GIRARD? GIRARD WHO?


Master of Mud (aka artist) and former Center for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit,  professor of art, Bill (William J.) Girard Jr., passed away in 2011. The website created to honor him is found at https://girardsvasari.com/


Note: Most images are clickable.

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Left to Right: Bill Girard, Father Nicholas Maestrini and collector, Bernice Kent. 1968.
Behind  Kent, Girard's painting: Of Rumbling Wooden Wheels Going Through A Dusty Night

The burglar paid no attention at all to our collection of Girard paintings and sculpture. It was very depressing.

My naturopath subsequently instructed me to treat this and all life issues with the balm of gratitude. She would surely be pleased to know that the burglary has taught me to be grateful for boors.

Happily, at least one of the two investigating police officers could scarcely drag his eyes away from the large Girard painting, Fauvel. This made me feel much better. At least some of our public servants aren't immune to the seduction of fine art.

Fauvel completed as seen here in 1993 - is just the sort of painting you might expect to catch the eye of a policeman.


Fauvel. (Final version.) 1978 - 1993. Oil on wallboard. 53" x 39"
 Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

The composition is one part whimsy, one part marvelous brushwork, and two parts savage reminder of our species' propensity to fall into depravity.

A city burns. The world seethes. Center stage, you see a fat-faced king seated on a throne, holding a pinwheel, attended by an evil ass (aka malevolent donkey).

Fauvel. Detail of King. Oil on wallboard. 53" x 39" Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

A busy Oliver North (of Iran-Contra scandal infamy) runs with an armful of missiles for our good friends in Iran. (As I write this, Ollie is the newly minted president of the National Rifle Association. I gather that he remains deeply committed to distributing weapons widely.)


Fauvel. Detail of Olliver North. Oil on wallboard. 53" x 39"  Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011


Fauvel. Detail of Pope. Oil on wallboard. 53" x 39" Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

 There's a nearly skeletal cowboy (John Wayne, per Girard) gesturing with his six-shooter; not to mention a rapist and his prey.


Sound grim? Well, maybe. But it's funny: a black comedy. Taken together, it crosses Jack Levine-style satire with the painterly élan of a Franz Hals.

The paint is wonderful. That white ruff around the neck of the "king" is delightful - dragged and dripped in thick loopy knots.,

The king's stockings and especially the buttons that hold the hose to the stockings are so 3-D, that viewers almost invariably touch them. The jowly, mottled face of the king describes depravity in mordant living color that would do Disney proud. 

The glowing eyes of the donkey (Fauvel) braying in the king's ear put exclamation marks on the vices it represents.

The painting is based on a popular 14th century poem, Le Roman de Fauvel.

Fauvel is both the name of the villain - a donkey ("équidé" also translates as "horse") - and a French acronym for the seven (most alluring) vices: flattery, avarice, villainy, fickleness, envy, and cowardice/laziness.

The conceit of the narrative is that a supremely vicious donkey has taken control of the universe... but not officially. It's a damned donkey! So it recruits a someone that it can manage to sit on the throne of ALL POWER. Right out of a Marvel OR DC comic, right?

Pot boiler alert. The originality of the plot isn't the point. It's all about the design and costumes. In the end, of course, good conquers evil, the ass is turned out to pasture, and the world is returned to peace and goodwill. Or so I'm told.

Not all burglars were as impervious to the charms of  Bill Girard's paintings as was mine.

Girard reported that a more aesthetically acute burglar in Michigan had illicitly "borrowed" four of his paintings from a gallery in the early '70s. Not the smallest paintings, either. Just like in the movies, the burglar cut two of the larger paintings right out of their frames!

Those paintings probably represented hundreds of hours of work, not to mention a badly needed financial boost. But it's possible that burglar is one of the sharpest, most discerning critics ever to express an opinion about the work of Bill Girard. (To paraphrase Thoreau, "Critics vote with their walls.")

How can you disrespect the opinion of someone who finds a work of art so compelling that he or she absolutely has to have it - even at the risk of a jail sentence? (This is not to be construed as a suggestion or encouragement to pilfer art.)

True, most of the reigning collectors and critics in Girard's hometown proved impervious to the delights of his painting and sculpture. But, then again, all, he lived in Motown: home of the automobile and the production line. Those who lionized high-sexed, glossy paint on murderous steel carriages and the rumble of gleaming V-something engines were not likely to be hugely impressed by a self-taught artist of small local repute, unknown in the art press or NYC.

Nonetheless, hundreds of Girard's pieces found their way into the hands of those less moneyed or less concerned with the prevailing norms for collectable contemporary fine art. For much of that, Girard had the almost irresistible and absolutely irrepressible Detroit art and antique dealer, Allen H. Abramson, to thank. (More about him shortly.)

With minimal muss and fuss, for much of Girard's career, paintings and sculpture were simply sucked out his hands into the wide, wide world sans documentation. While the method was sanitary ─ it reduced the need for gallery shows and endless glad-handing ─ it also meant that Girard's work was largely invisible to any who didn't know him or his few gallerists personally. One doesn't build a critical reputation by sidestepping opinion makers.

"It always seemed to me that Bill didn't really want to part with his paintings," Marc Doubleday told me. At the time, Doubleday was a retired educator working as an educational consultant. He started collecting Girard's work in the 1960s.

"It was always difficult to get a painting from Bill, unless he needed the money.


