WILLIAM GIRARD: A Portrait in Arts & Crafts
You would think the first visit, by invitation, of a star-struck student to the home of a professor of art (!) for a private lesson would have left a lasting impression. Of the home. Of the man. Something. In fact, the only thing I clearly recall is my mother’s cautionary advice: Be wary! Apparently, she couldn’t think of a reason for such an invitation that didn’t include carnal intent. That was in 1979 or ’80, the good old days.
Ironically, the professor, Bill Girard, had offered me a lesson in casting… a lesson in plaster casting. Girard didn’t teach sculpture at school, the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts, later the Center for Creative Studies (CCS) in downtown Detroit. His brief was limited to teaching drawing techniques to first-year students and painting classes to non-credit students. I went anyway, of course. Any carnal intent on his side failed to register on me. (There was no casting couch!) Besides, he shared the house with a beefy, blonde guy named Gary.
The casting process seemed complex. Messy. One lesson became several. My casting skills still aren’t impressive. I’m just too impatient. Girard’s own molds, of which I have several, are impeccable. I can’t recall my first impression of his home. Meaning, I can’t separate my impression of the home from my impression of Girard, himself.
Unlike so many other profs I had encountered, Girard genuinely seemed to like, respect and enjoy his art students. He didn’t boast and he didn’t denigrate. He was always willing to take extra time with a student. He often sourced his demonstration materials from the class wastebasket. Frequently, those demonstration pieces were inspired. They never went back into the trash. Either some lucky student walked away with a prize or Girard worked the piece up to completion, later. I was star-struck.
Stars don’t cast shadows. Paradoxically, their energies can blind and illuminate, simultaneously. I suppose I fell victim to the brilliance of that star. I’ve never regretted it. Just the opposite. I attribute much of my joy in life to my association with Bill Girard and his life’s work. His home – as I would eventually learn – was his firmament. I couldn’t quite pry them apart in my mind, then or now.
Artifacts distilled in his ramshackle 35’ x 14” studio, on the other end of the garden behind the house and displayed in his unkempt home, leapt into life. Mastery in full bloom can no more be hidden or denied than the sun can be outlawed. In 1980, at age 40, as I would soon learn, Girard had already filled his castle – his private space and the private places of his patrons and collectors – with many marvels.
If you were a friend, you knocked on the driveway door at 304 Gardenia, Royal Oak, Michigan. (Harper Furniture, my cousins’ store, was just two blocks down the street.) There was no window, just a peephole. A resounding if door-muffled canine chorus generally preceded the music of clattering, sandalled feet. The door opened out. A narrow passageway obstructed by eager, lumbering dogs, perhaps four stairs up, brought you to the “mouth” of a galley kitchen. A second set of stairs led downward to a cavernous, unfinished basement.
The dogs’ enthusiasm is memorialized in more than a few of Girard’s paintings and sculptures, including the design for the inaugural President’s Award of the Michigan Humane Society (1988). Girard was an animal hugger at heart, no doubt about it. Near the intersection where his tiny kitchen kissed the dining room, Girard had sculpted the wonderfully joyful phiz of a bacchic spirit directly into the wall. This is how Girard’s home greeted most of the those lucky enough to gain admittance.
What motivated Girard to call such a playful kitchen god to life, I couldn’t say. I failed to ask, and he never said. He was, in fact, a very private person. I rarely dared to put the privilege of entry into his world at risk by asking a question that might seem intrusive.
But his kitchen god was so clearly full of life, so happy. It seemed to sum up Girard’s commitment to whimsy and celebration. It was also, I might add, a lovely antidote to the endless anger and anxiety that vexed civic life at that time. Just the sort of thing a self-described “old pagan,” could have been expected to create. Oh golly! Who (else) did that? In Detroit of the 1970s and ’80s or elsewhere in the world of our contemporaries? No one I knew.
Girard’s Craftsman-style home seems to have been built around 1916. In a personal note for my own use after a Halloween day visit in 2009, I wrote that the exterior of “Bill’s house … looks like the unkempt set for a sort of horror film.” This reminds me – in retrospect – that nature has a trick of wrapping some of its finest gifts in unappealing packages. Think of mollusks and pearls or gemstones dredged from mines.
After passing the kitchen entry, you stepped into a small dining room. Behind it, if the floor-length drapes and French doors they guarded were open, you could exit onto a large outdoor wooden deck. From the deck you could descend into the rock garden and approach the art studio that secured the property’s far border. Looking forward, you would see a wide arched entry into the living room. You might notice a harpsichord there. Girard, who had perfect pitch, sometimes used it to pick out the melodies of pieces that he enjoyed.
Standing or seated inside the dining area, you couldn’t miss the diaphanously clothed female holding a flaming oil lamp and the winged, nude male figure Girard had painted perched on opposite ends of an arch. The arch and dining room ceiling represent the sky in cerulean blue. The swirling foliage is teal green. The accompanying flowers are pink. Misty cloud shapes wander in the background.
