Theo Wujcik's last painting had a loving steward

Painters Theo Wujcik, left, and Peg Trezevant became friends during the first painting class she took with him in 1994 at the University of South Florida.
Painters Theo Wujcik, left, and Peg Trezevant became friends during the first painting class she took with him in 1994 at the University of South Florida.
Published May 31, 2014

"I could be your painting assistant," I offered, convinced it was a good idea.

Theo hesitated. And I knew why.

Unlike many painters of his stature — the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the National Gallery, among others, had acquired his work — Theo did not use assistants. Painters as far back as Rembrandt have used them. Warhol had his Factory to churn out his ideas. Ai Weiwei hired an entire village to make 100 million ceramic seeds. But Theo painted every inch of every canvas himself. He had done it this way for decades. For Theo, painting was living. But I also knew that what he had just told me on the phone — he had cancer in multiple organs — meant his life was going to change quickly.

Though not quite himself physically (he had started chemotherapy the week before), he was still Theo Wujcik — full of life, optimistic, playful. I was as optimistic about his chances as he was and sure he would bounce back. Theo was resilient. But that day in early January, I was already planning ahead. I knew I could help. I'm an artist, and specifically, I paint.

Not long before, the tables had been turned. Cancer had robbed me of most of a year. Friends and family — and a very good medical team — had helped me. I was determined to pay it forward.

I didn't push. I gave Theo a strong "I love you! I'll talk to you soon!" But as I hung up the phone, I fell to my knees sobbing. Theo and I had become friends during the first painting class I took with him in 1994 at the University of South Florida. We had spent hours in each other's studios and at nearby coffee shops talking about art.

The next morning, a chipper Theo called me. He said he had considered my offer and did want some help, though he insisted he would do all the painting himself. But he needed to speed things up, so he wanted me to do other stuff — mixing paints, tracing, taping, lifting, moving canvases.

Soon after, I picked Theo up in my car, circled by the post office to collect his mail and then headed to his studio in Ybor City.

Theo had been working hard for months on a collection of large paintings — most around 90 inches by 78 inches — that he referred to as the "Blue Chip" series. The paintings explored Theo's personal and professional reflections on some of the top artists of the past six decades: Rosenquist, Koons, Warhol and others. Theo's solo show was scheduled to open in a little more than six weeks in Dallas.

Most of the Blue Chip paintings were ready to be framed and shipped. Two — Robert Rauschenberg and Damien Hirst — were two-thirds done. Another, of Ed Ruscha, was still just an idea.

Theo directed me to the Hirst canvas and told me to trace the name across the bottom so we could tape the letters for painting, a technique artists use to gain a sharp edge. That wouldn't have been a problem, but Theo then moved to a different part of the studio to work on the Rauschenberg. Almost immediately, an issue arose. If I were working on my own paintings — which are much smaller in scale and hyper-realistic — I would have resolved it myself. But this was Theo's painting, and the solution — centering Hirst's name — had to come from Theo.

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The following morning, we resumed where we had left off and worked into the early afternoon, when artist Kirk Ke Wang showed up with homemade dumplings for lunch. Theo had to leave for another medical appointment, so Kirk, who had collaborated with Theo before, stayed to help finish taping. The third day started with Theo retaping some of my work. That wasn't the plan. I was supposed to be saving him time.

Over the next three weeks, I got a lot better at taping. I got accustomed to Theo's technique of mixing paint in ointment jars and discovered the joys of working in tandem with a master collaborator. Throughout the days, other artists came and went: Patrick Lindhardt framed the paintings, Joe Traina photographed them, Kurt Holyoke did a lot of everything. The energy in the studio continued to build, and I marveled at the steady stream of visitors, some of whom were in town for a major show at the Tampa Museum of Art, featuring Theo's work alongside that of other nationally known artists.

Then, in late January, complications from treatments sent Theo to the hospital. He returned home on Jan. 29, his birthday, with a wheelchair.

With three weeks to the Dallas show, Kirk and I continued to work side by side, with Theo, bright-eyed but weakened by the battering treatments, confined to his wheelchair. Scooting up to a painting, Theo would point out a section with his cane. He liked the brush marks in a particular passage or, without mincing words, would state that something needed fixing. Occasionally he would rise from the chair and start painting or taping alongside me. I relished those moments, but I appreciated even more when I had to get out of his way. It was lovely to watch him paint.

Theo signed the paintings in February. He could easily have stopped at this point. The show was full of excellent work. But there was still one painting he wanted to do. The one of Ed Ruscha.