Titania. Oil and mixed media. 1980. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

(Author's note. So far as I am aware, Bill always needed money. He had two kids... and he was an artist.)

"I got Titania from Bill at a point when he just couldn't complete the painting. I saw it and loved it," said Doubleday. "Titania was a dark, erotic painting.

"Titania herself has the face of Bonnie, Bill's ex. Bill said that I could take the painting and live with it, but that someday he would want it back so he could complete it. 'If you like it,' he said, 'you can buy it.'



Bonnie Silver. (nee Young)  Photo courtesy of Gloria Girard. 

"Originally Titania was set against a stormy background. The painting hung in my house that way for years. Finally, Bill called and asked to have it back. It took so long to complete that I thought I wouldn't get it back. But when Bill was done, it was an absolutely new painting. The wild painting had become serene. It was quite a shock to me, initially. But I grew to love the painting. Titania has hung over my fireplace ever since, the centerpiece of my living room."

Doubleday may not have realized that at the time he met Girard and for many years thereafter, most of the latter's work essentially belonged to the man who was paying Girard to make it: Abramson. 

Abramson once explicitly warned me against allowing Girard to get his hands on an unfinished painting I purchased from the artist. (I refer to it as my "first Girard.") "You won't even recognize it when you get it back," he said.


Book Cover: Allen Abramson: The Odyssey (or the Idiocy(Memoir). Behind Allen nearly all of the paintings are by Girard. It's "telling" that Allen was able to tap the manifold talents of art and music critic, Nancy Malitz, for this delightful and shameless bit of self-promotion. Writing as the cultural columnist for The Detroit News, she concentrated on the intersection of the arts and technology and is today publisher of chicagoontheaisle.com. In his last years, Abramson asked me on several occassions to help him write his next book. He even invited me to move in  with him... conveniently overlooking the fact that I was married. I was forced to decline. That chassid on the cover? It's a Girard drawing.

Perfectionism was one of the lesser hurdles separating Girard from fame and fortune. As fate would have it, he grew up and grew old in the midst of a dizzying series of revolutions in the post-WWII race to artistic fame and glory. 

Unfortunately for his career - but luckily for his art - Girard wasn't much for jumping on bandwagons.

During most of Girard's lifetime, leading artists and critics wanted to be standard-bearers of progress, along with scientists, engineers and architects.

The cult of progress taught that new and different is almost always better.

"Ism" followed "ism" at an increasingly dizzying speed. As anyone who has raced will tell you, to move faster you must generally travel lighter. 

Ambitious artists took this lesson to heart.

In their hurry to barrel into the future - to be first - a significant cohort of 20th century artists stripped off the lessons of 500 years of art technology as efficiently as the emperor jumping into his new clothes. Anatomy was jettisoned. Perspective was dumped. Draftsmanship went into the garbage. But garbage became fine art.

In the hands of the visionaries who led the flight into the future, these new approaches produced work of almost hallucinatory simplicity and beauty. But hard on their heels followed hordes of "codifiers." Codifiers are to art what recipe books are to fine cuisine.

So it goes. Epiphanies become strictures. In no time at all, strictures petrify into belief systems that suffocate the very creative forces that generated them.

This, in large part, was the art world into into which stumbled one Bill Girard, born and raised in blue collar Royal Oak, Michigan.

1in 1958, while still in high school, Girard worked at William Beaumont Hospital as an orderly. He was apparently very good with patients. 

Following his graduation from Center Line High School in 1958 or 1959, according to his sister, Girard entered the U.S. Navy reserves. She reports that his service was cut short by a back injury and he was given an early honorable discharge. 

Not long thereafter, Girard enrolled in the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. The school, directed by the Turkish-Armenian artist, Sarkis Sarkisian (1909 - 1977), was a local manifestation of an international movement that reflected the increasing relevance of aesthetics to the growing middle class.

Back cover: Sarkis by Gordon and Elizabeth Orear. Photo by Robert Vigiletti. Wayne State University Press 1995

Forgotten now by all but a few, Sarkis, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, was a Detroit-based painter with a national reputation. And a damned fine artist.

He turned down the opportunity to be featured in Life magazine. Too much attention would, he explained, interfere with the development of his art. His integrity helped ensure that Detroit would continue to be seen as a cultural backwater by local residents and the rest of the country. Girard seems to have taken that example to heart.

Oddly enough, it was one of Sarkesian's favorite students, Guy Palazzola (1919 - 1978), later Associate Dean of the School of Art at the University of Michigan, who interviewed and admitted me to said school as a student of photography, shortly before his death. No one's perfect.

A "semester and a half" after starting his art school education, Girard learned that he would soon be a father. He dropped out of school and went looking for work. 

Naturally, he married the pretty, young art student, Bonnie Young, with whom he had investigated lust. It would not be an uncommon story but for the fact that Girard self-identified as a homosexual. ("Gay" was not commonly used term at the time.)

Still, the "try it, you'll like" approach led to two children, Christopher and Inge. Christopher and Bonnie, in particular, were significant sources of inspiration in the following years.  Young Christopher directly inspired the poses Girard used for the "Hobbit" pawns in "his" Lord of the Rings chess set. It is possible that many of the putti and children's storybook style images that subsequently emerged in his paintings were a direct result of fatherhood. 

Perhaps because he never again had the opportunity to be a student in an institute of higher learning, Girard never stopped studying.

