Gahan Wilson, Cartoonist and Illustrator Extraordinaire, Is No More, Which He’d Probably Be Gleeful About

Frontspiece of Jerome Beatty, Jr.’s novel, illustrated by Gahan Wilson: Bob ponders the implications of a newly frictionless bicycle wheel

If the macabre, the weird, and the bizarre had a champion, his name was Gahan [GAY-un] Wilson, who loved all things dark and dreary. He’s been one of my visual delights since childhood, for as long as I can remember, and he gave us so much to enjoy and be disturbed by.

I wasn’t old enough to discover his Playboy cartoons, but one early Christmas I was given one of my favorite and inspiring books: Bob Fulton’s Amazing Soda-Pop Stretcher, one of numerous boy genius volumes I devoured with excitement and ambition when I was a pre-teen. The illustrations were goofy, but had a dark edge, something that thrilled me.

I kept an eye out for his unusual name, and soon found his darker cartooning, which was both disturbing and funny, like Charles Addams was, but Wilson’s work filled the page with ballooning strangeness, in contrast to Addams’s more modest form and line.

There’s a wonderful interview with him below, discussing his origins and work.

Things We Try to Give Up

Sidebar—is it really a sidebar when it comes before the main text?—The recent “art” art has all been on my Insta, hence the preponderance of photos on the blog. I hope that’s okay. This is supposed to be mainly an art blog, for drawing and painting and such, at least in my non-dogmatic opinion. (I’m not a photographer of any training or much experience, but I know what I like, so you get photos, art recs, music, musings, and so forth.)

I decided to stop playing Minecraft for therapy/comfort gaming. I’ve been playing early-to-mid game elements for many years, now. It’s still the most effortless and rewarding return on $27 I’ve ever spent. It’s not that I don’t love the game, but I rarely have goals beyond getting the next string of crafting components to get the subsequent items for a particular mod in the pack. These things are singularly occupying and somewhat addicting, so they fill my anxiety-ridden downtime with satisfying play. But I’d rather try some new things and returning to the familiar is stopping me.

We frequently say we’d like to give up a thing that pacifies some troubling emotion, urge, or desire, but it’s rare we follow through. Do we need replacements? If we have a plan, does it include beneficial goals or skill improvement? For artists, I think it’s healthy and important to both refrain from harsh judgment and be unfaltering in questioning if the things we do help our work.

Tough decision, deciding to give up easy comfort. But if we wanted to be comfortable, there are simple paths to get there. We have to work at our thing, struggle sometimes to put form to feelings, and push metaphorical stones up steep symbolic hills. You just have to decide if that’s worth it to get what’s inside, you know, out.

Sighting On the Town

Today was for looking up. The light is growing more scarce, the nights longer. To avoid the onset of seasonal depression, or at least to mitigate it, I’ve been trying to add brightness. It’s like turning up the filter on life a bit. There’s only so much that can be done before it washes out, but every little bit probably helps.

And the story lover in me is forever intrigued by walking around city streets. What’s going on in all those glowing little squares? what triumphs and drama and everyday existence is playing out in ten thousand parallel narratives?

Life is always happening. We capture and reinterpret it with sparkle or sharp focus. The light around and within it is always there, but we have to decide what to do with it.

Experiencing The Difficult Work

Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

I was reading a piece about a book I read ages ago, Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany. It, like many works of literature, is a difficult book to read and to understand. Mostly, I interpreted it, because there was plenty I didn’t understand. The timeline is weird and almost mazelike. I wasn’t sure where the beginning really was. And that’s all by Delaney’s design for a post-apocalyptic world that’s lost its sense of history and progress and perspective.

I always think of Rothko when I consider tough or obscure art. Seeing that painting up there may make you think “ooh, that’s nice,” or “what a simple piece of junk,” but we aren’t really experiencing it the way it was meant to be seen.

Literature that’s difficult, like Joyce or Wallace or Woolf, challenges readers. The struggle to get through it, or to figure out what’s going on, or to understand what it means gives us a prize of accomplishing those things. The view from the mountain.

But we usually have to chuck a preconception or two out the window. Like Rothko’s paintings. They’re meant to be seen in person. They’re beautiful—to many—in photos. But they’re huge in reality. The one above is nearly 9 feet square. But you meet it head on in museums lucky enough to have one. If they understand it, too, it’ll be hung so near enough to the floor that you can get it to fill your entire field of vision. And then you feel your soul filling up, as well.

Getting Started Reminder

Just a periodic reminder and pep talk, here, to say you can get started on your thing at any time without judgment or expectation. Your art is your own, and starting work is the hardest bit. Once you’re going, it gets easier.

Give it a solid five minutes, that’s all. Anyone can do five minutes on a project. The trick is that five minutes is hard to cut off. Once you’re even a little into the work, you can often keep at it for an hour.

But any creation is good. The important thing is to start.

Layers of the Past Piling Up

It’s a bit strange living in a city that preserves a good bit of its past. I’m not used to it. But a cool feature of the Pacific Northwest is the abundance of trees. So you get the new with the old, the living and the (constructed) dead side-by-side.

This is our ongoing inspiration and source for art. Everything that was made with everything that grows and changes is the source. The mix of both is what we make new things out of.

All Our Weary Feet

I’m not sure what it is about the weight of the day bearing down on the lowest part of us says about how we make art. But it is a near universal phenomenon that conveys how exhausted we feel after many hours of any task.

Construction? Sore feet. Gallerist? Same. Desk job? Trip to Disneyland? Blogger? Check. Check. Check.

We feel gravity most through our lower appendages. But we don’t often look down at or beside them, as a general rule. And checking out the places we walk can be extraordinarily revealing about the world nearby. The seasonal patterns of leaves and dust and water shift over the course of a year, with the refuse and discarded bits of consumption. There are lost pieces of apparel, and plants forcing their way up through the smallest of cracks in what we thought were impenetrable surfaces.

Maybe keep a closer eye on those feet as they carry the weight of all your efforts. There’s fodder for more work down there.

It’s All Academic Until Someone Unlocks Your Passion

I was talking with someone today about drawing. It started off a bit dry, acknowledging the mechanics of leaning and teaching, but I noticed the more I talked, the more excited I got. I was caught up in the spell of artmaking, unable to keep my emotional connection to it out of the conversation.

I can forget easily how it feels to do the work. There’s a lot of discussion and analysis, and plenty we do in art school. But to connect the two is a great gift. Artists who write about what they do aren’t always the best at it. Read Jerry Salz, the art critic, and it’s bursting with love for art. Similarly (uncle) Paul Klee, though with less abandon.

I must remember the massive seas of feeling inside that connect me to art when I talk about it in an analytical way. I think our passion is the best connection we can have when we try to get others to understand or participate.

Why Do We Like the Stuff We Like?

I’ve loved rain and fall my whole life. Since I was little, I’ve been ecstatic to see rain come along, and sorry to see it go. It helps, maybe, that I grew up in the Arizona desert and rain was rare, but even so, it was just always a der sense of affection for it. Many of my friends and relatives felt otherwise, but my grandmother and I shared this fascination and affinity for gray skies.

The things we like are ultimately a mystery. We can point to similar things and see connections, but there isn’t an ultimate explanation for why you love or hate Rothko, or Joan Didion, or Madonna. Sure, you can come up with superficial things, like finding something pretentious or puerile or weird, but others will disagree.

The best we can do is give things a chance—or five—and see if we can open up to what they offer.