By Joyell Nevins
‘Private’ and ‘naughty’ side of beloved, local animator to exhibit Downtown
You may have watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or read “The Cat in the Hat,” but have you gazed upon “The Rather Odd Myopic Woman”? Or how about, “The Cat that Changed the World”?
Those works are also part of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s — better known as “Dr. Seuss” — “Midnight Paintings” collection. Some of that art will be on display in a special upcoming exhibition, “The Art of Dr. Seuss — A Rare Editions Event” at the Chuck Jones Gallery Downtown, May 13–June 4.
Jones is the legendary animator and director who brought the world Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner and the rest of the “Looney Tunes” characters.
The Midnight Paintings were works Geisel created at night for his personal enjoyment. Sometimes the paintings involved some of his best-loved characters, and sometimes they explored more of the wackiness and creativity the art medium allows.
A “Greenish Cat [sits] on a Pinkish Pot,” a “Cat Detective [goes to] the Wrong Part of Town,” or a neighbor tells another neighbor, “My Petunia Can Lick Your Geranium” in some of the pictures. The art plays with colors and lines and has a surreal, sometimes Dali-esque quality.
“There’s a Seussical aesthetic, but it’s very smart and very adult,” said Chuck Jones gallery director Michael Fiacco. “It shows his naughty side.”
The exhibit will feature 18 pieces from the special artwork collection and nearly 40 pieces in all. There will also be selections from Geisel’s unorthodox taxidermy, illustration art, and Chuck Jones’ archive collection.
Geisel’s father had a 30-year career as superintendent of the Springfield, Massachusetts park system, and during that time, he would often send his son shed parts, such as bills and antlers, from the zoo for scientific study. Geisel melded these parts together to make brand new creatures in what Jeff Schuffman, national sales manager for Chase Art Companies, describes as a “flurry of creative activity.” Chase Art manages the collection for Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
“Some he did for advertisement, some he did just for fun — like the ‘Goo Goo Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast,’” Schuffman said.
Geisel had asked his wife Audrey not to release the paintings or many of the sculptures until after his passing. She complied and it wasn’t until 1995 that the book “The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss” was published, showcasing these works.
In the book’s introduction, Audrey wrote, “I remember telling Ted that there would come a day when many of his paintings would be seen and he would thus share with his fans another facet of himself — his private self. That day has come. I am glad.”
In 1997, the first exhibition was launched by Chase Art to showcase pieces from the collection — serigraphs, lithographs, and sculpture reproductions of the original. There were 850 pieces made of each of the works and when those are sold out, 155 collaborator proofs will be made available, in stages, to less than two dozen galleries across the world.
Chuck Jones Gallery is one of those galleries.
“We covet these and manage them very closely,” Schuffman said.
The late Jones and Geisel first met and collaborated during World War II. Not on the combat field, but in “Fort Western” — a commandeered portion of the old Fox Studio on Sunset Boulevard. The men worked with then-Colonel Frank Capra, making animated training and propaganda films for the United States Army. Many of the films featured “Private SNAFU,” a hapless soldier who created havoc by not following the rules — or as Chuck Jones described in in his book “Chuck Reducks,” “the worst soldier in the Army.” SNAFU was an acronym used by the military at the time, meaning “Situation Normal All F-d Up.”
The two men stayed in touch after the war ended, but it wasn’t until 1965 that Jones wrote that he “lured [Geisel] off of that lovely hilltop home in La Jolla into the maelstrom of television” to produce the book-to-film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
That in itself is its own story, but suffice it to say the project cemented the relationship between a legendary animator and a “living Hans Christian Anderson” — as Jones referred to Geisel.
“These were two incredible genius talents that changed the world,” Schuffman said.
“They saw life differently than other people,” said Craig Kausen, grandson of Chuck Jones and president of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. Kausen said Jones had to visit Geisel three times — the last time with storyboards — before Geisel would commit to making the Grinch into the cartoon character for TV.
The legendary relationship between the two animators has continued through San Diego’s Chuck Jones Gallery and Chase Art. The gallery was one of the first to host an “Art of Dr. Seuss” collection exhibit, and Schuffman noted the staff’s commitment to both men’s art has kept the exhibit coming back.
“They understand the historical sense and the contemporary sense,” Schuffman said. “They represent the work extraordinarily well. It’s a phenomenal working relationship.”
Schuffman will be visiting the gallery at an opening night reception Saturday, May 13, from 7-9 p.m., which is free and open to the public. The exhibition will be on display through June 4 and the gallery will also feature more common works of Dr. Seuss and other animators, along with Jones’ personal and working collection as well, in a celebration of pop culture.
“People smile when they come in here and that’s a great thing,” Fiacco said.
Chuck Jones Gallery is located in the Gaslamp Quarter at 232 Fifth Ave. They are open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m.–9 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m.–8 p.m. For more information, visit drseussart.com, chuckjones.com, or call 619-294-9880.