Dr. Seuss exhibit to pair the iconic artist’s secret hats, rare paintings

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The lesser-known art of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, will be on display alongside his secret hat collection during an exhibit that kicks off Friday. Courtesy photos.
The lesser-known art of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, will be on display alongside his secret hat collection during an exhibit that kicks off Friday. Courtesy photos.

It appears that children’s author Theodor Geisel–better and more lovingly known as Dr. Seuss–kept a couple of secrets during his lifetime.

One was that he had a penchant for painting in the late-night and early-morning hours.

Another: he had an odd and insatiable passion for hats.

Friday, those two lesser known hobbies of the good doctor will come together during a special exhibition, “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss,” at The Gallery of Fine Art, 964 Inspiration Drive in Mayfaire Town Center. The exhibit is also a fundraiser for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.

They’re pieces that Bill Dreyer, longtime curator of Dr. Seuss art, has had the pleasure of discovering firsthand at Geisel’s estate over his 15 years on the job.

But it was only after five years that Geisel’s widow, Audrey, showed him her husband’s menagerie of headwear.

“She takes me into the library—the room is nothing but floor-to-ceiling bookshelves all the way around—and goes up to one of the bookcases and pulls it away from the wall to reveal a hidden room, which is something out of a James Bond movie,” Dreyer recalled.

Inside, he found more than 120 hats, some as colorful as you’d imagine, others sobering reminders of our world history.

Geisel had more than 120 photos he kept in a secret room at his home. More than two dozen of them were picked for the national touring exhibition.
Geisel had more than 120 hats he kept in a secret room at his home. More than two dozen of them were picked for the national touring exhibition.

A sampling of them—from the towering iconic Cat in the Hat striped topper to a concentration camp cap Geisel obtained during his stint in World War II—will be brought into The Gallery of Fine Art in a stand-up steamer trunk, where they will be on display behind Plexiglas.

Audrey Geisel agreed to let some of the hats travel as part of a national touring exhibition in 2013, the 75th anniversary of Geisel’s second book, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” Dreyer said. He was able to select 26.

“It was just an amazing discovery and an amazing experience,” Dreyer said of seeing those hats for the first time. “So, I feel personally very proud and thrilled to share in even a small way the experience I had at the home.”

Mike and Cyndi Golonka, owners of The Gallery of Fine Art, share that sense of pride and excitement with Dreyer. The couple has, for more than a decade, been a carrier of exclusive serigraphs Geisel’s lesser-known paintings and, even rarer, his “Unorthodox Taxidermy” sculptures of mounted fictional animals. The Golonkas also carry a variety of works indicative of the recognizable Seuss book characters.

They’re the only art dealers in the state—the nearest are Richmond, Virginia, to the north and Atlanta to the south—that sell the richly colored silkscreened reproductions. And Mike Golonka said while most galleries that are authorized to sell Geisel’s work have a dozen or so pieces, his gallery has 120.

“The Gallery of Fine Art has been a big supporter for many years. [Mike’s] support is what is now giving your community the opportunity to see these amazing pieces,” Dreyer said.

That art—most notably what Geisel coined as his “midnight paintings”—will fill the playfully themed gallery alongside the hat collection.

Those “midnight paintings,” or “secret art,” are so called because Geisel created them unassumingly and quietly throughout his life in his off-time, often late at night and without any desire to turn a profit on them.

This 'Sea-Going Dilemma Fish' is among Geisel's 'Unorthodox Taxidermy' sculpture series.
This ‘Sea-Going Dilemma Fish’ is among Geisel’s ‘Unorthodox Taxidermy’ sculpture series.

“These are a way for Audrey to tell the story of her husband as an artist because he wouldn’t let her talk about this artwork while he was alive,” Mike Golonka said. “He is a true icon. People know his books but most don’t realize the whole artistic aspect of this man.”

But there’s still something very recognizable in the “secret art,” Dreyer added.

“You know, anyone from two to 92 loves his work. He used to say, ‘I don’t write for children, I write for people.’ There are many levels to his books…they deliver many sociopolitical messages. There’s depth in the material,” he noted. “I think that’s really the joy of the collection. His artwork embodies all of that wit and humor and that genius of his books. But you’re still seeing another side of Dr. Seuss, a side you’ve never seen before.”

Another “joy” for Dreyer is the opportunity this exhibit brings to educate the public and help a good cause—two endeavors for which Geisel was celebrated.

Donations and raffle ticket sales collected during “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss” will benefit research for a cure for Mitochondrial Disease, a debilitating disease that Cyndi Golonka herself suffers from. It causes a variety of chronic ailments, ranging from migraines to the complete loss of mobility.

It’s a difficult illness and a serious cause—the exhibit is timed to kick off National Mitochondrial Awareness Week Sept. 20-26—but Cyndi Golonka wants the event to be every bit as full as whimsy and wonder as Dr. Seuss’ tales.

“We want it to be fun,” she said. “We want it to be like, come on in; everyone’s welcome. We want to make sure people understand that this is the kind of gallery that believes art is for everyone.”

It’s no secret that Geisel would have agreed.

“Whether someone comes in and acquires is incidental to the greater picture of sharing his artwork with the public,” Dreyer said. “Without a doubt, people, whether they can buy or not, should come in and see. This is an exhibit to understand the greater depth of the artistic legacy of Theodor Seuss Geisel.”

Friday’s reception runs from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dreyer will be on hand during opening night to give a presentation on Geisel at approximately 6:30 p.m. Raffle tickets will be available for $5 each and donations will be accepted at the door. The event is open to all ages and Cat in the Hat will make an appearance.

“Hats Off to Dr. Seuss” will be on display through Oct. 11.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.