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If you’re a dog and you’re waiting for the Director of Fun to wake up, you’d best find a suitable distraction, because William Wegman is still in bed. Early on a morning shrouded by a dense Maine fog, two-year-old Flo and one-year-old Topper make their way to the kitchen to scarf down healthy servings of oatmeal, freshly cooked for them by the artist’s wife, Christine Burgin.
The dogs are Burgin’s regular breakfast companions, until the pair return to bed, to snuggle up to Wegman and the family’s two older dogs, Candy and Bobbin, 13, and 14, respectively. Before the day gets underway in earnest, these extra few minutes of sleep are a sweet luxury. The dogs had already awakened once before dawn, with Wegman corralling the whole pack for a quick pee and a sniff, then back up to bed.
How the commotion of four large dogs and one regular-sized human arranging themselves on the bed doesn’t wake Burgin is a bit of a mystery. But then, so much of what goes on at the Wegman household seems like some kind of unusual ballet. There’s a gentle flow to the movements here, and the lake’s broad, shimmering expanses of water and the sparkling light lend it all a distinctly idyllic feel.
It’s no wonder that Wegman and his family spend a considerable chunk of both summer and winter at their rustic retreat in the Rangeley Lakes Region of western Maine. Built in 1889 almost entirely of pine, the 10,000-square-foot lodge hosted overnight visitors until 1961. The place still exudes a kitschy charm, but the dominant feeling now is one of ease and warmth. It’s the perfect counterpoint to life back in New York City, which is home base for Wegman and Burgin, their daughter Lola, 16, and son Atlas, 19 (when he’s home on break from college), as well as the dogs and Wegman’s city-studio and office.
In Maine, every day starts fresh, with opportunities for offleash dashes through the woods; endless stick-chasing and forest-sniffing; dips in the lake; meandering bike or canoe rides; napping (mostly by the dogs); reading; more napping; visits with nearby friends and family; jaunts into town to the library, barber or ice cream shop; and countless homecooked meals.
“It’s just easier with the dogs here than in New York,” says Wegman. “I don’t have to have them on a leash. It’s fun to see them being dogs. Really dogs. My kids like it here. My sister’s nearby. The air, the birds ... the whole thing is quite peaceful.”
With the array of amusements at Wegman’s disposal, you might wonder how he gets any work done at all. But it’s precisely this combination of play, fresh air, family and exploration that makes Maine appealing to this constantly evolving artist. “When I’m working outside of New York, I might do some really unusual, unexpected things, but when I get back to New York, I can put them up and compare them with some other work. It’s important to me to have that leveling.”
Born in 1943, in Holyoke, Mass., William Wegman certainly has nothing to prove, and yet he seems to be on an endless quest to find new forms of expression. Though he’s best known by the general public as the artist who photographs dogs, he is also recognized as one of the world’s most successful contemporary artists, masterfully mixing high art with pop culture.
Still from Spelling Lesson, 1974,
Wegman’s films, videos, paintings, drawings and photographs have appeared in exhibits and retrospectives mounted at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Minneapolis’ Walker Arts Center, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Coming of age in the late ’60s in Los Angeles, Wegman quickly established himself as a leader in the conceptual art movement. Droll, original and offbeat, his videos made him a star before he turned 30.
By 1973, he had moved to New York City with his beloved Weimaraner Man Ray, where their iconic video and photo collaborations further burnished Wegman’s status as an influential and original artist. His popularity soared in America and abroad. Man Ray, with his intelligent looks and astonishing self-possession, provided both a perfect foil and partner for Wegman’s imagination and unique sense of humor.
“The first time I met him was when he was six weeks. He really looked like a little man, and he was standing in a ray of light, and that’s why I named him Man Ray,” says Wegman. It still amuses him to think that their work together was the result of a happy accident. “I was just starting to take photographs. I was photographing the things that I would be setting up, and Man Ray would always get in the way and start chewing on [them]. He was interested in what I was doing. He became different when I pointed the camera at him, and what I noticed was how non-cute he looked, but more strange and intense. I was really interested in how he kind of modulated the space around me. Not just the space he was in.”
After 12 years of living and working together, Man Ray left an indelible mark on Wegman. When his beloved friend and constant companion developed cancer and died, it didn’t seem possible that another dog could, or should, become a focus of Wegman’s work.
In the wake of this loss, the artist retreated to Maine —as he had many times before with his canine buddy—to fish, hike and explore the woods. It was there, in 1985, that he rediscovered his passion for painting and drawing.
“I gave up painting in 1967 as a grad student and started again up here away from people. I didn’t really want people to know I was painting. I was kind of sheepish about it.” He began creating works based on imagery culled from encyclopedias and obsolete information—“faded culture,” as he calls it.