Before the cancer, Theo routinely started work in the afternoon, painted through the evening and into the wee hours of the morning. Now, two weeks out from the Dallas show, he was feeling lousy and tired easily. To produce the painting he envisioned would take every bit of those two weeks.

Using a piece of charcoal I had taped to the end of a stick, Theo sketched Ruscha's image. He painted in the flesh tone. He also worked the painting's color scheme, often mixing a color and then handing it to me to test on the canvas. I'd seen him do it for years, and though he'd fussed a few times in the past about having to repaint an area, his method generally proved perfect. His eye was that good.

We enjoyed painting together; painting is what I love, too. But the professional part of Theo was troubled by the looming deadline. As we finished one day's work, he was beat and voiced his concern about completing the painting in time. I told him I'd take him home so he could rest.

"Then I'll come back to the studio and paint all night," I promised.

He seemed relieved.

The paints were mixed, and he had shown me the details from his other paintings that he wanted used in this one. We spent time discussing reference material, and I wrote a list of instructions. In the evening, I drove him to Susan Johnson's house. She was his ex-wife, but they still dearly loved each other, and she was committed to caring for him.

At my home, I explained the situation and time crunch to my husband, Jay, an assistant United States attorney who is all too familiar with demanding work and deadlines. Jay and I had decided at the beginning that in matters concerning Theo, we were all in. Jay encouraged me to get going but insisted I take our dog, lock myself in and keep a phone within reach.

I returned to the studio around 11:30 p.m. and began painting. Theo's Ybor City studio sits across the street from the multilevel dance club the Castle, and by midnight the club was in full swing. The bricks and mortar of Theo's studio vibrated with the thumping beat of new wave music. Now I knew why Theo would head there to celebrate finishing a painting. I danced while I worked. Around 2:30 a.m., I heard people talking and laughing as they wandered home. Then silence. I worked steadily through the night, mixing more paint to complete Theo's list. By dawn, the ointment jars surrounded my feet, a small gallery cheering me on.

I made headway that night and the next day. However, it became increasingly difficult for Theo to get to the studio. After each session, I sent him a digital image of the work. At home he would hold up a large magnifying glass to Susan's iPad, giving his approval or directing changes while I drew up a new list.

Things he had written about in letters or said in conversation — details of his life in this space — became vivid. Sitting in his studio chair one night and working intently on an area of the painting, I rolled back from my work and remembered a passage from one of Theo's letters. He had described how he did the same thing when he was too spent to get up and step back for an overview of a painting.

I finished Theo's list on the morning of Feb. 19. I had ticked off every directive, right down to the number of dew drops in the background. That day, Theo became very sick and was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. He did not make the trip to Dallas two days later. After a week's stay, a hospital bed was set up at home, and Theo said he would stop treatment. The next day, I visited, helped him from the bed, and together we sat on the porch.

If we talked at all, it was not about cancer, or treatments, or deadlines. We talked about the shape of a leaf and listened to the birds. It was enough just to sit together.

On a Tuesday in early March, I met one of Theo's closest friends, Stanton Storer, at the studio. Theo had said he would get to the studio to see the painting, now officially known as "a.m. Dew on Glass," but days had passed and he hadn't. So Stanton and I took the painting to him. It just barely fit into the house. Briefly we were confounded by how to get it around a ceiling fan and situated for Theo's viewing.

No need for a magnifying glass now, Theo gazed at it for a long time.

He had built the stretcher, stretched the canvas, prepared it with gesso, chosen the imagery, drawn the large head in charcoal, painted in the flesh tone, mixed and painted in the lips, carefully mixed the color of dew for the background, mixed the shirt color, mixed the letter color, dictated the value progression to show morning sunlight, considered each hue and tone, and given it a title. He had approved every brush stroke on the canvas, but I still worried he might want to make some final touch ups, so I had brought half a dozen brushes and some paints.

He held the brushes, clearly delighted by their feel. Finally, with a flourish, he chose one and handed the others back. More people crowded into the room: Susan; Frankie Wujcik, Theo's youngest daughter, and other friends.

He didn't want to change anything.

"I like it," Theo said. "Good."

Theo inched his way to the edge of the bed. Susan supported him. I handed him the ointment jar with the color he had picked for signing. He signed and dated the 13th painting in the Blue Chip series.

He said it was his last.

Theo died March 29.

In my studio now, I mix my paints in ointment jars.

Peg Trezevant is an artist living in Tampa.