William Wegman, MFA '67

On Mice, Men, and Weimaraners

Illinois alumnus William Wegman returned to campus in spring 2015 for the first time in decades, exhibiting a collection of his works in the show Artists Including Me: William Wegman. A noted photographer, painter, videographer, and author, Wegman is perhaps best known for his soulful, irreverent, and intriguing photography of weimaraners and for his videos, which have gone viral on YouTube after first appearing in mainstream media.

How did your Illinois student experience shape you?

I really connected to the School of Management as well as the School of Electrical Engineering, and that became really amazing for my creativity. And I probably learned just as much from teachers that I disagreed with in the art school here as agreed with. I had always within me the spirit of being an artist, I expressed myself through drawing and painting, and when I was studying Art History, I was led down the path of modernism. I was trying to figure out what to do next and where are we now, and should we be using 19th-century materials, like etchings and lithographs and oil painting? Or should we take what's emerging, these new forms, and I bought into that. I started to use other things, almost anything but art materials to make art with, and that seemed like a way to open up things. And when I got here, I'd always been interested in classical music, so I veered over to the music school and got really involved in the new music that was coming out of here. It so happened that John Cage and Merce Cunningham were here, and that was pretty damn exciting, so I got involved with that.

Tell us about your artistic interests today.

I'm back painting. I'm back to the Renaissance, I suppose. I just missed painting, so rather sheepishly, when I was in my late 40s, I started to paint again. And that process led me here, almost overlapping with my photography again. I'm rather inward right now. I'm really interested in a period called spectralism in music. It's something that came out of France in the '70s, so that's rather stimulating to me. I'm really excited about ars nova music and early Renaissance, but I can still dig Brahms. So I'm all over the place with music. I named my daughter after William Byrd, the Elizabethan composer. I have friends who are artists, and I go to their shows; the Met is probably my favorite place. I like to go there with my wife, who's totally scholarly and really follows things.

The John Cage "Musicircus" at the U of I Stock Pavilion. Cage worked with William Wegman to create some of the inflatables that were installed at the pavilion. Image courtesy of University of Illinois Archives.

What advice would you give students?

I've noticed that, as an undergraduate, if a teacher is saying something that you don't agree with, it makes you strong if you can fight that. I was really close to a couple of fellow students, and we developed a kind of gallows humor about this place. We were both from Massachusetts. We both saw flat land for the first time and were kind of terrified by it. We developed a dialogue. I think being a student and having teachers you can go up against was really, really empowering in a way. You have to follow your own vision and figure out how to know if something's good. But at the same time, you can't really be afraid to screw up. So, that's probably what school should be: You don't have to express yourself, just venture far and wide. That's what I did. I didn't [think], "Well, that's not me." I think that's a dangerous thought, to think that you're searching for the meaning of yourself. It's probably more productive to just go outside yourself and absorb as much as possible.

What do you consider your greatest successes?

When I made my first works, and someone who didn't know me and wasn't my friend or relative responded to the work and "got it." That was really a highlight for me, when somebody who wasn't my best friend "got it." So that was a victory.

What's the best part about being back on campus? Any favorite memories?

I really loved seeing my old buddy Ed Zagorski. He's 93, but believe it or not, he was my roommate in 1966, along with Art Sinsabaugh, the photographer/professor, and it was pretty hilarious. We lived in this rather airy house down by the tracks, and it was just overridden by rats and mice. Every time we would kill one in a trap, we would paint its little picture on the door jamb. I moved on and was teaching in Wisconsin when the house was being demolished. Ed and Art preserved that door jamb, and Ed says he has it framed at home—and that's pretty adorable. I really loved what happened to me here. Now I can just remember the amazing opportunities I had, especially with some of the people in engineering, music, and English that I met. And my fellow students, my pals here [in Art and Design]. I really liked this one grain elevator, which probably doesn't exist anymore. We used to climb up on top of that, and the girl who later became Mrs. Wegman used to climb up there with me, which was kind of exciting and fun. She was an undergraduate here. She majored in painting and printmaking as well, but as an undergraduate. We're no longer married but still happy with each other. I also remember the grad studios and riding my bicycle all the way over to Electrical Engineering, where I had a fellowship. I would visit with Heinz von Foerster, who was totally brilliant and delightful. And going to lectures [on] information theory—I was just bug-eyed about these kinds of things.

