When illustrator James Warhola gives his talk at the Norman Rockwell Museum, he knows that as Andy Warhol’s nephew — who has written children’s books about his famous uncle — that part of his job is demystifying the art legend. People want to know what Andy Warhol was like in real life and Warhola gets asked that all the time and his answer often stands in opposition to the way many people think of his uncle.
“He was very fun loving. He had a great sense of humor,” Warhola said. “He loved to laugh. And he was very comfortable with us kids. He never was shy. I think it was maybe one of his traits that he enjoyed the kids’ company more than he did adults at that time.”
The public image of Warhol has been one of a shy and often awkward person, and though this wasn’t the man Warhola knew all his life, he does acknowledge that Warhol did exist, but it might also be more complicated than people think.
“I think he did freeze up in front of a camera and it became a part of his mystery,” said Warhola. “I think he may have used it to his benefit of course, like his awkwardness. Also giving absurd answers. A lot of times he was interviewed, and they asked him a serious question, and he’d real quickly give them something off the top of his head, which was quite often very clever and unique, but it created this persona.”
Warhola says that Warhol kept his family life and his New York City life separated, though the family did often come and stay with him in New York. There were some occasions when Warhola and his older brother visited Warhol’s studio, but by and large, the legendary world of the Factory was a very different world from the one he encountered.
Warhol had partly a mentor role in Warhola’s life. Warhola grew up watching his uncle work on illustration and made it plain at a very young age that he wanted to be an illustrator just like his uncle.
“He’d give me his old art supplies, canvases, and he showed me a few things,” Warhola said. “If he showed me something he would always say, ‘This is very professional.’ I remember him always saying that. ‘This is the professional way to do it.’ I know at one point I was painting on canvas board and he said, let me show you how to stretch a canvas, and so he showed me how with the staple gun and the canvas pliers and he said, this is the professional way. It’s funny how that word stuck with me.”
In the 1970s, Warhola came to New York and went to work for his uncle at Interview Magazine, where he got a bit more of a glimpse at the other part of his uncle’s universe.
“He did invite me to go to Montauk, and I went out there several weekends, and I got to meet a lot of his other friends,” said Warhola. I got to meet Mick Jagger and John Phillips, and anybody who was renting the house at the time I got introduced to. My uncle would stop by somebody’s house at the Hamptons, and he’d shoot Polaroids of them because he was creating portraits or something. Baby Jane Holzer, or Roy Lichtenstein and his wife, we stopped there for dinner.”
But that job didn’t last long. It just wasn’t what Warhola wanted to do, and though Warhol tried to convince him to go into photography, Warhola ended up pursuing book cover illustration, making a name for himself with some high profile science fiction work, most notably William Gibson’s Neuromancer. He eventually got the chance to illustrate children’s books, and his books about his Uncle Andy followed.
Nowadays Warhola looks at his influences as split between his uncle and Rockwell. He sees his style as more traditional and undeniably informed by Rockwell, but also views Warhol as crucial to his development.
“I just couldn’t break away from traditional realism, and that’s how I ended up doing science fiction and fantasy and paperback covers and kids books,” Warhola said. “I probably got my younger influences from my uncle, and my later influences were from Norman Rockwell.”