We at Artiphany have been thinking and talking a lot in recent months about our museums collection. This is for a couple of reasons: one, because we are working on bringing John’s art-themed pun-tastic greeting cards into more museums and arts institutions across the country. And two, because of the collection’s close connection to John’s children’s book, Luca & the Mongrels of Montparnasse. But more on that later…because first, I want to bring you back to the beginning. Why does this collection exist in the first place? What did it grow out of? Why art history?
It all started, as it always starts, with a blank page, and a spark. On a whim, John sketched Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait, but in the place of the scruffy face of the artist himself, John inserted a scruffy looking mutt. “Once it became concrete, once it went from just a casual idea in my head to something that was on a piece of paper,” John explains, “that prompted more thought, about why it might be a good idea to continue with it and make a finished piece.” (This first image created for our museums collection remains, to this day, our most popular design).
It was not only, John realized, a delightful revision of art history, it was also the perfect pun. Vincent van Gogh slipped seamlessly into Vincent van DOGh. As he mulled still further over the new image, John started thinking about Van Gogh’s life, his transience, his loneliness, his apparent inability to maintain close relationships with his fellow man. “What it meant to me was that he seemed like a stray dog, wandering around without a home, but determined to find one, wherever that might be,” John says. “There’s something in his face in the portrait, the actual portrait, that conveys a sense of wariness and uncertainty, as you might see in a stray dog.”
The image now complete and replete with the rich colors present in the original portrait, John shared his Vincent van Dogh with a sales rep and the events that followed eventually landed the image in the museum store of the National Gallery, in D.C. But by the time Van Dogh arrived at the museum, he had gained some new peers. John realized that this was fruitful territory for him, and set to work creating a cadre of visual puns based on some of art history’s greatest works. “If I could do Vincent von Gogh to Vincent van DOGh, I could also do Amadeo Modigliani to Amadeo MoDOGliani. Salvador Dalí becomes Labrador Dalí.”
Drawing from his own fine arts education, from years of studying and imitating the masterworks in order to learn the intricacies of brushstroke and color palates, John soon had not just one image, but a fast-growing collection. He did not choose his subjects lightly, however. They had to fulfil certain criteria. Lending themselves to an animal-themed re-naming was important, of course, but so was their recognizability. “They had to be paintings that most people would recognize, a familiar image that I was making a parody of,” he says.
Not that the project was without its risks. Two of the works John imitated, while familiar to those well-versed in 19th century painting, were no Scream. Eager to include the work of Édouard Manet in his collection, John reworked the paintings Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia with a new creature as protagonist. Manet became Moonet, and dog became cow. Luncheon on the Grass became Luncheon OF the Grass. Olympia became Moolympia, the original’s sultry stare and bare chest replaced by long, bovine lashes and a prominent udder. “The real winning touch in that painting,” John adds, “is the fly swatter she has in her hand.”
It was Dalí, however, that presented John with the greatest challenge of the set. Dalí’s visual distortions are the most iconic characteristics of his work, and the most difficult to imitate. In John’s Labrador Dalí painting, based off of The Persistence of Memory, he wanted the dog, depicted on his hind legs, to look “monumental, 30 feet high.” He also needed to capture the undertone of the work. “I turned this into a landscape of anxiety about food, because Labradors are known to be very anxious when it comes to feeding and they will overeat if you don’t manage their food intake,” John explains. “There is always a good measure of anxiety in Salvador Dalí’s paintings, they are all about his neuroses, which is why I put all these tempting things in the painting: the pizza, the bacon, and the green tennis ball.”
He rounded off the collection with two, more modern additions. Jackson PAWlick joined his predecessors, his tail flicking paint at the canvas, invoking Pollock’s drip paintings; as did HAIRlyn Monroe, a dainty dog with a flying skirt based off the iconic still from The Seven Year Itch (nothing needed changing there to be relevant to a canine theme).
As the collection grew, John began sharing it with friends, one of whom had an idea. Why not turn this cast of characters into something more, she thought. Why not make a story, a real story, about them? It was there that the first seeds of John’s upcoming children’s book, Luca & the Mongrels of Montparnasse, were planted. He would create a story, he decided, about a young dog who travels to Paris to study painting. In it, the innocent Luca would run into the era’s most notorious bohemians, its most famous creatives. “All these painters that I’ve done parodies of are featured in the story,” he says.
Get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!
Love and dog bones,
Man’s Best Friend & Chief Communications Officer (Personal Motto: Live Life Off Leash)