Art Basel Hong Kong 2024
Happiness is a Warm Puppy, 2024 Oil on linen 42 × 35 inches
Happiness is a Warm Puppy, 2024
Oil on linen 42 × 35 inches

I lost my German Shepard Leonardo over the holiday break, he was only about eight years old, but had severe epilepsy for years—we had been able to curb it with meds for much of this time, but recently the meds were having less of an effect, and he was suffering more, and he had the one attack that he didn’t recover from completely, and passed, fortunately peacefully, but the whole time was intense, and we had just lost two of his canine companions in the last years, and it was an end of an era.   I love the move Rembrandt, staring Charles Laughton (who looks terrifically like the Master!), and in the film there is a sequence when his beloved wife Saskia dies, and his friends interrupt him as he is painting to implore him to go to the funeral—he replies (paraphrasing here) “Go away, can’t you see I’m concentrating, I want to paint her while I still remember her!”.  This to me has always been a touchstone—paintings are about memory, and when previous pets have passed, I have painted them at that moment, and always think of “channeling” the spirits I paint no matter when they have passed—or are still alive.

Here, I thought I would transmute those loving feelings onto the avatars of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, as I have been recently going back to painting the Peanuts gang, for all they have to offer.  I grew up (and still am) an absolute fan for everything Peanuts, when I was young, I read all the books and it was the first strip I would read with my morning cereal, and of course, loved and would look forward to the television specials (and movies, remember “Snoopy Come Home”!?).  The Peanuts were notoriously hard to draw, those round heads and more seem so simple, but like a Picasso, the cartoon-like avatars are deceptively nuanced, full of warmth and feeling.  When Schulz drew grass, he said he “thought grass” and when he drew wood, he “thought wood” but most importantly, when he was drawing, he is thinking about “what is happening to the character, I’m not thinking about what I’m trying to do with each item, I’m just thinking about the emotion that is happening at each time”.  This is something I teach to both my fine art and cartooning students, learning how to “suture into” the character and the painting, like a method actor, to help it “come alive”.

This image is a pastiche—the drawn characters are from a Schultz strip from November 19, 1965, from a sequence when Charlie Brown is worried that Snoopy has become lost (he was supposed to give a talk at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where he came from, for a banquet—and Snoopy shies away, never arriving, and then hiding in shame upon his return, this scene is when he finally reveals himself to a worried Charlie Brown).  The strip sequence was then adapted into the fifth prime time Peanuts special, “He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown!”  on Feb. 14, 1968, and still later for the film “Snoopy Come Home” (1972).  These adaptions were a collaboration with his animator, the great Bill Melendez, who Schulz worked closely with, trusting him that he would translate the feelings and ideas from his strip faithfully.  In the TV special, when Snoopy returns (this time from seeking refuge at Peppermint Patty’s house) at night, with Charlie Brown in his pajamas, and Snoopy in his “World War I Flying Ace” outfit (that he wears when he combats the Red Baron).  Charlie Brown and Snoopy are in such revery that they seem to float into space, a perfect synesthetic equivalent to the feelings they are having for their love for one another.  Of course, “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” was also a book, Schulz’s first, published originally in 1962 that was a pinnacle of design that became a best seller and is still in print, for all the wisdom and whimsy it still brings to the world.

In my version, I wanted to keep the liminal outer space background of the animation, but rather than using Melendez’s rendition of the characters, I used the original Schulz’s master drawing from the strip, that I superimposed upon the animated background and colored the characters.  I’m painting the whole image thinking not just of my own dog, and my feelings towards him, but also of my love for Schulz and these characters, and the emotional properties of the idea “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”.   My husband and I still have three large dogs (an Anatolian Shepard, and two Great Dane sisters), three cats, and a parrot and a pigeon, and our lives are greatly enhanced because of our pets, who are like our children and family.  While painting, I listened to Charles Schulz’s favorite music (and have recently read—twice—his biography while painting and listened to Bill Melendez and their produce Lee Mendelson lectures and talks).  Schulz loved classical, obviously Beethoven, but also Bach and Brahms, and I listened to all their symphonies in order while painting.  He also loved show tunes, and I listened to his favorites: Man of La Mancha, My Fair Lady, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (of course!), and more easy listening contemporary to his time; Dean Martin, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, etc., and his favorite country-Hank Williams and more.  Schulz was benignly religious, he became more into his own than from an institutional idea of Christianity towards his mature life, and to get into this mode (and giving Charlie Brown a bit of a halo, as for me he seems like a Christ figure), I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar, and Brahms and Mozart more religious music.

1965 seemed like a zenith time for the strip (and after—both my husband and I were born in 1966, and the strips he printed for publication on these days seem prescient to our lives!), and this image is drawn so “perfectly” (as was the “COWABUNGA” Snoopy I appropriated, also serendipitously from 1965!), I wanted to pay homage to master, but also get into the spirit and the nuance of the lines, bringing them out in a painterly manner, and making the color not just the emulation of an animated special, but from a emotive effect—if oil paint can create images that “look like photography” they can also make palatable emotions and feelings and unconscious seem real.

Schulz would always say if he was a better writer, he would have written novels, and if he was a better artist, he would be Andrew Wythe—this is very humble, of course, as I think he is as good if not better than any artist or writer in my lifetime, but still, would like to think if he was alive he would love this appropriation of an appropriation, my version of Bill Melendez’s version of his original strip—so I signed it both with my name and Schulz’s, bringing it back to the source.  I also hope the feelings of loss and love for my own dog come through.

Fascinatingly, I realized a day later after I finished, seeing a post on the Schulz Museum website, that I completed this work on the 24th anniversary of Schulz’s death, February 12 (he died in 2000), which was “one day before his final Peanuts Sunday strip ran in newspapers around the world.”    This is such cosmic serendipity!  When he died, I was the comics teacher and “Cartooning Coordinator” at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, which began as a cartooning college, and historically has had the best cartoonists in America attend there and/or teach, a great honor.  I had a prescient dream that night—when I visited Schulz (or he me?!) and I remember distinctly his glasses, sweater, his Mr. Rogers-like parlance.  He in my dream thanked me for all I was doing to carry on the spirit of cartooning and passing it on to new generations.  I currently have created a Visual Narrative Art program at USC, where I now am a full tenured professor, with Narrative Art being (while also teaching fine art to grads and undergrads) my core objective—with now 11 classes in place with over 120 students—and working in collaboration with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art opening across the street in 2025, we are well on our way.  I hope that Schulz would still be proud of the work I’ve been doing to support comics and narrative art (and feel all my shows are like “comic strips” on the wall where the paintings “talk to one another” in non-linear narrative cycles) and would love this painting that I did in homage, ultimately, to his creations and the spirit behind his beloved strip and cartoons—and what it truly feels like to hug the dog you love.