It occurs to me now that the red-headed female figure was modelled on Bonnie, Bill’s ex. Slender, red-headed females with curly hair appear in many of Girard’s paintings. On the other side of that entry, Girard’s color palette changed abruptly. The ceiling is red. The walls are red! The accents are teal green, the same green visible on the walls of the dining nook.
In a 1990 letter, Girard reported on his acquisition of a large piece of red carpet. He started out looking for a stairway carpet runner to accommodate his arthritic dog, Bumper. “…I ran into a good deal at Sears. It was carpet left over from the Auto Show. It’s RED (and How!) I love it. It’s inlaid and covers the living room and the dining room as well as up the stairs. I’m in my Glory. The animals and I can roll around all over the house in Crimson Luxury.”
“The animals and I can roll around all over the house in Crimson Luxury.”
At age 50, Girard was still happy to roll on the floor with his four-pawed menagerie, the dogs Bumper, Hilja, Oscar, and Willie Weezle, and the cats Pizmier, Petunia, and Sweet Pea. I will leave it to professional interior designers to decide whether Girard’s approach to interior design reflected the high standards of that profession, then or now.
Knowingly or not, I think Girard was recreating the atmosphere of a bohemian Victorian home in his late 20th Century environment with the materials he had and could afford. Girard was, not strictly speaking, unconventional. He admired conventions enough to redesign them for his own purposes. However, his results were not always readily recognizable to strict constructionists of convention.
Girard’s home was an informal museum. For yours truly, an art lover with Stendhal syndrome, the artwork emanated energy that was palpable and thrilling. It invariably induced a pleasurable buzz… no drugs required. In sum, going to Girard’s place was an excuse to get high with a friend.
Sitting at Girard’s small, Goodwill-quality dining room table, which really seemed the emotional center of the house, I responded strongly to the unspoken invitation represented by his sculpture of Mother Goose on an adjacent chest. He must have created her about the time I met him, as she is dated 1979.
On my periodic visits to Girard’s home – I left Detroit and Girard for better working prospects in Arizona just two years after we met – Mother Goose was always here to greet me.
She is, I think, a freestanding reiteration of the spirit that generated the kitchen god. Her upraised and outstretched right hand receives the front hooves of the proverbial cow that leapt over the moon. Her left-hand holds said crescent moon. Head cocked and dressed in a wimple, her animated eyes and face telegraph the playful, joyous spirit that defined much of Girard’s work. Her sweeping robe is modest but elegant and as it gracefully falls, it simplifies into a stabilizing and economic abstraction.
Mother Goose was designed as a maquette for a sculpture competition. The winning submission, which was not this piece, was intended for a playground. Girard’s dealer and patron, Allen Abramson, had Mother Goose cast in bronze for his own enjoyment. Allen’s version, which Bill hated for its dark patina and the incorrectly straightened cow’s tail, found a new home with another Detroit collector, when Allen passed.
The Girard “museum” was filled with small paintings and sculptures. A magical portrait of his son, Christopher, as a child, painted in a primitive style, hung in the same living room niche for as long as I can recall. Another small portrait of a young woman with a skeptical mien, head decked with flowers, also held pride of place. Had Girard not told me that it depicted a pugnacious art school model and artist from whom I had previously purchased a self-portrait, I would never have guessed. One small table sculpture depicted the tragedy of Acteon, the hunter transformed by the goddess of the hunt into stag and attacked by his own dogs. A winsome terra cotta portrait of Gary, his housemate, as a child, observed Acteon’s fate from inches away. These are but a few of the items you would have found there.
If Girard’s house was a mini museum, his studio was virtually magnetic. Because that was where the latest wonders were being born, that’s where I really wanted to be. The rich, earthy exhalations of dozens of moist and slowly drying oil paintings, of clay, of plaster, of plasticene, snuggly wrapped in Michigan’s humid air were more enticing to me than the aroma of any kitchen.
The space was so packed with work – fresh pieces, discards, completed work and pieces deferred for later consideration – that it was impossible for the occasional visitor to have any real sense of what it held. A narrow path bisected the length of the studio. Although the front façade was comprised of French doors scavenged from a demolished building somewhere in Detroit, the interior was generally dark, if not gloomy. Thick curtains situated behind the French doors helped retain what limited warmth a space heater could provide, and privacy too, I suppose.
William Girard’s friends and patrons were a diverse bunch. Although Girard himself was at least a moderately liberal individual by the standards of the period in which I knew him (1979 – 2011), his hospitality was open-armed. All those who somehow found their way into his heart, be it as patrons or friends, were welcomed into Bill’s modest home.
Toward the end of his life, multiple members of the extended family of the former governor of Michigan, George Romney, became Girard collectors and friends. Among those, I was told, was Ronna Romney (former daughter-in-law of Governor Romney and sister-in-law to the current Senator Mitch Romney of Utah). At last report, the extended Romney clan held at least 10 easel paintings and sculptures from Girard’s hand, as well as a series of beautiful murals based on Angkor Watt.
It is a fitting tribute to the man, his home, and his art, that the work he birthed in obscurity and on meager means is, ever so gradually, being adopted into the homes of our culture’s meritocracy.
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