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Dr. Seuss's 'Midnight Paintings' Unveiled In New Art Book

December 18, 2012 1:57 p.m.


Bob Chase, publisher and founder of Chase Art Company.

Related Story: Dr. Seuss's 'Midnight Paintings' Unveiled In New Art Book


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: Doctor Seuss is a San Diego icon. His wonderful books for children changed children's literature and art. Nobody drew like he did! There's a gorgeous new book of his illustrations out now, called "the cat behind the hat." It has full-page color illustrations of the creatures we've all learned to love. But it also has images that Ted Geisel called his midnight paintings, work he told his wife he didn't want published during his lifetime. The publisher of this book, Bob Chase is on the line with us am thanks so much for joining us.

CHASE: Thanks. Great to be here.

ST. JOHN: This book testimonies us a few new things about the man we know as Dr. Seuss. What about these midnight paintings?

CHASE: This is an area where he was able to let his creative juices flow outside of the confines of commercial deadlines. These are paintings that he created over about a 70-year period of time. And he would do them at night when the studio was shut down and just let his mind wander. Of and the result is these fantastical images that have a very what we like to call Seussian nature about them. But they're something that folks have never really seen before.

ST. JOHN: Why didn't he want to show them during his lifetime?

CHASE: You know, you mentioned in your introduction about some of the insecurities that he had as an artist. And I think that's pretty typical among artists. And he wasn't an exception. He felt like these paintings were very personal, important to him, but at the same time, he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with the criticism that may come his way in showing these paintings during his lifetime. So he always wanted them to be shown to the world and felt that they should have their due, so his wife, Audrey, had made a promise to him that she would figure out a way to get these out into the world and have people see these after he was gone, which is kind of where we stepped in.

ST. JOHN: You have a wonderful story in the book about something that would probably make anybody secure if they went through that.

CHASE: Yeah, it was sort of an early experience for him as a child. He was selling war bonds as a child, and there was a contest of who could sell the most. And he did very well. As a matter of fact won this contest in Springfield, Massachusetts. And at the time, Teddy Roosevelt was there to give awards out to the kids. And there was nine awards to be handed out, but there was ten children on stage. All of whom had won. The tenth child was Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel. So Teddy Roosevelt handed out the first nine awards, and when he handed out to Ted Geisel, he didn't have an award for him. And image as a child being up there on stage, and this presidential moment, and toady Roosevelt says well, who's this last child on stage? And did he win? And it was a horrible, horrible moment of sort of embarrassment, and are the whole crowd wondered what was going on. And for Seuss, it never left him. That feeling just really kept with him throughout his life.

ST. JOHN: In spite of all the success. There's a picture in the book that also illustrates this, the self-portrait of an artist worrying about his next book.

CHASE: Right. It's actually one of my favorite stories about Seuss because really it gives you a look into this man in a very human way. Like I said, artists many times do have insecurities. And here he was at the height of his powers, in 1957 he wrote the cat in the hat, which lit the world of children's book publishing on fire. In the same year, he published the grinch, another absolute runaway success. So he had fully cemented himself as the top of the heap of children's books. And he panicked after these two books were released in 1957 and began to wonder what could he do to possibly reach that same level of success? And he painted a painting of himself called self portrait of the artist worrying about his next book. And it's this poignant, moody painting of a Seussian character. And it's a self-portrait of him kind of contemplating this moment, looking down, longingly, wondering what was going to be next. The best part of the story is that what was next was he published green eggs and ham, which became the third best-selling book in the English language!

ST. JOHN: And tell us a little bit about the early career of Geisel.

CHASE: He started at his college paper, that's where the name Seuss came to be. He was at dart mouth college, and he was part ever a drinking incident with his friends at the time. He got kicked off of the school newspaper. It was at the height of prohibitian. So he decided to use his middle name, Seuss, as his pen name, and continued to do illustrations and writing for the newspaper under that name. He didn't have the doctorate until later. But the doctorate that he added later to the name was a nod, a wink to his dad who always wanted him to be a doctor.

ST. JOHN: Awe!

ST. JOHN: So then he came on to become an advertising illustrator for a bug spray; correct?

CHASE: He did. He used what was then called a Flit Bug Spray. And the folks at standard oil who owned Flit saw this cartoon and that he had it would make a great adcampaign. So they hired him. And the result of this is Seuss is credited with being the first man to use humor to sell a product in advertising. Somebody joked with me the other day and said oh, I guess we haven't have had the super bowl commercials without Seuss!

CHASE: So that was a profound impact on advertising.

ST. JOHN: And perhaps where some of his bugs, his significant bugs came from.