What are your thoughts on art education today?

You know, I go around to different places and am with grad students and so forth. In classes like photography where it takes a 60th of a second to make a picture, students have to talk for hours. They have a three-hour class and have to discuss what the picture means. In ceramics, it takes all day to make these things, and there's no talking. So, that's a distinction I've found really hilarious in art schools. The conceptual art of photography makes people just endlessly churn.

What were your greatest challenges as a student?

Someone said to me that the Midwest will make a man out of you. You know, it was tough at first. I was adorable "Willie" when I was in art school in Boston. I was young and well liked, and when I came here, I had to butt up against some animosity, and that was empowering in a way. It was before the tumultuous time; that happened later. The '60s didn't really hit here until after I left. The '60s were going on probably at Berkeley and Madison, but they didn't hit Champaign-Urbana in 1966 and '67; there was just a murmur of that, possibly.

Any regrets?

No, I don't have any at all. I remember when my cousin came to see one of my shows, he said he thought that I was really a fraud, that I had tricked everybody, and how clever I was to pull this off, make people think that I was good, and actually pay me to do things. He just thought I was one of those con artists. And maybe there's something to [that]; art is a little bit like that, I suppose. I feel, in a way, I'm like those stand-up comics who take suggestions from the audience. I've done things like lots of photographs of other people's dogs for benefits, for instance. It's like somebody from the audience [would say], "How 'bout a pug and a homely child?" I'll have to photograph somebody's kid and their dog, and I ask myself, "What are you going to do with that?" So, okay, homely child and pug, what can I do? It makes me go outside myself from the comfort of the weimaraner zone. I've learned a lot from that, and it's advanced my own photographs by having these challenges. When someone asks me to [do] a piece for a Spanish Marie Claire fashion magazine (as happened recently), I got all these gobbledygook hats and shoes, and I put those on the dogs in different ways—very challenging, you know. I wouldn't have gone and shopped for these things myself for my dogs. But it forced me to think about constructing a picture with these things. That's kind of fun and a little strange. But that happens to me. After I was "a successful artist," people would [say], "How 'bout a children’s book? Would you like to make videos for Sesame Street? Would you like to do something for Nickelodeon? How about this?" And so, I'm entering into that, but then I go back to doing my dogs and my painting. At dinner last night with Ed Zagorski, we were talking about what happens when it's all said and done. I've recently had some dogs die; their ashes are going to float down the river or something like that. And he said he's donating his body to science as a cadaver because he wants to continue teaching, even after he's dead. Isn't that amazing? I thought that was so brilliant. I don't know if I'm ready to do that, but it's great, so maybe that's the future . . . in some ways it is.

Other thoughts about campus?

I think that I'm going to recommend [the U of I] to my daughter, who's interested in science. I think it'd be a great place for her; she's a senior in high school now. Yeah, I would love it if she went here. I think it would be a great grad school for her. The campus has grown in a really positive way. I think the urge to have areas of interaction amongst the schools has come back. . . . It seems like the people here want something that I agree with; that's why I would recommend it for Lola, who's an engineer with a liberal arts and arts interest as well.

What is your legacy?

I think that's a really dangerous thing to think about. I know what makes me happy when I see my work: it's that the arc of all of these lines, some of which are in [my 2015 exhibition at Krannert Art Museum]. I think the lines of my work have kind of settled in. I'm quite proud and happy about that when I see them, and think, "Yeah, not so bad." And I forget, in a way, the struggles. I just see the successes of all of those endeavors and I get overly satisfied. Art is just such a great thing, and it's so much fun. As long as you can keep baffling people and getting away with it, that's phenomenal, don't you think?