Untitled. (Pregnant Bonnie Silver as a hot air balloon with stroller).  9" x 12" Ink on paper. Date unknown. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Girard found work as a model maker for a local car manufacturer. The latter involved modelling cars from clay, in exacting detail, often at full size. Excellent training, I imagine, for his later ventures in sculpture.

Then Girard walked into the gallery of a newly minted art dealer, Allen Abramson, hoping to sell an oil painting (Amron, 1962).

"He was carrying a little baby in one arm and a painting in the other, " wrote Allen. "He needed money and wanted to sell the painting, so I took a look and I was shocked to find out that it was painted in this century. It was a beautiful thing... It was Girard's own work ... I bought it on the spot."


Amron is Norma spelled backwards. This painting is most likely Girard's response to the famous tragic opera, Norma.

Amron. Oil. 1962. 19” x 15.5”
 Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Michael Curtis, a former Girard student, and current Director of Design & Planning at AEGEA, reports that Girard's mature assessment of the painting was mixed.

"Amron is a shamefully inadequate painting," Girard told him. "Primarily, the hair, which is little more than a red mop. Yet, she is important because in her I discovered design and the lines that I love: Ingress and Matisse play with shapes in much the same way."

Shortly after his purchase, Abramson left on a two-year round-the-world jaunt.

"I told him that when I returned, " Abramson wrote, "I wanted to sponsor him (if I had any money left) and that I believed him to be a tremendously talented artist ..."

"When I got back ... Girard would spend five days a week with me, Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, a time dedicated to his painting and artwork. Meanwhile, I tried to sell his work. He was married at the time, with two small children at home, and money was tight for him as well."

Abramson, jocular, irrepressible and full of Yiddishkeit, was also something of a wheeler-dealer. His records show that he sold at least one piece to a J. Nederlander in 1966.  

David T. Nederlander founded a (live) theater management dynasty, beginning with the well-known Fisher Theater in Detroit. His kids, including James (Jimmy) and Joseph, would go on to build a world-wide live theater business. Apparently, Jimmy went to New York to  scout shows and ended up buying theaters. Joseph, remained in Detroit. 

Chances are, then, that it was Joseph Nederland who gave Girard his first solo exhibit in 1964 at the Fisher Theater. Girard would have been 23 or 24.

Additional solo shows in Cleveland (1965) and NYC (1966) followed. The former was sponsored by the Cleveland-area collector and art dealer, Bernice Kent - a mentor and dear friend of Abramson. The latter was sponsored by a Betty Kleinbaum of New York City.

Thanks to Abramson, Girard was able to focus on art-making full-time for roughly 15 years. It was an extraordinarily productive period for the artist. His technical growth was rapid. Compare the small format painting, titled Man with Moon from 1967, with Amron, above.

Man with Moon (Oberon & Titania? Behind the deer, to the left, there may be a donkey -
 a possible reference  to  "Bottom.") Dated: 1967. Oil on canvas. 5" x 6.5".

The July 30th 1967, Sunday edition of The Detroit News, featured an article about Girard by art critic, Joy Hakanson, "Exploring the World of a Young Eccentric."

Later that year, Abramson and Betty Kleinbaum sponsored a solo exhibit for Girard at Sliver's, in Highland Park, Michigan. The catalog lists 46 items and prices. Intriguingly, although the catalog featured several of Girard's Lord of the Rings images, referenced by Hakanson's article, they are not listed in the catalog. Girard's prices ranged from $90 to $2500 (for St. John - also titled Adam).



1967 Silver's Exhibit Catalog for Bill Girard. Yellow tagged items were found in Abramson's estate at his death.

The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, CPI Inflation Calculator indicates that $2500 in 1967 had the same buying power as $18,694, today. In other words, Abramson probably didn't really want to sell St. John, at all.

In short, Girard got off to a damned fast start. Between 1964 and 1967, he had four one-man exhibits at venues in Michigan, Ohio and New York.

Whether the show was a financial success is unclear. What is certain is that a large number of the pieces from that show became the core of a Girard collection that Abramson spent the rest of his life building. This included the St. John painting plus the bronzes, Pied Piper, Toad, Bedtime Stories, Icarus, and Tree of Knowledge. Tree of Knowledge had earned an honorable mention in the 1965 Michigan Artists & Craftsman's Exhibit.

Abramson also retained the paintings, Woman with Bird, Ring of Fire, Concert (see below), Female Figure Withdrawing Into Herself, Portrait of Bonnie (watercolor), St. Salome, Europa and the Bull, and, most likely, Marriage of Adam and Eve. He also retained nearly all of Girard's Lord of the Rings pen and ink drawings.

Concert. 16" x 20" Oil on board. Date: < 1968.
Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

The fuss over the young artist's work must have come to the attention of Sarkis Sarkesian. According to Girard, in 1968, as one of his last acts before retiring, Sarkis instigated the hiring of Bill Girard as an adjunct drawing instructor. The art school that Bill Girard was forced to leave ultimately decided not to let him get away.

Over time, the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts grew into an expensive, private art college, the Center for Creative Studies (CCS). It was only natural, I suppose, that the school's administration opted to reframe the institution's primary purpose as the cultivation of young artisans for the advertising, industrial design and photographic trades. The demand for competent artisans in industrial Detroit was surely significantly higher than the demand for fine artists.