At the time, Wegman wasn’t actively seeking a new dog, but a chance encounter with an admirer of his work who also bred Weimaraners led to the discovery of Cinnamon Girl, a gorgeous puppy with round, yellow eyes whom he later renamed Fay Ray. “There was something about her look that really spoke to me. I was kind of obsessed. Almost like a man in love. It was like a boy and his dog with Man Ray, and then an artist and his model or muse with Fay.”
Wegman shot countless large-format photos of Fay using the unwieldy and complex 20 x 24 Polaroid camera, which he had employed earlier to great effect with Man Ray. Wholly different in her approach to the camera, Fay offered Wegman an electric energy and a willingness to take on what must have seemed, to a dog, like curious challenges. The unforgettable image of the Weimaraner standing tall on old-school roller-skates? That was the inimitable Fay. Her work ethic, combined with Wegman’s imagination, led to other unexpected and idiosyncratic works, such as his videos and films for “Sesame Street” and “Saturday Night Live.” Dog Baseball, shot for the latter on film in 1986 and featuring Wegman’s deadpan narration as well as Fay and a collection of canine friends, further expanded his devoted following.
Dog Walker, 1990, color Polaroid
Fay and her offspring—Battina, Crooky and Chundo— and their progeny—Bobbin, Candy and Penny—starred in a number of books and videos, many of which were based on re-imagined classic children’s stories, among them Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Mother Goose. Those works, with their lush sets, ornate costumes and more than a few crewmembers, were complex affairs and yielded some of Wegman’s most popular and memorable images.
In recent years, Wegman has moved away from elaborate, production-heavy projects, gravitating toward more streamlined, painting-centric work. Though his approach to his artistic endeavors is mutable, he currently spends 75 percent of his time painting and the remainder behind the camera.
It’s quiet in Wegman’s studio, which you reach by making your way through the lodge’s living room, where Lola is stretched out on the couch, deeply immersed in a book. Go past the kitchen, where Burgin, a Yale-educated publisher and former gallery owner who produces books with artists and writers, sits editing at a small table. Then cross the rec-room, still adorned with the kids’ childhood drawings and art projects, and through the double doors of the studio.
When it storms, raindrops dance on the metal roof. Otherwise, as Wegman paints—which he does every day here—the only apparent noises are the occasional snurfle and steady breathing of the four dogs arrayed around him.
“As a kid, I always loved rainy days like this,” says Wegman. “I was painting and drawing and hanging out in the woods. It was probably the most dreamy, wonderful counterpoint to my life as a fisherman/athlete, which was the other thing I liked to do as a child … play hockey, baseball, go fishing, build huts, that kind of stuff. So that’s what I’ve been doing in Maine, kind of recreating my childhood in a way.”
Like a spirited marching band, the dogs follow Wegman wherever he goes, watching his face intently, looking for cues. They jockey for the closest position, happy to soak up his praise and nestle by his side while he reads, paints or sleeps. The feeling is clearly mutual. “Don’t they look beautiful when they’re sleeping? I could never keep them off the furniture. Why would I do that? I just love looking at them. Having them near, in close contact … it feels good.”
The dogs thrive on direction and novel activities, and are always eager to be part of the action. All it takes for Topper and Flo to perk up is for Wegman to restack some magazines or randomly reshuffle the stools; suddenly, the dogs are racing to find a perch and posing as though a shoot is about to begin. Referring to the breed’s active and sporting nature, Wegman says, “They’re working dogs. And they love to work!”
Wegman’s devotion to the dogs and their care is made obvious by how his life and that of the family’s is built around an awareness of the dogs’ needs. “It’d be hard for me to have one dog, because I like to just stand back and watch the show, like I do with my two kids: you watch them interact. So, now I have these two gray sets. I have Bobbin and Candy, who were mates. They had a litter, and then there’s Flo and Topper. I had to get Topper to give Flo a companion, somebody to play with.”
The dogs are most content when Wegman is around to keep them well exercised and entertained, so long trips away from home are rare. “I’ve spent my whole life watching and caring for them and trying to figure out what works for them. The reason I’m good at taking their picture is that I’m good at taking care of them, and I respect what they want. I’m always trying to learn what makes them individually happy.”
Wegman’s good-natured approach to raising dogs also reflects his child-raising philosophy. When Atlas and Lola were young, he recalls building towering cardboard structures together.
“When things fell apart, and failed, that’s when we had the most fun.” Exploration, not the pursuit of perfection, was the lesson, and watching Wegman paint, there’s little doubt that he adopted the same mindset regarding his own work long ago.
