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Q&A: curator Bill Dreyer on the “secret art of Dr. Seuss”

“Grinch at Mt. Crumpit” serigraph, adapted posthumously from the illustration for How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)

Toronto’s Liss Gallery will resemble Whoville this Saturday, with a special day of exhibitions dedicated to the art of Dr. Seuss creator Theodor Seuss Geisel.

From 1 to 3 p.m., there will be a children’s exhibition featuring celebrity readings of Dr. Seuss classics. A reception from 6 to 9 p.m. will highlight Geisel’s illustration collection and his “secret art,” which he created for personal enjoyment. Bill Dreyer, official curator of the collection, will provide some insight into the beloved author’s life and work.

A portion of proceeds from the day will be donated to Kids Help Phone. (RSVP required: 416-787-9872 or info@lissgallery.com.)

Q&Q spoke to Dreyer about Dr. Seuss and the exhibition.

How did you become involved with Dr. Seuss’s art? I have been in fine-art publishing for about 23 years now. In 1997, I was in New York City for the first exhibition of what has become known as the Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. Like so many people, I was taken aback by this treasure trove of imagery that he created. This is the body of work that he painted or sculpted at night for himself that he rarely, if ever, exhibited during his lifetime.

I needed to see more of what the good doctor had created and started to explore his body of work. I found an elaborate group of paintings and sculptures that boggle the mind, but are full of Seussian expression. I wanted to work on it, and about a year and a half later, I came on board full-time, exclusively representing the collection to galleries and museums.

How does the arrangement work? Audrey Geisel, Dr. Seuss’s widow, has given the company I work for the exclusive ability to represent the art collection. All the original artworks are in the home or at the Dr. Seuss archives at the University of California in San Diego.

The originals are priceless and will go to a museum at some point, and the paintings and sculptures at the house will go too, but will never be sold or made available. Audrey did allow one collection of limited editions to be created, and those are the artworks that are represented at about 20 to 25 art galleries around the world. Liss Gallery in Toronto has represented the collection for about a decade.

What works are included in the Secret Art of Dr. Seuss collection? The are fewer than 100 artworks and paintings. There are only 17 known taxidermy sculptures, which I think are the gem of the collection. He created this body of work in the 1930s, when he got real animal parts from his father, who was the superintendent of zoos in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he grew up. His father would give him horns, beaks, antlers, and shells from deceased animals, and Dr. Seuss made what he thought these animals would want to be reincarnated as.

Why didn’t he exhibit these works while he was alive? He really did them for his own personal enjoyment. Working on books, advertisements, or editorial cartoons was hard work for him. The thing he enjoyed most was to paint. That was how he would relax at the end of a long day.

It wasn’t until he got to the end of his life that he realized he should show these works to the world. He let his wife know that when he was gone she could show them.

What works are on display at Liss Gallery? It’s a broad view of his artistic legacy: imagery from his best-known children’s books and works from the Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, including a taxidermy sculpture.

Will there be any surprises? Most people come expecting to see Cat in the Hat and Horton, and they do, but most people leave with a broader respect for what he was doing artistically. In some cases, the artworks are a little more grownup in nature. Nothing that crosses the line, but there is certainly great adult humour.

I don’t know if this is going to be at the gallery, but there’s an artwork of a bird-woman in a coffin and she’s talking on the phone. So often with Dr. Seuss he gives you the punchline, and, in this case, he writes that she’s saying, “I’d love to go to the party but I’m absolutely dead.”

There’s another one called “After Dark in the Park.” It’s from 1933, four years before he wrote his first children’s book, and yet you see the Seuss train coming down the track. Turtles are stacking up just like they do 20 years later in Yertle the Turtle. You see One Fish, Two Fish““like characters. All of his wacky, wonderful characters were developed years before he wrote his first children’s book.

This interview has been edited and condensed.