Abramson claimed that when he finally released Girard, he also facilitated his appointment as a full-time professor of art at CCS. The appointment took place in 1980. Happily, Girard genuinely loved teaching art.

Often enough, the young people who found their way into his classes, nascent artists, were adolescent misfits in the "real" world. As a misfit himself - a closeted gay man - Girard had great empathy with them. And if they happened to love art, as he did, he was delighted to support their search for direction and artistic development.

I was one of those students - who couldn't draw to save a life. Girard sat down beside me, brush and cup of coffee in hand, and proceeded to demonstrate how to make a painting of a little gourd on a scrap of drawing paper, with pencil and coffee. He hated it. But I was hugely impressed and kept it. He did that sort of thing with many of his students. 

Other instructors promised me that I had absolutely no ability. Girard encouraged me. He encouraged all of his students. And many of them came to appreciate him deeply.

Girard was a sweet man. Not surprisingly, then, he attracted and retained the friendship of a number of the older students who found their way into his Saturday "extension" courses and his regular basic drawing and painting courses. 

One such student helped Bill obtain the beautiful but abandoned French doors that became the front of his backyard studio from a downtown Detroit renovation project.

Another student, Michael Curtis - whom Bill often described as an "Adonis," went on to become an architect, sculptor, writer and gallerist with a powerful commitment to Girard's work. 

Yours truly met Girard at CCS when he was 26. Girard was 40. This essay and the associated website are merely two manifestations of the lifelong friendship that ensued. 

It is worth noting, I believe, that neither Curtis nor I shared Girard's sexual orientation. 

This pattern represented a constant in Girard's life.  

Discontent with the evolution and financial status of CCS began to percolate within its Board of Directors. In the early 1990s, changes in Board membership would result in changes in administrative leadership and new policies within the school. In in 1993, Richard L. Rogers, formerly a VP of the New School for Social Research, was appointed President of CCS.

According to news reports, Richard Rogers's mandate was to achieve a national reputation for CCS within five years. Change could not be gradual.

Rogers appointment closely coincided with a $20 million gift to the school by Josephine Ford, window of architect and arts patron, Walter B. Ford II. This gift essentially empowered the new president to realign the school's approach to arts education. It would not be a painless process.

Existing department chairs, many of whom had once studied at the school themselves, were asked to step down. Younger, more ambitious and perhaps more pliable choices replaced them. Presumably expensive, full-time faculty members were gradually replaced by younger artist/educators and part-time (adjunct) faculty. (This practice has since become widespread throughout the American academic world.)

Quick Gestures. Dimensions unknown. Dog with Girard's face takes aim at CCS President Richard Rogers. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

In the process, Sarkis's artistic acolytes, as well as the skill sets they espoused, were scrubbed.

The impact of those changes would forever alter Girard's life. Like Sarkis, the school's founder, Girard was simply not professionally ambitious - regardless of his local successes, he had no larger desire than to make well-designed and personally meaningful pieces of art.

In retrospect, it seems to me that the refreshed CCS Board of Directors was probably looking at the "big picture." Detroit, home of the school, had become an increasingly bleak place. 

The race riots of the 1960s, "white flight" to the suburbs and the gradual loss of its industrial (automotive manufacturing) preeminence had engendered a steep and heart-breaking decline that may not yet have been reversed as I write this in 2018.

Turning CCS into a "point of light" within Detroit and the nation, the board must have reasoned, would help produce the resurgence that Detroit itself so badly needed. That vision is still in the process of being realized to this day.

Rogers asked the then currrent chairman of the Fine Arts department, sculptor Jay Holland, to step down. Holland, like Girard, was a product of the Arts and Crafts school.  Rogers replaced Holland with the Painting Department chair,  Aris Koutroulis

Koutroulis NOT was an Arts and Crafts type of guy. He was a Greek immigrant with personal experience of  bombings and starvation during and post-WWII.  He eventually received a two-year Ford Foundation grant to study professional art lithography at the Tamarind Institute. While there, he met and developed relationships with artists whose names were emerging as important local and national figures, among them Sam Francis, Joseph Albers, Louise Nevelson, and Georgia O'Keeffe

Later, he received a full scholarship to the Crambrook Academy of Art, where he taught lithography while earning his Master's Degree.  Koutroulis was the 1968 Michigan Artists Show Purchase Prize winner. He subsequently became an Assistant Professor at Wayne State Univerity, Detroit, and head of its Lithography Department. In 1980, he became a full professor at CCS and chair of the Fine Arts Department. 

As budgets were reshaped under Rogers, it seemed to many of the school's "home grown" educators that the fine arts were slowly being marginalized in what once had been their home. It could not have helped that the person at the helm of the Fine Arts Department was an outsider with no special sympathy for the existing institutional culture. 

These factors seem to have turned the internal squabbling common in many post-secondary environments into heightened competition for recognition, authority and resources. Differences of opinion about art and art education developed into serious disagreements with internal political consequences.

Girard believed that the president of CCS supported the seemingly divisive policies of Koutroulis as a means to weaken faculty coherence and reduce effective resistance to his plans and policies.


1994. Painting Department Chair Evaluation for Bill Girard. "There is not very much I can say Bill Girard. He is the only faculty member whose student evaluations I cannot find anywhere for the past year.  He mostly teaches basic figure drawing and basic design courses. For the most part his classes does not concern the Fine Arts students, therefore, I have no way to find out how well he is doing or not doing..."

