High art in a revelatory New England field guide by William Wegman
Best known for his photographs of his beloved Weimaraners, William Wegman is an American artist with a talent for the unexpected. The recent release of his book “Hello Nature” coincides with an exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, both serving to demonstrate the artist’s intrinsic connection to nature and the New England wilderness. In the spirit of childhood—Wegman spent his summers in Maine’s Rangeley Lakes region—the compendium takes the form of a mock survival guide complete with recipes, advice and helpful anecdotes.
Wegman writes that he wished to create “a fiendish nature guide. Something that would combine the New England transcendentalism with a lifelong interest in hiking, fishing, canoeing, and birch bark. Have you ever made tea from birch bark?” For fans of his dog portraits, the woodsy art will shed light on the Wegman’s relationship to creatures. Beneath a crude drawing of a woodland critter, Wegman sums up this connection by writing, “Life wood bee boaring without animals as pets. Without pets life wood bee unbearable.”
Organizationally, Wegman’s own writings and art are broken up with a duo of essays by curators Kevin Salatino and Diana Tuite as well as a piece of short fiction by author Padgett Powell. These written works focus on Wegman’s life, his work, and the role of the environment in both. From the artist, we get a recipe for cinnamon teal duck cake, advice on birdwatching and handwritten treatises on environmental reform.
The layout of “Hello Nature” is curious. Curious in the sense that much of the writing is barely legible, the organization sporadic and the effect emotive. Curious, too, in the sense that this is not the Wegman we think we know. Weimaraners are present, but many of Wegman’s best-known works are left out. The result is that his work is given context outside of the celebrity buzz that dressed-up dogs have earned him. In short, the book is an honest look at the artist and the naturalist.