Hats Off to Dr. Seuss! curator Bill Dreyer on the hat closet, the art and the exhibition

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It seems obvious that Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) liked hats when you think about it; one of the beloved children's author's most famous books, after all, has the word in the title. And in the worlds he constructed, where cats wear hats and food takes on unusual color, whimsy and delight are the currency of the day. Now you can see some of Seuss's hat collection -- along with art that the headpieces inspired -- in the traveling exhibition Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!, on display at Clayton Lane Fine Arts, 110 Clayton Lane, opening Friday, June 21, and on display through July 14; we caught up with curator Bill Dreyer, who'll be speaking at the opening on Friday, for some hat talk.

See also: - Dr. Seuss was a children's author, not a prophet - Westword Book Club: Evan Nix on Joseph Campbell, Bruce Campbell and The Wiz - Horndribbles' Lucas Richards on hipsters, kid's toys and the Denver arts community

Westword: We're so excited to have this exhibition in Denver -- a lot of Dr. Seuss fans have no idea that he had a hat collection.

Bill Dreyer: Nobody knows about the hat collection! The art collection is known to that 1 or 2 percent of the population that goes to fine art galleries. But nobody knows about the hat collection and it's just astounding. I just returned from Laguna Beach, and the opening evening was incredibly exciting because people were going bonkers over the hat and the artworks.

How did you find out about the hats -- was it through your work as a curator?

It connects back to the artwork. I've been the curator for The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection for thirteen years now, and part of my work involves researching the original artwork at the home where Audrey Geisel, Ted Geisel's widow, lives. I've been to the home several times to research and spend time with the artwork, and at the home, Audrey Geisel kind of waves her hand at me and says, "Do you want to see the hat closet?" And I said I'd love to see the hats.

In the library there are three sections of bookshelves, and one section opens up to reveal a hidden door behind that wall, and in there is this hat collection that is hanging on both sides of this closet -- and also, the artworks are kept in there too, so I had to be in that room for art purposes. So I've had the good fortune to have been aware of the hat collection through my research at the estate for the past several years, and just knowing what a fun collection this is -- several hundred hats he collected through the 1920s that he collected all through the end of his life; he died in 1991. It's just eye-popping and humorous that nobody knows about it.

And how did this exhibition come about?

Knowing about this hat collection, we did come and ask if this year we could travel a selection of hats from his private hat collection, because this year is the 75th anniversary of his second book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Here is a book that was written about hats and the connection to him having his own private hat collection was just too perfect. So last year as we were working up to this anniversary, we did ask if we could bring a selection of hats, and we were thrilled to be given permission to bring 26 hats out. The exhibition opened at the New York Public Library during fashion week during February and March of this year, so it was a perfect time to show New York Seuss's fashion sense, and the response has just been phenomenal. Since then, we've taken it to select galleries around the country and this is the only stop in Colorado.

From those hundreds of hats, how did you select which ones to display?

For this exhibition, we wanted to show direct correlations between specific hats that he has in his collection and artworks that have hats that seem to be inspired by those hats that he owned. We look at his life's work -- you do see, both in his paintings and in his children's books, many hats. Hats seem to be the exclamation mark on somebody's personality. So you get to see how he uses them time and time again, hats definitely entertain and they delight and they embellish people, they were the accent or exclamation point on a person's behavior or a character's personality.

And with his children's books -- you've got The Cat in the Hat, and we do have the red and white stovepipe hat. People come in and they see The Cat in the Hat hat, and there's a hush that comes over them -- oh my gosh, there it is! But I believe the book came first in this particular case, the hat was probably created by some friend and given to him after the book.

You also see with the Grinch and in Green Eggs and Ham, and many of his children's books, hats playing a prominent part. And with his artworks, same thing, he has specific artworks that are very similar to hats in his selection. We selected 26 hats based on a couple of different bases -- connections to his children's books or his artworks -- and we show those connections and correlations. And some hats we picked because of the importance of the hat, how wacky and zany it is. And in several cases we have photos of Dr. Seuss with a couple of the hats.

It's true now that you mention it that he did use a lot of hats in his work.

You don't think about it, you think of the fun, whimsical characters, but when you start to go through it, many of these are hat-bearers. One book I was looking at recently, Do You Know How Lucky You Are, and I think there are over 100 hats in the book that he put on different characters. He certainly used them time and time again.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about the exhibition?

I would definitely place an urgency on the fact that the exhibition will only be there for three weeks, and I would also emphasize that this is the first time some original materials have come out of the house. It's a really unique opportunity to come and see original hats from his hat collection. The last thing I want to mention about his artworks is all the original artworks are in the home, and Mrs. Geisel gave us permission in 1997 to create authorized reproductions, so the exhibition will have this collection of reproductions from the originals that have been made available for private collection or museum exhibition. So people will have the opportunity to come and purchase artworks to add to their private collections.

Visit claytonlaneart.com for more information about the visit.

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