“Hey, what’s the big idea?” I say all the time to my new best pal Bosko the Cat. I didn’t even realize I was doing it till it was pointed out to me. Am I really asking Bosko who just turned a year old what the big idea of life really is? Well, he would know the meaning of life as well as anyone. Blackie the Cat, when he was still around, taught me a lot about life and existence, yet I am still searching. “Hey, what’s the big idea” is actually a phrase I heard a million times in childhood, not from philosophers or professors, but from the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers.
This past year I’ve thought a lot about my early influences as I have been cleaning up and organizing my family’s old home with my older siblings. I’ve been submerged in my parents’ and siblings’ memories digging through 60 years of artifacts. I have been swimming through seltzer bottles, old LIFE magazines, family photos, tchotchkes, and a lot of original drawings I made as a kid.
I feel like I’ve wandered into history, rediscovering past influences like the Peanuts Gang (Snoopy, Charlie Brown) and what they now call Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman). While nostalgic, I think of it more as a deeper look into how I became an artist, the kinds of characters and stories I gravitate toward that say something about what it is to be human. My relationship with my cats is like Charlie Brown’s with Snoopy. My cats are more than family, they’re my best friends. These old monsters and comedians from the 1930–40s are the foundation for most of my characters and creatures. In my early exhibitions, my main characters are fools, idiots, dunces, all based on comedy. My characters Ahwroo, Venison, and Boo all come from knowing human frailty, which is the basis of all monsters – turning humans into beasts, trying to find immortality, satiating the hunger of our desires.
I look back and then forward into 2022, when I’ll formally introduce my newest character, Manny Moa, in conjunction with Memento Moa, an exhibition at the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson, New Zealand that will finally open this June, after a two-year pandemic hold. I happily bring back from extinction the giant moa to symbolize those loved and now lost, and explore migration, mortality and memory. Maybe I’ve been thinking of extinction since my childhood growing up by the La Brea Tar Pits with its fossils of saber-toothed cats, Columbian mammoths, and dire wolves.
The new year will also manifest Toby in a never-before-seen way, too. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 16 years since Toby officially debuted in the exhibition For the Love of Toby, appearing in drawings, paintings, and a pleather “army of Tobys.” Since then, Toby has been a giant atop buildings in Asia and Australia, a punk rocker plastered on iconic Doc Martens boots, a Door God protecting my exhibitions, and a cultural ambassador featured in photographs and videos around the world. Can you guess how Toby will transform? Stay tuned for more.
With humility and gratitude, I thank you all for supporting my art this past year and more. I especially thank everyone who has sent love and support observing my love and loss of Blackie the Cat, and now my adventures with Bosko.
May you all have good health and cheer this holiday season! Now, back to “What’s the big idea?”
– Gary Baseman