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.