The story of this simple gift of art therapy in Georgetown begins in Long Beach, Calif., in 1970. Painting is dead. William Wegman, a lapsed painter who has decided to call himself a conceptual artist, is working in photography and video. Reluctantly, he keeps a promise he made to his wife to get a dog. Wegman does not want a dog. He didn’t have time for a dog.
The ad in the paper says: Weimaraners, $35.
Man Ray the dog, named after Man Ray the Dadaist, makes mischief in the studio. As if he wants to be on camera.
Hey . . .
“He was very calm and happy when I would think of things for him to do,” Wegman says, finishing the story Thursday morning for a small group of children and adults in the pediatric oncology clinic of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“ ‘There’s a chair; put me on the chair,’ ” Wegman says, adopting the late Man Ray’s point of view. “ ‘Put something on my head. I can do that!’ ”
Now the walls of the Lombardi atrium are covered with Weimaraners. They fit right in. Nothing like a Weimaraner balancing a rubber shark on its nose, posing in a firefighter suit, sailing a boat, lounging in a robe, dressed in overalls and holding a pack of tomato seeds to take your mind somewhere else.
When visitors ask for the kids clinic, they may be instructed to “turn right at the dog in the wedding gown,” says Julia Langley, director of the center’s arts and humanities program. Herself a former cancer patient here, Langley says it can be “a place of anxiety and fear and, too often, grief,” and that “art needs to be where the people in distress are.”
An exhibit of 27 dog portraits, called “William Wegman: Out of the Box,” is open through March 15 at the center, which is part of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. Wegman donated five of the works in honor of his former assistant Emily Helck, a breast cancer survivor who joined him on this visit.
“It makes me happy to see them here,” Wegman says to Aziza Shad, chief of pediatric hematology-oncology.
“When you work in pediatric oncology, you can have a busy day, sometimes a sad day,” Shad tells him. The dog art “can really lighten you up.”
At 71, the artist does not carry himself like the ironic prankster you might expect from his work. He looks like a dog guy who’s just been out walking the pup — tousled gray hair, jeans and sweater, New Balance sneakers coming untied.
The children’s clinic is brightly decorated to look like a town square. Wegman is to read his latest children’s book — “Flo & Wendell Explore” — then lead a dog-puppet-making workshop.
The adults — parents, doctors, art therapists — know they are in the presence of an art star. Man Ray showed Wegman the way, and before long the artist was dreaming up elaborate costumed scenarios in which to pose Man Ray, Fay Ray and their successors. The dogs starred in gallery exhibits, magazine spreads, short films, children’s books, note cards and “Sesame Street” shorts. The Smithsonian American Art Museum gave Wegman a retrospective (including his rich non-dog work) in 2006, aptly titled “Funney/Strange.”
“Back when I was in art school, we studied you,” says Tracy Councill, who provides art therapy at the clinic through her nonprofit Tracy’s Kids. She remembers being mesmerized by Wegman’s breakthrough 1975 video, “Dog Duet,” which consists entirely of two dogs with tense stares moving their heads in tandem from side to side, up and down, in response to the whims of a god-like old tennis ball that reveals itself at the end.
“You did?” Wegman says.
The children — being treated for various types of cancer and blood disorders — had not heard of Wegman. But they know what they like.
Maya Nader, 4, listens intently to “Flo & Wendell Explore.” At home, Maya, an outpatient with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, likes to act out the story with her 10-year-old brother, Mateo, says their mother, Marcela Nader.
“That’s our escape — art and reading,” Nader says.
At the puppet-making table, the children paste colorful bodies and hats to go with the dog faces.
“I’m making a ballerina,” Maya says.
Sisters Charlotte and Isabel Hay work side by side.
“I made a preppie puppet,” says Charlotte, 18. She is being treated for acute promyelocytic leukemia — “we still don’t know how to pronounce it.” Isabel, 15, visits every day.
Edgar Peter Mutta, 23, the upper age of patients in the clinic, is healthy enough after months of treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia to return to his native Tanzania. He’s bringing a copy of “Flo & Wendell Explore” to the children back home.
Wegman no longer thinks painting is dead. A number of years ago, he took it up again. In his books, he uses watercolors to fill in the scenes and the dog’s bodies, which are topped by their photographed heads.
The Weimaraners seem timeless. It has something to do with the ambiguous gray of their coats, the deadpan dignity of their countenances, those skeptically raised eyebrows. They wear expressions that appear impervious to the ridiculousness, or the tragedy, of their surroundings.
Wegman has owned and worked with 10 Weimaraners since 1970. Three remain. He splits his time between Manhattan and Maine, and when in New York he bikes the dogs, holding leashes while he rides. More than once youths have called out, “The Sesame Street dogs!”
“They sleep in our bed,” he says. “The furniture is meant for them. We tend to sit on the corners of things. They really rule us.”
One of the three is 14, the other two, the models for Flo and Wendell, are 3 and 2.
“These might be the last two young dogs I get,” he says.