CHASE: Yeah, you'll see, that's the amazing thing about this work. You'll see this incredible lineage of art work. In the early bug spray ads, you see all of these wild animals and crazy bugs that eventually evolve and find their way into the books later in life that became icons for all of us in our lives. So he really started at an early stage to incorporate all of these interesting characters.

ST. JOHN: He also did some things that were quite politically -- very astutely things about what was going on at the time. During the depression, there's this wonderful poem, "The Sad, Sad Story of the Obsks." Let me just read it. "A flock of Obsks, from down in Nobsks,

Hiked up to Bobsks, To look for Jobsks. Then back to Nobsks, With sighs and Sobsks...

There were, in Bobsks, No jobs for Obsks." And you have this wonderful illustration of these Obsks of courses climbing a hill and going back down again it. Look like it came from a pamphlet.

CHASE: It is. It was a pamphlet about that moment in time about the depression era. The first interesting thing about that is the overarching concept of that pamphlet really came the concept for his children's books later. There was this beautiful cadence and rhyme, and also in a fun way, hitting on very powerful social economic, political issues. And he did that throughout his children's books. The other interesting thing about that pamphlet, when folks see it, they'll recognize suppose characters as being some early precursor to a book he later wrote, which was the Sneeches. And these characters have this Sneech-like quality about them.

ST. JOHN: And another interesting quality about his work is involvement with wartime films and illustration with frank cap ra.

CHASE: Exactly. After his advertising career, which was wildly successful, he went on then to do over 400 political cartoons during World War II and made films with frank cap raas propaganda films for the war. So you have just some amazing output during that time. And he was really motivated by the war because they were a German immigrant family. And he was devastated at what happened to Germany. And he was upset with the U.S. for taking an isolationist view to the war. So his cartoons were really nudging the government to get involved, get involved, get involved. Then he had the opportunity to do the films with Frank Capra.

ST. JOHN: Now, Ted guys will always be remembered as one of La Jolla's most famous residents. Why did he move here?

CHASE: His quote was he looked forward to living out his life to a place where he could walk around in his pajamas.

ST. JOHN: Don't we all!

CHASE: When he first arrived from New York to California to visit a friend, saw this beautiful, sunny coast, and it inspired a book called McElligot's pool. He was just enamored with it and thought this was just absolutely the place for him. When you look at the landscapes of his work from the moment in time he arrived in California in La Jolla, and beyond, you can really pick up on the trees and the landscape of that Southern California area.

ST. JOHN: Yeah, they do look a little bit like those crazy trees that he drew in his books. I guess eucalypt eye, actually, up in this tower.

CHASE: He did. He bought an old army tower, actually. At the top of a mountain in La Jolla, and he built his house around it then put his studio in the top of the tower. So he had this beautiful view up and down the coast.

ST. JOHN: And one seems to note, he was such a meticulous artist, and in these days of digital animation, it's amazing to learn how much actual drawing went into each of these pictures.

CHASE: He was an absolute perfectionist. For every page of every children's book, not only did he draw the final line drawing for every page, but for every page there's 2-4 pencil and concept drawings leading up to it. He wanted to get it just right. It was so important to him, that craft of artistry. And his line was so beautiful throughout all of it. And it's what makes the books so unique.

ST. JOHN: What are some of your favorite images from the book, maybe one we're not so familiar with?

CHASE: Well, you hit on La Jolla, and there's a series in the book that's called the La Jolla bird women. This is one of my favorites. He worked from home. So his studio was in his home. So he would be at home, and as such, he said he was an observer on -- he was a bird watcher on the social scene of La Jolla. And so he drew these women in and around La Jolla going about their activities of the day as bird women. And in the book, you'll see these images, fully developed paintings. Of one is called may petunia, two women fighting over a fence about whose garden is more beautiful. There's one, these high-society women talking to this small little man that he drew, they're dominating over this man in some major cocktail party, and they are decked out with beautiful hats and things. But that's a great connection to La Jolla and some of my favorite pieces.

ST. JOHN: When you come down to it, the thing most people know about Ted is his children's books. What would you say is his main legacy, his main influence on children's literature?

CHASE: Well, I think the hook and the key for Seuss was the fact that he didn't talk down to kids. He really was a child at heart. And that to me was the sort of magic of what he did. Up until the time of Seuss's books, there was sort of an adult perspective on how children should learn to read. In Seuss's books, it was a child's perspective of fun, and they didn't even know they were learning to read. The images were so fantastic that it would just move the story along, and the wonderment of it all they were the perfect incarnation of what he used to say, which is we should all look at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. And that's really what a child wants to do. They just want to have fun. And that to me was the legacy and the reason that he was so successful.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So the book is called "the cat behind the hat." And the publisher is Bob Chase, Bob, thank you so much for joining us.

CHASE: Terrific. Thanks for having me.