Jeffrey Schuffman, an art publisher in Seattle, has a second job title plucked from a 5-year-old’s dream: He’s a “Seussologist,” or an expert on all things Dr. Seuss, the pen name of author Ted Geisel. For more than 10 years, Schuffman, 59, has worked with the Seuss estate, studying and publishing the author’s unknown writings, paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
Schuffman’s latest project is a touring exhibit of Seuss’ “Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy,” a series of stuffed busts of imaginary animals forged from actual animal parts. Geisel crafted the sculptures in the mid-1930s, before he became famous for grinches and green eggs.
Even that early in his career, Geisel already had established a signature style; each sculpture takes a familiar animal form and injects it with typical Seussian whimsy.
The Semi-Normal Green Lidded Fawn, for example, is a riff on a standard deer head –– but with neon-green eyelids and a decidedly Seussian face.
From Friday through Monday, the exhibition “If I Ran the Zoo” will be at Ocean Galleries in Stone Harbor, N.J., where Schuffman will give a series of lectures on these lesser-known artworks. We talked with him about the exhibit and what it is like to be an expert on one of the nation’s most beloved authors.
You’re a “Seussologist” and all-around expert on Dr. Seuss. How do people usually react when you tell them what you do?
We’ve all grown up reading The Cat in the Hat, or Horton Hatches the Egg, or The Lorax, or Green Eggs and Ham, and without really knowing it, we’ve been exposed to his artwork in those books. So, when people hear about a project in an art gallery where there are actual pieces available for sale, people react very strongly. These pieces bring up so much emotion, so many memories.
Most people know Dr. Seuss as a children’s book writer. But your exhibit features 17 sculptures from Seuss’ “Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy.” How did Dr. Seuss get into taxidermy?
In the 1930s, Geisel created 17 major sculptures — that we know of — which he created to help sell some of his early books. He made them from real antlers or beaks or horns or other parts of animals. His father had been in charge of the Springfield Zoo back in the day. After Ted moved to New York City, his father would send him these pieces to have three-dimensional models to draw from. Seuss took those beaks and antlers and horns and fashioned them into how he believed the animals would be reincarnated. That’s the “Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy.”
A bunch of these sculptures –– the Marine Muggs –– were commissioned for the New York Boat Show. Why was Dr. Seuss at a boat show?
He was working with a company called Esso Marine to sell their brand of oil for motorboat engines. Seuss had created an ad campaign for Esso Marine that appeared in Yachting Magazine and others. One character that he created was called the Carbonic Walrus, the idea being that if your engine is picking up extra carbon, you’ve got the Carbonic Walrus. He did another piece called the Powerless Puffer –– if your engine is losing power, you’ve got the Powerless Puffer. He would have these Seussian sea creatures attacking the boat or the captain in a very humorous way. So, he took the characters that he had created for their ads and made them three-dimensional. He called them the Marine Muggs –– mugs as in faces.
So, if those were seven of the sculptures, why did he make the other ones?
He made them for other products. One piece that he made appeared in a beer campaign. Three early pieces that he created hung in bookstores in New York City. They helped sell his first book in 1939, which was called And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. And the other pieces he made because he was always creating. He was always working on something, always had ideas.
The sculptures and many of Dr. Seuss’ paintings have been called Seuss’ “secret art,” because they were never sold publicly, like his books. Why do you think he was so keen on keeping them secret?
I have my own theory. There was so much of him that was made public; there was so much of him that he put into his books and his literature that was exposed to the public. I think that his artwork and his paintings were things that he kept privately for that particular reason.
Do you have a favorite sculpture? A favorite Seuss book?
My favorite Seuss book was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. My mother read that book to me when I was 5 or 6 years old. That was my first foray into Seuss’ literary works. And I just adore the Semi-Normal Green Lidded Fawn. That sculpture is part of the exhibition.
Ted said his books had a logical insanity: “If I start with a two-headed animal, I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom, and two sets of spectacles on the night table.” Do you see any of that logical insanity in the sculptures?
Totally. Seuss was the king of exaggeration. If you look at an animal’s tail, for example, it’s not just a tail –– it goes on for 20 feet. If you look at an expression –– it’s an over-expression. If you look at the fur on an animal’s hand –– it’s over the top. He loved the exaggeration of the comical.
"If I Ran the Zoo"
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Monday
Ocean Galleries, 9618 Third Avenue, Stone Harbor, N.J.
Curatorial lectures by Dr. Seuss expert Jeff Schuffman, will take place during receptions from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.