In his evaluation, Koutroulis points out that Girard only teaches beginning student courses. He neglects to mention that he was in no small part responsible for distribution of teaching assignments. One would think that the art school was so vast as to make interaction with Girard nearly impossible. The opposite was true. 

Girard responded with a letter of protest, "... I find Aris' questioning of my credibility as an artist and a teacher to be an affront ... This insidious attempt at character and professional assassination has been going on for years ... During the time when wages and departmental growth had been frozen, Aris made a point of elevating as many part-time faculty to the rank of full time as he wished to over-crowd the Fne Arts department and push senior staff as far out of the way as possible."

Girard shared the evaluation with me, accompanied by a hand-written lament."

"This information is the most painful thing to send. It causes me much imbarisment and althoe I realize that is is untrue and calculated to do harm, it still dose shake my self confidence. I know that that is what is is designed to do, and I am determined not to let it get me down..."


Girard had the full-throated support of many students, past and present. Gwen Johnson, a CCS junior, made her case for Girard in the following, nicely written letter in July 1994. 
Letter by student Gwen Johnson, 1994, to CCS Dean of Students in support of  instructor, Bill Girard.


Johnson described an art instructor who happily shared what he knew.  

"In addition to assisting his student's drawing skills, Professor Girard demonstrated techniquesin the use of media including conte, pastels, pencil, ink, and such organic materials as bamboo, egg tempra, paper surfaces, and other processes in class...

"Mr. Girard is a fine instructor, and I have learned much from his tutelage. His lively personality, interest and enthusiasm for art exposes a love of his subject that is contagious to his students. He makes learning easy and enjoyable. There would certainly be a void if our fine institution lost the talents of this man who has the willingness and ability to give to others who want his knowledge."

Other students signed a petition, a page of appears below.

1994 Student Petition (Page 2) in support of Bill Girard

Koutroulis was forthright in acknowledging to students that he couldn't draw and didn't need to. (By his own account, captured in an oral history interview available online in the Archives of American Art, this was not entirely true. But, at the time, I at least, took his word for it. ) 

Drawing, Koutroulis told us, had nothing to do with art. His work (circa 1981) exemplified this wisdom. In fact, such opinions simply reflected the then prevailing fine arts orthodoxy.

By the way, Koutroulis wasn't wrong. Not about the connection between art and draftsmanship. Girard understood that. The issue was orthodoxy itself. The complete rejection - the persecution - of artists whose  approach or vision don't align with those of the reigning cultural arbiters is fundamentally misguided, unfair and inhumane. It is, essentially, a rejection of the right to free expression. It is also a throwback to the original Puritan ethic: agree to agree or be cast out into the wilderness. 

Girard, whose muses spoke so clearly and persuasively to him, was perforce a "wilderness" type of guy. 

In the very early 1980s, Koutroulis paintings were strips of canvas glued together with acrylic paint in such a way that the dripping paint formed a great cascade of color.

Girard, on the other hand, was a representational artist through and through regardless of the wide range of techniques and styles that he employed. Moreover, no matter his technical expertise in his field(s) of endeavor, he had no diplomas at all.

Advantage Koutroulis.

In a period wild for Willem De Kooning, Franz Klein, Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, David Smith, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Phillip Pearlstein, Francis Bacon, Morris Lewis, and Roy Lichtenstein, Judy Chicago, etc., creating more or less recognizable figurative images based on classic antecedents and themes wasn't a winning combination. Not in New York. Not in Detroit. And certainly not at CCS.

Under Koutroulis, Girard was banished to the tenements of the art education fiefdom. His assignments were invariably limited to first-year students and Saturday extension courses. Beginning drawing. Painting 101.


Riddle of the Sphincter. Detail: Aris Koutroulis hanging his paintings out to dry at  CCS. (1999) 
 Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

In 1980 (I believe), Koutroulis required his students to attend one of his openings in a lovely Detroit-area gallery and write an essay about the experience. For class credit. 

The work didn't speak to me, personally. But  what disgusted me was the fact that he was requiring students to write paeans to his work or, presumably, suffer the consequences.

My prose-poem response was typed on the back of Koutroulis's four-color exhibit flier. Apparently, I published it in a CCS student-generated chapbook, Musea, not much later.



MY REQUIRED RESPONSE TO THE KOUTROULIS SHOW by the author. 
Published in Center for Creative Studies Student Chapbook, Musea. 
Circa 1980. Editor, Joseph e. Vittorelli.

(Kudos to Musea's primary progenitor, then CCS student, Joseph E. Vittorelli, whom I apparently assisted. He did all the real work.)

Nonetheless, I recall that a number of Koutroulis's paintings were priced in the $20,000 range. How many sold I couldn't say.

Egoism aside, Koutroulis was well attuned to his era and able to deliver.

Girard was tuned in to another station. (As it happens, Girard also had perfect pitch and could play virtually any tune he had heard, by ear, on his harpsicorde.)


As an autodidact, he had small regard for professional credentials or pompous egos. He could draw beautifully from memory. He had nearly perfect recall of any artwork he had seen. Though he couldn't (or wouldn't) spell to save his life, he was quite knowledgeable about classical literature and music of all periods. 

Unlike Koutroulis, Girard was a native of Detroit and had travelled very little. Girard's imagination took him everywhere in the world - and out of it - that he wanted to go. 

