William Wegman: Why dogs are such a draw

Story highlights

William Wegman's latest picture book "Flo & Wendell Explore" features photos and paintings

The book was inspired by Wegman's Weimaraner puppies, Flo and Topper

"You really fall in love with them taking their pictures," Wegman says

Fans often bring their dogs to meet Wegman at speaking engagements

CNN  — 

When artist William Wegman shows up for events, fans don’t only bring books or pictures for him to sign.

They also bring their dogs – mostly Weimaraners – to meet him.

After all, Wegman is the patron saint of those sleek, regal canines – a man who has made a career around Weimaraner imagery. Now 70, Wegman has dabbled in various mediums and themes since introducing the world to Man Ray, his first pet Weimaraner, in the 1970s.

But his choice of muse has remained fairly constant throughout his art, and even in the dog bed he helped design.

“He’s the reason so many people know about these dogs,” said Betsy Bottomley, who brought her 7-year-old rescue Weimaraner, Chance, to see Wegman at a recent author talk at the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia.

“Weimaraners are very people-oriented,” she said. “They love days like this when they can be outside with their families.”

Wegman was at the festival to promote “Flo & Wendell Explore,” his newest children’s book inspired by his blue-eyed pet Weimeraners, Flo and Topper. They’re the latest in a long line of Wegman’s canine muses that have inspired a robust collection of paintings, photographs, films, books and worldwide exhibits.

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    Wegman has had 3-year-old Flo and 2-year-old Topper since both were 8 weeks old. They share the Wegman home with 13-year-old Candy and 15-year-old Bobbin, a descendant of Fay Wray, one of his most famous subjects.

    “Topper didn’t seem like a little boy’s name. Wendell seemed to suit the look,” Wegman said in a post-panel interview in a nearby hotel lobby, pulling out his iPhone to show off pictures like a proud parent.

    “How could you not do a book about her?” he said, pausing on a closeup of of Flo. “She’s so captivating.”

    The follow-up to “Flo & Wendell” features a combination of paintings and photographs, a departure from the images of dogs in costumes and roller skates for which Wegman is perhaps best known.

    It’s a format that suits his current lifestyle and artistic sensibilities, he said. It allows him to ditch the studio and production crews needed to stage shoots of dogs dressed as Little Red Riding Hood or the Hardly Boys. Instead, he can paint the backdrop to Flo and Wendell’s adventures beneath the skylight in his lakeside home in Maine.

    “It was great, because I could be by myself in my room, like I was when I was a little boy, drawing pictures,” he said, referring to his childhood in western Massachusetts.

    Wegman shared the book festival stage with author-illustrator Chris Gall for a discussion about why animals make such great subjects for books. Every dog has its own personality, which guides how Wegman portrays them, he said.

    He told the festival audience – a mix of adults and children – that he approaches children’s picture books the same way as everything else he does. He just makes art, using dogs.

    “I love the idea that Wegman isn’t thinking about picture books any differently from his adult work, that he’s approaching his books for kids with the same kinds of ideas and aesthetic concerns,” said author and panel moderator Laurel Snyder.

    “He seems to be an artist by nature and an author by default, and it shows.”

    Wegman knows it, too. At best, he’s a “part-time” children’s book author, a fact that became apparent to him in the company of established children’s authors at the book festival.

    “I don’t have a TV show. You’re not going to have a huge following unless you have a franchise or a creature – something that gets in your imagination, whereas I just kind of dabble in children’s books,” he said.

    “Everything that I do is sort of that way,” he said. “I think it’s a product of being an artist in the ’60s, where switching mediums was not alien.”

    Don’t get Wegman wrong – he loves children. He has two children of his own that he also likes to show off in pictures on his iPhone doing winter sports like ice skating and playing hockey.

    He also likes creating art with children, which he occasionally does in schools. They don’t care about impressing William Wegman the artist – even his appearances on “Sesame Street” with Fay Wray are too far in the past to register with them.

    “They don’t care about doing a William Wegman piece. They just want to do a Darth Vader piece, or disco dog,” he said. “Their language is mesmerizing.”

    If he could be anywhere, unsurprisingly, he’d be spending time with his dogs in the country, or taking photos of them in New York, where he spends about half the year.

    Dogs’ personalities shine through in front of the camera, he said. It was true for Man Ray, who became “very calm and interested” when Wegman would point a camera at him. Same goes for Flo and Topper, who “loves to be on top of things.”

    “You really fall in love with them taking their pictures,” he said. “You learn so much about them.”