James Warhola

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 July, 2011, 12:00am


COUNTRY PURSUITS I grew up on the outskirts of Pittsburgh [in Pennsylvania, the United States], with three brothers and three sisters. We were country kids. My dad ran a junkyard and we all had to work, separating and cleaning raw metal. Just like farm families, we all had to pitch in. My father was Andy Warhol's eldest brother. Andy was also from Pittsburgh, but dropped the 'a' from his name when he moved to New York. We visited him probably three or four times a year. My dad would pack us into the car and 10 hours later we'd be in New York, knocking on my uncle's door. I recently asked my dad if he ever called ahead to let Uncle Andy know we were coming and he said that would have ruined the surprise. Having seven kids showing up on his doorstep must have really been something for Andy. For us rural kids, though, New York City was amazing. It was so weird - seeing a rich old lady walking 10 toy dogs on the Upper East Side, people with their hair dyed all different colours and all the noises and the lights. My first memory of my uncle is seeing him carefully picking up women's shoes and drawing them. This was when he was renting an apartment, working as an illustrator in the late 1950s. I must have been about five.

ILLUSTRATING THE POINT Watching my uncle work had a profound influence on me. I just knew I wanted to become an illustrator. Gradually he made the shift into pop art, but my dream remained illustration. He knew I was interested in art, so he'd have art supplies ready for me whenever we'd visit. He'd show me techniques and how to do things. My parents saw what success Andy was having, so they understood that art could be a career. They encouraged me and gave me great support. I ended up studying design at Carnegie Mellon University. After I graduated, in the early 70s, I went to New York. I worked for my uncle for a while, stretching canvases and doing menial stuff for him at Interview magazine. But I didn't much care for the crowd that hung around him. I was a country kid and more down to earth. I didn't like that environment so much. So I started visiting him at his house, instead of at the studio. His maids would let me in and make me a meal, and then he'd come home from work and we'd have a nice conversation, just the two of us. He kind of knew I had to make it on my own and do my own thing. I had always been interested in comic books, science fiction and fantasy, and I ended up doing covers for science-fiction books. Illustrating paperback covers was a very big thing in New York at that time; it supported a lot of artists. It was an interesting world, too. You could pick your genre: westerns, romance, science fiction, fantasy or mystery. I did dozens and dozens of sci-fi covers. I would read the books over and over, pulling out details, constructing a scene that drew you in but didn't give away the plot. I think my best cover was for the paperback edition of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. They usually change covers when a book is republished, but my cover is still being used today. I also did William Gibson's Neuromancer, which actually came out first in paperback, in a run of just 5,000 copies - they didn't expect it to be a hit. Andy encouraged me and tried to give me guidance, but he'd also say things like: 'If you're interested in science fiction, you should be out in Hollywood doing films, that's where everything is happening' - as if I could go to California and make it big in the movies, just like that. I'm a pretty modest person. I was never going to become a movie mogul. But Andy had a way of always thinking absurdly big.

MAD TIMES Later I did some covers for Mad magazine. That was great fun. Mad founder Bill Gaines was like a god. Every year or so, they would take all of their crazy artists and writers on a trip somewhere exotic. I joined one trip to Monte Carlo. Can you imagine the whole Mad magazine team in Monte Carlo on a week-long trip solely devoted to letting loose? Bill just wrote it off as a business expense. That kind of thing doesn't happen in the publishing world any more. Another year, they heard there was some guy on an exotic Pacific island who had an international subscription to Mad, so the whole team flew there and rented like 10 cars and tried to hunt the guy down. I can't remember if they found him, or what they did with him if they did.

FALL AND RISE Last year I had an accident, which has became something of a turning point for me. I was on the roof of my place in New York, checking something out with a workman, when the ladder broke. I fell 35 feet and landed on another roof. I broke my neck and my legs. I'm lucky to be alive. It was a real-life nightmare; and really spooky, because I was taken to the same hospital where my uncle died. But, in a way, it's rejuvenated me. It made me feel I need to do more artwork of my own. Lately I've been doing more fine art - illustrations and experimenting with silk-screening - and I'm having more fun doing it. I also don't go up on roofs anymore.

AVUNCULAR IMPRESSIONS Most of my family members didn't quite understand my uncle's success in the early years. We knew he was important and was getting attention - and we respected him for it - but didn't quite know why. We didn't get how the art world worked. My dad was proud of Andy all of his life, but my mother was a little more suspicious. She knew him when he was a 13-year-old, so he was always just the same weird kid to her. There was friction between them every now and then. But really, she just treated him like a normal person. Now people mention him in the same breath as Picasso. It's amazing. None of us really have much of his work. A little while ago, my sister found a flower painting in her scrapbook which she doesn't even remember Andy giving to her. It turned out to be worth US$250,000. Can you believe that? We're all still so amazed by what a big deal he's become.