As a closeted gay man who had grown up in a conservative - that is to say, distinctly prejudiced environment - both local and national, he could have had little interest in becoming the focus of great attention. The risk-reward assessment simply did not make sense. Girard was naturally inclined to protect his private life - his family, and other gay men of his acquaintance - from intrusive and unempathetic eyes.

Because Girard was a figurative artist whose inspiration was literary, his work was deemed - and damned as - "traditional."

In fact, his pieces commonly reflected a uniquely playful approach to cultural appropriation and reorganization. This is exemplified by the Pied Piper bronze that appears just below. However, this trait seems to have eluded his critics and many of those who otherwise appreciated his work.

Pied Piper. Bronze. < 1968. 8" x 6" x 5" inches. Here, the pied piper is a rat! 
Plus, Girard adds elements (boots and naked man on the rat's tail) 
from the Puss 'n Boots story. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Here, the human Pied Piper is replaced by a rat! The standard tin or wooden pipe is replaced with a panpipe (aka syrinx). Plus, Girard adds elements (boots and naked man on the rat's tail), elements associated with the Puss 'n Boots story.

As the years passed, Koutroulis's critique - and those of his like-minded colleagues - grew harsher. 

"He (Girard) needs to be educated. He needs knowledge about the real world and all the great changes that have taken place in the art world during his own life time. He seems to be stuck in the only place he ever knew, the old society of arts and crafts."

Department Chair's Annual Review of Full-Time Faculty: Page 3. May 6, 1997

Contrast Koutroulis's opinion, above, with the following excerpt from a 1997 Detroit Free Press review by art critic, Marsha Miro. The article, Three personal visions take on universal appeal, addressed the "Sabbatical Exhibition" for Girard, and colleagues Susan Aaron-Taylor (fibers) and John Ganis (photography) at the Centers Gallery in the Park Shelton building, Detroit.

 "Girard dips directly into the history of art, of baroque sculpture and romantic painting methamorphosing old myths and fantasies in present forms. Where a decade ago Girard's art would have seemed reactionary, these days his reworking of the past is relevant, provocative and delightful."

Between 1991 and 1996, Girard's C.V. lists participation in just three exhibitions, all of them in Michigan. Apparently, that just wasn't satisfactory to the Fine Arts Department chair.

It doesn't seem at all surprising that Girard's professional "progress" might have stalled in a period when cultural arbiters had little appetite for figurative artists with stories to tell. Or that, after prolonged denigration, his efforts to find venues to exhibit in might have flagged. Although he exhibited major, complex pieces in the middle and late 1980s, it appears that hardly anyone noticed.

For example, Fauvel as first exhibited (see below) was completed in 1978, according to Michael Curtis. It was a multi-panel painting, on a high base, with triptych-like wings supporting angellic figures, The main panel was topped by a roundel. It probably stood at least seven feet high.


The original Fauvel (1978) as seen at the Curtis Gallery. Multi-media. This poor photo is the only image currently available of the piece as originally presented. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

He exhibited it at the Curtis Gallery and in various business locations in Southfield, Michigan, in 1985. For reasons unknown, Girard eventually dissassembled this major piece of art and reworked Fauvel, as seen at the top of this essay. It became a much, much darker vision. 

The version I saw in the late 1980s, at Girard's home in Royal Oak, Michigan,  included the cast (hydrocal?) angels, but I believe they had been gilded. The emotional power of the work made an indellible impact on me. Eventually, Girard allowed me to obtain the final version. 

What is certain is that the original piece required a wide range of skills, from carpentry to scagliola, casting, etc., aside from painting. It must have required significant planning and effort over a long period of time. 

Only slightly less ambitious, Girard's Telemon, was exhibited at the Curtis Gallery in 1985. Its current disposition is unknown. The painting, Fire and Ice, behind it, however, was purchased by Girard collector Jospeh Jupena, 

Jupena built a stand-alone personal gallery near his home in Pennsylvania, where Fire and Ice, and other major Girard pieces, such as Pandora could be enjoyed. In isolation. According to Girard, Jupena acquired at least 12 major pieces.


Fire and Ice (Oil painting/left) 58" x 33"; Telemon (Mixed media/right) 84" high. 
 Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011.
Per Wikipedia, (King) Telemon was a Greek warrior, who fought beside Hercules.
 It is also a term, in architecture, given to the male version of a caryatid.

Girard's exhibition opportunities, though personally gratifying on one level were frustrating, too. The work simply failed to resonate with the art loving public of the period. Instead, a
gain and again, the best work found its way into private hands through a network of personal contacts. Joe Jupena is the brother of the internationally known fiber artist, Urban Jupena, formerly a professor of art at Wayne State University (Detroit). 



Fire and Ice (Oil painting) 58" x 33". Titled drawn from W.H. Auden's poem of the same name. The image is based on the Book of Revelations 12:7. The Archangel Michael has slain Lucifer (the dragon). Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Creating and selling work, as Girard did consistently, was also not evidence of professional activity. For various reasons, Girard was often financially challenged - he reported that he had declared bankruptsy three times. He was also proudly independent. I don't recall ever hearing that he actively solicited a sale or actively marketed himself. He focused on creating the work. Abramson, Curtis and others served as his marketing department. 

 When his relationships with his marketing representatives soured, he coped, somehow.