Sandy Beach, 2007,
oil and postcards on wood panel
Wegman is currently working on a new series of children’s books. The first, Flo & Wendell, debuted in September 2013 and tells the story of a sister and brother and their adventures. This new series—and the paintings that illustrate each book—hews closely to techniques the artist employs in his postcard paintings, which begin with vintage postcards selected from his vast collection. They provide a physical starting point for the larger work, which is painted around the postcard like a sprout that blooms into an exuberant forest. His book Hello Nature (2012) features many of these postcard paintings, along with drawings, collages and prose —paeans to his love of the outdoors.
Similarly, the illustrations for Flo & Wendell begin with photographs that Wegman shoots of the dogs in his NY C studio. He’ll begin with a simple image of a puppy’s head juxtaposed against a large, blank, white page. The germ of the idea for these new books was born out of a moment of experimentation.
“I started to make this hilarious character out of Flo’s baby photo when she was eight weeks old, when she looked like a sad, little naughty eight-year-old child, and it was so funny. And I think if I hadn’t been doing that with the postcards, I wouldn’t have thought of doing that with these paintings. So I knew that this character could be developed, and I made some more characters. And then I thought, well, maybe this should be about this little girl. And what if she had a younger brother? Interestingly, the younger puppies I photographed— younger than eight weeks—they look older. So I would turn the ‘older’ ones into parents.”
Most often, Wegman sits down to work without a specific idea of what will come together on the page. “I almost never lie awake at night thinking about what I’m going to paint or write. Usually [it happens] just in the act of doing it. That’s why I have to keep busy, because if I’m not, I don’t think of anything!”
Once he’s chosen a color with which to start, his brush touches the page, and a playful scene quickly emerges. He smiles while he paints, chuckling to himself at the silliness and bravado of these pups who have come alive through deft strokes of his brush. This lighthearted, lively tone is evident on every page of Flo & Wendell, both in the illustrations and in the text.
As Wegman works, the dogs hear a curious rustling outside and wake with a start. Sixteen legs go racing through the studio, then the rec room, through the living room, and out onto the porch. There is barking—lots of it—and then a dashing-about to see what might be lurking in the surrounding woods. With a stern word, Wegman calms the pack and the dogs slip back inside. Topper and Flo trot around, wondering what might happen next, while Candy and Bobbin resume their naps.
Peace restored, Wegman cuts a path to the kitchen, where Burgin has spread out for review galleys of the early-reader counting books to be released in the spring. Burgin keeps Wegman’s projects organized and on schedule, and he values her strong editorial eye. The two work easily and productively together, and the artist clearly adores his wife of 18 years. “I’m lucky she didn’t go for tall, dark and handsome types,” he says with a wry smile.
As the sun finally begins to break through the clouds, Burgin decides that it’s a perfect time to wind down from the workday with a late afternoon bike ride. In a flash, she and Wegman are cruising down the gravel path, the four dogs running ahead like the most intrepid woodland scouts. By the time night falls, the family has gathered for dinner, each dog choosing a lap to rest a heavy head upon. It’s the perfect time for telling stories and catching up on the day’s events.
Just beyond the veranda, a moose and her calf stand in a sliver of moonlight, licking salt from the gravel road. Unnoticed by the dogs inside, the two take their time meandering past the house and up the road, while laughter pours out of the kitchen and into the night, mixing with the calls of the lake’s resident loons.
If there is such a thing as a perfect day in the country, this must be it.
When Randy Rubin, co-founder of Crypton , launched the company’s line of pet products back in 2004, one name topped her list of potential collaborators … William Wegman. The laconic artist, renown for his photographic portraits of Weimaraners has had phenomenal success in a variety of mediums—photography, video, painting, children’s books but fabric design would be a new challenge.
Randy was a seasoned pro at collaborating on creative ventures, having co-founded Crypton fabrics with husband Craig Rubin in 1993 from the basement of their Michigan home. The company has since revolutionized commercial fabric with the introduction of a patented process that produces a virtually-indestructible, stain/odorresistant material appropriately named Crypton Super Fabric. Designing and manufacturing products for the home would be an exciting new endeavor, and the playful imagery of Wegman seemed a perfect match for the new pet line.
The creative collaboration between the innovative fabric manufacturer and the downtown visual artist has since proven to be hugely successful— producing a visual style that is once recognizable and inspired, combining the ultimate in function and aesthetics. The resulting beds , pillows , throws (christened Throvers) are elegant, bold and sturdy … fulfilling the must-have checklist for discriminating and stylish dog lovers. The essential components to good product design are exemplified in this union of art and science—and thanks to the unique partnership of William Wegman and Crypton—better living through imagination.
Photographs and story by Kimberly M. Wang