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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.

Artists’ Watering Cans Help Tree Fund to Grow

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By Ellen Frankman

Sag Harbor Tree Fund member Neal Hartman was at a benefit auction in Key West, Florida four years ago in which organizers had enlisted participating artists to transform a small Adirondack chair into a piece of art.

That’s when inspiration struck. As a means of fundraising, Hartman saw the idea as one that could be equally successful for the Tree Fund.

This Sunday, the Tree Fund hosts its own benefit auction at Cormaria Retreat House in Sag Harbor. But event creator and co-chair, Hartman, along with fellow Tree Fund member Alexandra Eames, felt a more appropriate medium would be, not chairs, but watering cans.

“Watering Cans as Art” will feature a silent auction of unique, one of a kind works of art created on metal watering cans by some 20 artists. The event will raise money for the Tree Fund’s maintenance program, which takes care of new trees planted in the village.

 “The first three years are the most important for the trees to establish their roots,” explains Hartman.

The Tree Fund provides the village with green watering bags that are placed at the base of young trees and filled with water on a weekly basis. The program has allowed for over 300 of Sag Harbor’s young trees to thrive.

On August 1, the Tree Fund’s event at Cormaria will include cocktails and gorgeous views of the harbor. But the real focus will be on the 20 diverse works of art that will be assembled for auction — including one by Sag Harbor’s Gahan Wilson, famed cartoonist for The New Yorker and Playboy

“I was approached by a friend, artist Whitney Hansen. I came home and there was this watering can on my front door,” recalls Wilson. “So I picked it up and took it in and there was a note on it from Whitney and she wanted to know if I would do this for the cause.”

Hansen, who is also a participating artist, kindly lent Wilson the use of her studio.

“As a cartoonist I work on paper with pen and ink and watercolor which wouldn’t do a thing on a watering can,” Wilson remarked.

As for the idea for his can, which features cartoon-inspired (naturally) flowers and birds eagerly gulping droplets of water, Wilson says it came effortlessly.

“It was exactly like doing a cartoon. You just sit there and have a theme and try to get the notion across,” he says. “The idea floats around in your head and all of a sudden pops into view. It’s magical!”

Wilson was delighted to participate, both to show support for the members of the Tree Fund, and in appreciation for the abundant natural beauty of Sag Harbor.

“One of the lovely things about Sag Harbor are the trees,” says Wilson. “They are just wonderful. They are all over the place. And they encourage the birds, which are also all over place.”

“The tree shaded lanes of Sag Harbor are very much what makes the village what it is,” agrees North Haven artist April Gornik, who also contributed her considerable talents for the auction (as did her husband, Eric Fischl).

For Gornik, whose offering features a tree-lined path leading off into the distance, it was important that her watering can reflect her aesthetic as an artist, despite the fact she was working in an unconventional medium.

“I actually specifically wanted to do something that people would recognize as my own. I was trying to figure out an image that I thought would work with the circularity of the surface. The idea of doing the reverse of the bend made sense to me,” explains Gornik, whose painted can plays with the eye’s perception of depth.

Like Wilson, Gornik, too, is supportive of the Tree Fund’s work and was motivated to participate largely by the great knowledge of its members, particularly Tree Fund co-chair Mac Griswold.

“She is truly knowledgeable about botany in a deep way,” shared Gornik, who was first approached to contribute to the fundraiser by Griswold herself.

Michael Grim of Bridgehampton Florist initially felt disadvantaged in that despite being an artist, he certainly is no painter. After nearly 14 hours of straight work on his can however, he was able to produce a shell-laden masterpiece that seems to be a perfect relic of the East End’s beaches.

Part of the fun for Grim was having no idea what his fellow contributing artists would do.

“None of us really knew. Everyone was kind of mum about it,” says Grim. He even laughingly confessed to asking Hartman about the others work, but the co-chair wouldn’t say a thing.

Though entirely satisfied with the beautiful piece of art that is his watering can, Grim nevertheless had to question the practicality of his piece.

“I wonder if everyone is going to be really practical so that the watering can be used, or if they are going to be like me. My can now weighs like 50 pounds!” he laughed.

Such an imaginative means of fundraising has left Hartman with little idea of the sort of auction prices the cans will draw. The base price for all watering cans will be $100 and bidding will move along at $25 increments, but from there it is up to the bidders to do the rest.

“We have no idea how much they will go for. That’s what’s so exciting about it,” says Hartman.

His only expectations are for a “great turnout” and “generous bidders.”

“We are hoping that collectors of these artists will want to own a watering can by them and therefore the sky is the limit.”

“Watering Cans as Art” is Sunday, August 1 from 4 to 6 p.m. at Cormaria Retreat House, 77 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. The event includes a high tea with hors d’oeuvre and refreshments on Cormaria’s porch and a chance to bid on the artistic watering cans. Participating artists are Nancy Achenbach, JoAnne Williams Carter, Bob Dash, Paul Davis, Eric Fischl, April Gornik, Michael Grim, Whitney Hansen, Jennifer Houser, Dick Huebner, Nicolette Jelen, Jack Lenor Larsen, James McMullan Jo-Ann Melrose, Mark Mulholland, David Salle, Scott Sandell, Kathryn Szoka and Gahan Wilson.