It is also true that he hated to let go of work that didn't satisfy him. He sculpted and painted with one eye on the design solutions of past masters and the other on the wisdom and good taste of future ages. He  less interested, overall, in the short-sighted folks who couldn't see that he was making art that would stand the test of time.

Art dealer Allen Abramson, referenced above, coveted every piece. As did others. Indeed, Bill found Abramson's incessant demands nearly as irritating as the disdain of his department chair at CCS.



Allen Abramson 1930 - 2016: "Welcome To My Abode"

Eventually, Girard and Abramson had a falling out over a painting that Bill had promised to a friend and Abramson wanted to sell to someone else (or keep for himself, I was never clear which). For years, Girard would not speak to Abramson.

The growing tensions at the art school that had been his second home for so long prompted Girard to spearhead a faculty union drive with Patrick Fourshe (26 years seniority) and Daniel Herschberger (17 years seniority) in 1997.


1998 Metro Times (Detroit) Article: Union drive at CCS

In June 1998, Girard received a letter of dismissal from CCS President Rogers, after nearly 30 years of professional activity with the school.

The letter cites irreconcilable differences between Girard and the department leadership, low standards of quality for his students, and an unwillingness to be cooperative.

Patrick Fourshe and Daniel Hershberger were also terminated for "performance issues." Shortly thereafter, the school's first African-American professor of art, Anthony Williams, received his letter of termination.

Williams, quite the macho artist, was a practitioner of the martial arts and, if memory serves, owned at least one Samurai sword. He also loved to cook - as did Girard. Unlike Girard, however, he gradated from the Art School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (on G.I. Bill benefits).


In short order, four other senior instructors submitted their resignations, Jay Holland, professor of sculpture and previous chair of the Fine Arts department; Lucien Perowski, professor in the Graphic Communications department; William House, former chair of the Interior Design department; and John Steiner, professor of industrial design. Robert Vigiletti, (former) Academic Dean, who founded the school's photography department (34 years seniority) received a termination letter in 1996.

In this context, the final paragraph of Hakanson's 1967 article, seems oddly prescient.

"Whether one likes Girard's kind of art or loathes it, he is someone to respect in a world that fights for freedom but humiliates its prophets."

The dismissal was certainly humiliating.

Riddle of the Sphincter. 18" x 23". 1999. Pen, watercolor & gouache. CCS Pres. Rogers sits with "the little dean" where the sphinx's head could have been expected, were it not for Girard's redesign of its body. (Reference: Oedipus and the Sphinx.) Meanwhile, identifiable CCS faculty demonstrate obeisance. Koutroulis appears in the upper window and as the spider in the foreground. In the bottom left corner, Girard wrote: The Riddle of the Sphincter in reference to John Barth's wisdom contained in "Giles Goat- Boy." Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Williams and Girard were the closest of friends - though I never knew it at the time. In the last year or so of Williams's losing battle with cancer, Girard devoted himself to caring for his friend full-time, so that Williams' wife, Francia, could hold a job that provided medical coverage.

For decades, Girard was derided as a mere illustrator. His work was described as derivative and damned as "narrative." You can't imagine how odd a Girard painting looked amid the best efforts of his colleagues in faculty shows. Carefully glazed, beautifully drawn, attentive to light, his paintings looked, at first glance, like the work of a Renaissance artist. And so they were.

The tools of the trade that so many other artists abandoned found a new home in the hands of Bill Girard. Slowly, patiently, he mastered techniques of the "old masters" and applied them to his own work. His oeuvre includes fresco techniques, egg tempera, silverpoint, as well as figurative oil painting and sculpture.

But Girard was an explorer, right from the get-go. Untutored, he made his first oil painting using household cooking oil as a medium. (It took months to dry.) The path of the autodidact is generally filled with potholes. Girard filled those potholes with hard-won insights.

Ultimately, Girard's solitary search for techniques and tools turned him into a unique resource, a living treasury of technical information and tips. Perhaps because all too few of his students actually cared, he was always delighted to share his wealth of knowledge with serious students and artists.

Do you want your plaster to be more workable, more clay-like? Add one part flour to three parts plaster, mix well, and add water while kneading. If you simply want to slow the rate at which plaster dries, add beer or vinegar to the formula. Whether the question is about repairing the cracks in a drying terra cotta sculpture or preparing a wall for a fresco, Girard knew the answer.

The motifs that run though the work of Bill Girard are literally the stuff of legend, story and myth. He drew, as was the case with Fauvel, from the whole history of human imagination. His sources were manifold: Egyptian art, Etruscan sculpture, Greek and Roman myths, Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Oriental art, cubism, and mannerism are only some of them.

Girard was something of a miner, plumbing the depths of our historical sub-conscious via the stories we have used to explain ourselves to each other. Chipping away first at this myth, and then at another, he brought us gems of art and design that are also compelling and lively re-animations of our rich human chronicle.

Of course, you've heard this sort of thing before, haven't you? Isn't it all just hype? What makes the work of Bill Girard any different or more interesting than all the others?

Take another look at a Girard painting. Ask yourself, is there anything about it that seems ... different?

You needn't be a particularly acute observer to notice that the common denominator behind most every Girard piece is something akin to humor.

Judy in the Stars. Oil.  Flash Gordon has been replaced by long-time CCS model, Judy Kunesh. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI 1940-2011.

Girard's later paintings and sculpture are light as titanium and just as strong. They are filled with whimsy.

