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Gahan Wilson

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By Claire Walla

More than 50 years after receiving his diploma from the Art Institute of Chicago, renowned cartoonist and Sag Harbor resident Gahan Wilson has been awarded an honorary doctorate. Wilson traveled to the windy city last weekend for the graduation ceremony.

I’m curious, what was it like to attend your second graduation ceremony?

It was marvelous! They decked us out in gowns and puffy hats. I had always wondered what those were for. The flattop hats are for the people who have graduated from some specific class. The fluffy hats are for doctors… I’m a doctor now!

So, what does it feel like to be a doctor?

I actually had a hilarious experience before I left for the trip. I went to the [medical] doctor I go to and this [doctorate] thing came up. My doctor looked at me, excused himself, then came back with his associate. It was fascinating: they looked at me differently, with a look I had never seen from either one of them before—I think it was because I was a doctor. It was just eerie.

Do you think they did that consciously?

I don’t know… they just did it. Like, “He’s achieved our level.” This was an equal looking upon an equal.

What made you decide to be an artist?

I had been leaning that way ever since I was itsy bitsy. I even remember the day I decided. It was Christmas morning and I was sitting on the carpet on the Sunday comics. I looked down at Dick Tracey—it was a particularly gory episode—and I said, “I’m going to do that!” And that was it.

How old were you?

Oh, under 10. Maybe closer to five… I was just a little thing on the floor.

Where did your inspiration come from?

Since I was young I had been an avid science fiction reader; I loved the idea of weirdness and oddness.  When I came on the scene [in the 1940s], there was some experimental stuff going on, but I managed to sell some pieces even when I was told, “they wouldn’t understand,” or “you have to play to the market.”  I just brushed that aside and did the best I could.

Why did you decide art school was the way to go?

That’s where I went to learn. I had taken art classes, and they varied. Some were good, some were pretty feeble. (I was a hard critic.) When I got old enough my parents were generous enough to let me go to commercial schools, and that was fun; we would doodle and draw still lifes. But, it wasn’t enough. I got interested in the Art Institute and realized it was way ahead of what these other people were doing.

How has the school changed since you were a student?

When I was there, the school was kind of tucked away in the museum. To get to class, you had to keep crossing through the museum from one hiding place to another, rooms of Goyas and Cezannes. We had this infusion of beautiful stuff to keep us going.

The museum still has a good deal of that stuff, but they expanded the school by buying buildings or parts of buildings in the city and establishing classrooms in those places.

What were the classes like?

When I was there they just taught classic art stuff, painting, drawing, lithographs. Now they’ve included all that new electronic stuff, like computer graphics, but also three-dimensional machines. So, you can make a sculpture, have it read by the machine, and out comes a reproduction of that thing! I itch to play with those toys.

Has this given you the desire to go back to school?

No. But, it’s certainly given me a push. I need to do more doodling.