind, the red of the truck with its diagonal line of the bed of the truck heading into the background and leading our eye to the house.

[5:51] So although the figure takes up so much of the canvas, it does feel as though what we’re seeing in the background was also important to Wyeth.

Taylor: [5:59] One of the stories behind this painting is that Wyeth was driving around Frogtown, not too far from where he lived in Pennsylvania, and he saw this truck sitting in front of someone’s house, in the yard. He said, “Oh, I must paint that.”

Dr. Harris: [6:11] The figure is painted so carefully. In a way, there’s such love and respect, in the way that Kalounna is painted.

Taylor: [6:19] Wyeth is really known for his portraits, whether they be of people, or of animals that he knew and loved, or places that he grew up in. He really gives a depth of agency and honor to his sitters. This is shown not only in the scale of Kalounna, but also in the fact that he had Kalounna sign the painting along with him.

[6:41] He gives him the opportunity to put his name in the bottom left-hand corner as a creator of this image. He’s giving Kalounna a sense of agency that is really remarkable.

Dr. Harris: [6:50] Wyeth talked about the process of painting a portrait as really getting to know the sitter.

Taylor: [6:55] That comes across. We feel like we may know Kalounna, in a way. Being able to see him eye-to-eye is important, but then feeling compassion potentially for his conflicted emotions about being an immigrant in a foreign land.

[7:10] [music]

Cite this page as: Taylor L. Poulin and Dr. Beth Harris, "Jamie Wyeth, Kalounna in Frogtown," in Smarthistory, April 3, 2020, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jamie-wyeth-kalounna-frogtown/.