Even the most serious subjects, clothed in earnest paint, 

seem to giggle like naughty children.

"Today," said Girard in the 1990s, "a lot of my 'story' paintings are tongue-in-cheek. After 30 years (as an art instructor), you get tired of pomposity. Now, as I'm older, I think that silliness is one of our saving graces."

Girard's best paintings dance! They are charming depictions constructed of sweet, fluid lines and mellifluous paint. Glaze upon glaze, stroke after measured stroke, you can feel the rhythm inherent in the structure of a Girard.

"I found that I preferred ancient Etruscan and archaic Greek sculpture," Bill explained to me, "as well as Chow and Han dynasty sculpture.

"They share a stylistic energy: a dance of sweeps and angles, stylization and geometric dance," noted Girard. 

"In Han art, there are sweeping angular cloud and dragon shapes. In both archaic Greek and Etruscan sculpture this characteristic is also pronounced. Etruscan pixie eyes and a V-shaped smile. These are characteristics that make me happy."

A Girard painting isn't (generally) an ennobling icon. His art is less likely to grace the ante-chambers of the powerful than the homes of grown-up children who have noticed that the human condition is - ouch! Laughable.

What makes a Girard? I don't know the recipe, but I can taste the ingredients. Joy. Humor. Theatricality. Dance. And a gentle sense of concern, too. All in nearly perfect balance. There's a snappy line that can crack like a whip and color that's as alluring as a hussy.

In the hallway by our bedroom hangs a small Garden of Eden, painted by Girard. It's wonderful.


Garden of Eden. Oil on canvas. 16" x 20 "It was done during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and so that is why the serpent was modeled after Linden B. Johnson..."  Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

Chances are you've seen bunches of "Garden of Eden" drawings and paintings. If you studied art history, you might recall Masaccio's dramatic (fresco) rendering of Adam and Eve being driven from the garden.

Girard's garden grows sweeter fruit.

The serpent is a long, skinny caterpillar with a baboon's face. (He wrote that he was thinking of Lyndon Johnson, as it was created during the Vietnam War.) The angels sweeping into the painting from the right might have been related to Jimmy Durante, to judge by their noses.

And where is Eve? There she is! Look up in the Tree of Knowledge. She's climbed right up in chase of that elusive fruit.

Detail: Garden of Eden. Oil on canvas. 16" x 20" Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011

I ask you, when have you ever seen an Eve sitting on a tree branch? Is this a dynamic, motivated woman or what? This isn't a helpless, hapless Eve. This is a liberated woman.

That's another thing that makes a work by Bill Girard so special. It's liberating. You're always free to smile.

In the 15 years of his life following his dismissal from CCS, Girard remained productive. His work was championed by The Studio Gallery, in Alexandria, Virginia, under the direction of Michael Curtis. Later, the Fiorini Gallery, in St. Petersburg, Florida, gave him multiple solo exhibitions. 

Girard was included in the International Artists' Peep Show (XXX-Rated) at the CFM Gallery, in 1997. The show included work by Leonor Fini and Paul Wunderlich.

To make his mortgage, he solicited art restoration projects from Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan and handled large projects for private collectors, as well. 

For the Semprevivo family, Girard created a beautiful and extensive set of wall and ceiling murals that reflect a strong interest in the Far East.


Detail of a Semprevivo mural.  To my untutored eye, the design reflects elements from Angkor 
Wat, the famous Cambodian temple. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011



Detail of another Semprevivo mural. Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011




They are gentle and romantic - serene, really - manifestations of places Girard never visited, except in his own imagination. But for Girard, these places would not exist at all. Even in these poor photographs, you can sense that they are emotionally true and real, though entirely unlike any existing temporal sitting.

Their wonderfully haunting beauty quite reminds me of works by Narcisse Virgilio Díaz de la Peña that I have seen. Although, I might add, Girard's murals give the impression of greater lyricism.

Bill passed away, prematurely it seems to me, as he felt he could not afford health insurance. His prostate cancer went untreated for too long. By the time he qualified for state care, it was too late.

As he was worried that he would burden his children with funeral costs neither he nor they could afford, I purchased enough art to cover the cost of his cremation. Needless to say, he was very generous with me.

Allen Abramson, too, purchased or at least paid for work that he had previously obtained. Girard told me that Abramson had been more than generous.

In their last face-to-face meeting, which I facilitated, Girard expressed his profound gratitude to Abramson for the chance to create work that he was so proud of.

Girard passed in peace, attended by his son, Christopher, on February 5th, 2011. He was survived by his mother, his son, his daughter, and his ex-wife and friend, Bonnie Silver.

Although I could not attend his memorial, I was told that many hundreds of friends and artists attended. Girard often referred to himself as a pagan. Still, it seems that his temporal wealth proved to be of just the sort that Jesus would have heartily approved of.


Jesus. Oil on panel 10" x 6" Bill denied it was a self-portrait. 
Artist: Bill Girard. Royal Oak, MI. 1940-2011



By Glenn Scott Michaels.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2018.
_________________________________

Master of Mud (aka artist) and former Center for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit,  professor of art, Bill (William J.) Girard Jr., passed away in 2011. The website created to honor him is found at https://girardsvasari.com/

Comments

  1. Have you seen the website? https://girardsvasari.com/
    Lotsa pretty pictures there!

    ReplyDelete

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