William Wegman visits PS 145 in Manhattan
When William Wegman walked into the fourth grade grade art studio at PS 145 in Manhattan on a June morning he had a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile. He had never been in that classroom but was known to them all: “He’s the guy with the dogs.” William Wegman is the artist who has made Weimaraner dogs beloved by millions for their hilarious expressions while posing on stools wearing hats, glasses or clothes that make them seem human. In numerous children’s books and postcards, the svelte silver dogs with blue eyes have become iconic muses and William Wegman a world-renowned artist.
The twelve fourth graders in Studio in a School artist/instructor Chelsea Manifold’s class had been drawing pictures inspired by Wegman’s latest book, a humorous book about the siblings “Wendell and Flo,” for several weeks and were excited their class had been chosen to host Wegman’s Open Studio visit. Wegman joined a group of students at an art table, pulled out his iPhone and said: “Here’s Flo… I fell in love with her.” While almost everyone exclaimed “aww…” Wegman said, “See, everyone does that. How can you not? Flo is 3, Wendell is 2.” Then he pointed to a list of “rules” on the blackboard: “I turn my mistakes into art.” “I like that,” said Wegman, or Bill as he asked to be called. “Two or three wrongs might make a right.”
The children plied him with questions: How do you get your dogs to sit still? “If you look at them and say ‘stay,’ they stay. They’re really good at sitting on stools. They’re very calm and like to be tall – as tall as you. They’re happy when they’re up there.”
Do the dogs like posing? “I don’t make the dogs do anything they don’t want to do; I don’t yell at them, they get used to dressing up and sitting there.” Bill’s wife, publisher Christine Burgin, adds: “the dogs love Bill, they want to work with him, want to be chosen.”
How do you get them to look like people? Bill points to a picture of a dog that was staged to look like a college student on a park bench: “Someone crouches behind with arms extended and I always take along a pair of fake legs. I make a character out of a uniform. In my new book, Flo is the “big” little girl; she knows how to tie her shoes; she reads to her little brother Wendell and acts like a big sister.”
Why do you use animals as people? Bill: “It’s like mythology. Egyptian art has the head of a bird and the body of a person; the Simpsons have 3 fingers. What’s good about characters like these is they are not literally the character. When you see a dog dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, your mind snaps into a place that’s different from reality, it gets you into your imagination.”
Then Bill told the students he needed their help to turn Wendell and Flo into new characters. He had brought several sheets of paper imprinted with images of the heads of Wendell and Flo. Artist/instructor Chelsea asked the young artists to think about the characters they wanted to make – and gave them ideas about how to create uniforms by cutting an assortment of beautiful papers into diverse shapes. “The goal is to create characters with their own powers – superheroes, wizards, whatever you want.”
While the children worked on their projects, Bill circulated around the classroom, discussing each child’s ideas. Soon the characters began coming to life. Janiece shows Bill her image of Flo as a fashion model – wearing a red and black trapeze dress, red boots, a gold hat, and at the end creates an “archway” of raindrops coming down over her.
Bill: “Wow, that’s great, can I take a picture of that on my phone?” Yoritza makes Flo into a princess – with a skinny red and black diamond-patterned dress, black tights, a pink cloak and gold boots; Jaylynn makes a hippie with an Afro and a flower in her hair, arms extended wide with exuberance; other characters are Superman in red tights, a yellow streak of lightning, and a green cape and Darth Vader, all in black.
Bill told the class that their characters were well thought out, showed a wonderful use of color, and an amazing variety of characters and ideas. Christine asked the students to think about the stories that go with their characters: “They have a whole world around them.” Bill added that the artists were “very professional cutter-outers.”
When the students finished creating their characters, they had more questions for Bill:
What kind of camera do you use? Bill: “I used to use a camera that was the size of a refrigerator – 20” x 24”. It was a huge polaroid, the fastest way to take a picture before digital. Now it’s easier just to paint, to sit in my room and go anywhere I want in my imagination. I like being alone in a studio instead of working with 10 people and lights.”
What advice do you have for young artists? “Go get a dog…. Just joking. When I was little, I drew pictures; I did exactly what you’re doing. My mother would put something on the refrigerator and say, ‘That’s what Billy boy did”… I liked that. Lots of artists like that, showing off their work. My high school art teacher said, “You should go to art school.” I said, “Ok … but they don’t have hockey!”
Wegman seemed to love his visit to PS 145. He told the kids that although it was his first time visiting a Studio in a School classroom, people started inviting him to classes when he started making children’s books. “At first I was terrified. It’s a long time since I was six. Then it became completely fun. When you’re an artist you learn not to be playful, you learn what you’re not supposed to do (in your early 20s). Then later, you open up again like when you’re six.”
When the class was over and the students had gone to their next class, Bill said, “This is an amazing program. The look on these kids’ faces, their anticipation, the way their hands shot up… they’re so deeply involved. I was surprised they didn’t have any problems getting into the project, and using collage was a great idea. They didn’t seem inhibited in any way – superheroes, princesses, nothing stopped them.”
“Why does art matter?” he was asked. “It has never not mattered; it’s a deep part of life.”