The Door is Always Open, An Interview with Gary Baseman

We are thrilled and honored to have Gary Baseman join us for a night of inspiration and drawing in a special sketchXchange.

Gary will be personally sharing his process from his latest exhibit, his art, and book. You’ll have a chance to skim through his sketchbooks, talk with him and be inspired by his energy and body of work. 

Each attendee will also receive a limited-edition sketchbook with Baseman’s art provided by Scout Books

DATE OF THE EVENT: Friday, June 7, 2013

TIME: 6:00-9:00pm

PLACE: The Hollywood Theatre


Proceeds from this event will help WeMake’s efforts to support arts and music education, as well as Hollywood Theatre’s Animate It!

I’ve admired the work of Gary Baseman for many years. His sweet characters and distinctive style have become somewhat iconic in the world of illustration. The surface of his work may portray toy or doll-like creatures with bright colors of pinks and purples, but if you look deeper you will find strong narratives of the human condition, stories that reflect traces of pop culture, mythical creatures, dreamlike landscapes, and his personal life.

Photo by Timothy Norris

His latest endeavor, The Door Is Always Open, is a reflection and exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. Based loosely on his book, The Door is Always Open, Baseman not only explores the influences of his Jewish family heritage within this retrospect, but has created a house within the walls of the museum where eight different rooms represent the different themes of his work. 

Photo by Timothy Norris

What gave you the idea to create The Door Is Always Open as an installation?

GB: I would see how people came into my home, the smiles on their faces, they would notice that I have an eclectic taste. Walking into my home is like walking into my personal Disneyland. I’ve always collected interesting things, from old advertising displays to mannequin heads. Because I produce performance art, I keep a lot of costume heads from my characters around my home. I saw how people would immerse themselves into my world when they visited. I thought that’s what I wanted to do in this museum exhibition. I wanted to create an environment that’s like my home. I wanted my space to be engaging. I didn’t want traditional white walls where people felt unattached to the work, or where the viewer had no right to be a part of. 

Lots of times viewers go into gallery space and are made to feel unwanted or even stupid. If you have not already known the artist history or have an understanding of the art, you’re perceived as an idiot, and you’re just there to experience someone else’s brilliance. For me, that is not what I think art or life is about. I wanted to create an environment that allowed people to connect and give them an introduction to my work within the last 25 years of my life. This exhibition is mixed with a bit of family history, and in many ways is a love letter to my parents and to the Fairfax community I grew up in. 

Do you have a favorite room?

GB:I don’t know yet. I am trying to live in each room. Every room represents a theme of my work.  Just like the book we produced with Rizzoli, every chapter in the book represents a room which represents a theme.

The rooms are filled with my family’s real furniture which lived in our home my entire life. It is the first time it has been removed from the home in 48 years, and now it has been embellished by my imagination. People can come sit on the sofas, relax, and interact with my world. When they walk into the den, they can sit down and watch Teachers Peton my parent’s TV, or sit at the game table and play Cranium.

It was a challenge to create these rooms while looking at my body of work, and trying to understand why am I the way I am. Why did I grow up as I did, why do I draw the way I do? Why do I even draw at all? How have I allowed myself to be a living breathing artist for my whole life? How did my parent’s nurture me to be this way, and how did their past allow this to happen? 

Did you get any of those thoughts answered with this retrospect, did you get anything out of it? 

GB:The Skirball is a Jewish Cultural Center and although I’m not very religious, I am proud of my heritage. When they asked me what my art had to do with my heritage I first said nothing. I always joke that my art is about girls, in reality many of my themes are about discovery, breaking down boundaries, acceptance, desire, longing, and passion. 

Looking closer into my work, I discovered a lot of themes that run parallel to my heritage, to my parents’ story and my background growing up in an environment of Holocaust Survivors. I noticed many of my characters would run and hide off into the forest finding freedom in the protection of the trees, like my parents did. If it wasn’t for the forest in Eastern Poland, my parents along with most of the survivors would be dead.

You did a collaborative poster with Shepard Fairey for the event. That’s awesome.

GB:Yes, It was important for me to tell my father’s story in the exhibit. I was grateful for Shepard collaborating with me on a special print that honored my father.I chose a photo of my dad as a partisan, sitting on a tree stump, holding a papeshka (a Russian machine gun).Partisans were freedom fighters in the woods of Poland during World War II against the Germans.

My father told me many things about survival and sacrifice. Later after he passed, I learned even more about his heroism, which he never told his family. It warms my heart to create an image that celebrates his heroism. 

I love your sketchbooks, how many do you have? Do you use them only for sketching or do they have themes?

GB: I have completed 135 of them in my life so far. I use them as a process of creating my themes for my exhibitions now. Sometimes I write my thoughts and ideas in them, it all depends on what I am working on. They have gotten more and more involved, I have been drawing with colored pencils and every page is filled from one side to the other. For me, the sketchbooks have become a type of “work of art” in their own right. They and the characters are part of the fine art process, much like a painting. 

Toby is such a re-occurring character and somewhat of an icon, what’s his story?

GB:I’ve been drawing my whole life and creating my own characters. When I was a little kid, the first characters I created were Morris Mouse or the Blah Blahs. It wasn’t until I moved away as an illustrator that I started drawing somebody like Toby— who became like my alter ego. I didn’t name him until I wrote an unpublished children’s book called, TheFish Tale Hat and he was a character in it. That was the official beginning of Toby. I didn’t use Toby again formally for 12 years because I felt he was too precious to me. He was me, but I did not know how I wanted to present him, until I produced the For the Love of Toby exhibition in 2005.

Gary Baseman is a very interesting and dynamic person who has explored many genres of of creativity— from illustration to animation, painting, and performance art. WeMake is excited to have him come share his story, his passions, and his sketchbooks! We hope you will join us in welcoming him back to Portland!

DATE OF THE EVENT: Friday, June 7, 2013

TIME: 6:00-9:00pm 

PLACE: The Hollywood Theatre


Proceeds from this event will help WeMake’s efforts to support arts and music education, as well as Hollywood Theatre’s Animate It!

Each attendee will also receive a limited-edition sketchbook with Baseman’s art provided by Scout Books

Named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment by Entertainment Weekly, Baseman is best known for his work on the Emmy-winning ABC/Disney animated series Teacher’s Pet and for his design of the best-selling board game Cranium. Baseman’s work has also been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, and Rolling Stone.