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Artistic license to delight

Mark Gagnon ’82 has created art nearly every day since graduation. His sustenance for the work? An intricate tapestry of connections — including lifelong friends from Ohio State.

The corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street is one of the most glamorous intersections in New York, arguably the world.

At this well-heeled right angle of busy sidewalk, important meetings take place: of art and commerce, of ambling tourists and purposeful locals, of history and architecture, of centuries.

Stand on this corner and you can see both the grand entrance of the gilded French renaissance-style Plaza Hotel, circa 1907, and the strict geometry of the Apple flagship glass cube, under expansion and set to reopen in late 2018.

Stand on this corner with artist Mark Gagnon — in front of the mesmerizing 13-foot-tall Bergdorf Goodman window that contains no fewer than 83 sculptures and paintings he made for this display over the past eight months — and you can see that he and his work have landed in their ideal environment.

They are right at home, inhabiting a world where wildly different eras and styles, pigeons and presidents, uptown and down, Columbus and Manhattan, live together to tell one enchanting, exuberant story. Human imperfection, with its many contradictions and complications, is celebrated here with reverence and humor. History is made by hand. As the accompanying placard conveys, each piece is “by Mark Gagnon, inspired by objects from the collections of the New-York Historical Society.”

Every one of the charmingly imperfect creations is identified by a corresponding silhouette and number, in the style of an old-school museum diorama. You could imagine the same sort of key applied to an outline of the artist himself, modestly in situ: 1. Mark Gagnon, Salem, Ohio, native; 21st century; wears jeans and sneakers; works primarily in bubble wrap and masking tape; marvels, “Gucci! Isn’t it incredible?” at a sequined, hand-embroidered couture gown, the one stunner not his own in this window.

The vivid scene Gagnon has created warms and welcomes with brilliant pinks and reds and oranges, purples and greens, fork and fire helmet, flowers, leaders, human and animal eccentrics. “Look at the birds!” one woman says to her toddler in the stroller. “The trellis! Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Babe Ruth!” exclaims another admirer.

The artist feels no need to step up and take credit or identify himself to any of the people now three deep, raising phones, even occasionally putting their phones back down. They consult the pre-Google guide for answers. They show pre-Google joy at discovering something on their own in real life.

“Is that Dolly Madison?”

“I don’t understand the beaver.”

Gagnon doesn’t volunteer that it’s the New York state mammal.

“That’s not a beaver. That’s a raccoon.”

Gagnon looks amused, like this is his favorite kind of art criticism. He’s a fan of slightly askew.

“Mark is a delight,” says Patricia Briggs ’84, ’89 MA, who shared an art locker with Gagnon as an undergrad. “Ohio State gave us that. We really challenged each other then, and we’ve been talking and arguing about art ever since.”

Looking back, she says Gagnon always knew “that popular culture was fascinating and exciting and mattered.” Today, Briggs directs a gallery in Jamestown, New York, where she has shown her old friend’s work. “All these years later, Mark is still driven by a kind of celebration of humanity and people and the things people are drawn to,” she says. “Mark thinks human beings are just so great, so interesting, so delightful. His work does not come from cynicism at all. He loves people. He loves history.”

Gagnon recognizes that the loves of his life, then, converge in this window, in the inspired pairing with the New-York Historical Society.

“This is the best job I ever had,” he says of his assignment to create a “To New York With Love” window paying homage to the keeper of his city’s historic treasures. To him, “the parameters have been the most fun,” the limitations defining the unlimited creative possibilities. “Every object here had to be based on part of this significant cultural collection,” he says. “From there, I had license to experiment, which I did with every single piece.”

The repurposing challenge led to transformations as inventive and extreme as taking the 2D into 3D — which Gagnon did with the museum’s Audubon watercolors, giving the birds modern-day flight on Fifth Avenue as papier-mache show- and stroller-stoppers.

“This is street theater in a lot of ways,” says David Hoey, senior director of visual presentation for Bergdorf Goodman. “There’s too much in Mark’s window on purpose, kind of a deliberate sensory overload. We are in the surprise business, and it surprises.”

Hoey, who has collaborated with Gagnon for many years, selected him for this window endeavor to command a particular kind of attention.

“Mark’s work,” Hoey says, “has a certain immediacy. It’s highly distinctive, extremely colorful, rambunctious. The window is very scholarly, yet psychedelic, which is an uncommon combination. You can see how he loves historic subject matter, to interpret figures and events in his own style.”

Sometimes that style shines a light: There’s a Tiffany dragonfly table lamp (1900–06), its intricate stained glass mosaic rendered in tissue paper (2017, Mark Gagnon). “It actually lights up,” the artist says, as if this functionality isn’t astounding.

Marie Antoinette’s chaise (1779) is there, too, Gagnon’s meticulous interpretation arguably improving on the original. “I really enjoyed making this piece,” he says. “I spent a great amount of time on it. I had to figure out how to best work with my materials, like I used pearlized iridescent paint to stand in for satin.”

It’s an approach and investment that Hoey fully appreciates. “We are very big on craftsmanship
and working with different materials,” he says. “We also wanted to do it with a sense of humor, which is a must in window dressing and a characteristic of Mark’s work.”

Gagnon points out an “absurd little vessel” he made for the occasion, an 1820 soup tureen that’s “almost Dada” in his update. It can’t possibly hold soup; it’s made from paper.

“Oh, and I made two pigeons,” he says. “People ask about their place in history. But they’re just two New York pigeons.”

Who better to carry the message of the city?

Hoey feels the same about Gagnon: “The combination of all these stories layered on top of each other is really something. Mark created for us a masterpiece.”

In the lower right corner of this masterpiece is a charismatic woman whom passersby would be hard-pressed to identify without consulting the key. Gagnon is beaming at her. “That’s Jenny Lind,” he says. “She was this mid-19th-century opera singer, and she was one of those people, kind of the first rock star. She came to New York and everybody wanted to know her.”

Mark Gagnon Bergdorf Goodman holiday window

The bull and bear figures that dominate Mark Gagnon’s holiday window at Bergdorf Goodman were inspired by a rare board game in the New-York Historical Society's collection.

Gagnon came to New York in 1985, “just the right time,” he says. “The city was still rough.” Translation: Aspiring artists right out of school could afford to live here.

At Ohio State, he says, he “met some really important people to meet, who would be important for the rest of my life.” He recalls now-Emerita Professor Barbara Groseclose, who taught an American art history class “that just thrilled me. It opened my eyes. I was just every day into learning who and what came before me, and how to be an artist.”

Straight from Columbus, Gagnon brought with him to New York a commitment to being a working artist. His approach, however, was grounded in practical and financial realities, extending well beyond romantic notions of the big-city art-world embrace that new arrivals have long clung to. It was a durable path that Gagnon makes a point to share when he returns to guest lecture on campus or offer advice to Ohio State art students visiting New York.

“There’s this idealized notion of being an artist versus the necessity of making a living,” he says. “When you’re a student, nobody ever really explains what your life might be like after making that choice.”

He waited tables. He sold ties. He made art. He made it work.

“Mark is one of those few who, for 30 years or so, has been full-time making art every day of his life,” says Briggs, who’s been visiting him regularly, and vice versa, since their locker-sharing days.

Another lifelong friend from Columbus — these connections run deep for Gagnon, often across countries and generations — Beth Wiltberger Ullum ’82 talks about her “super love and admiration” for him. She says from the time they met, both of them working at a racquetball club (this was the ’80s, after all), “Mark has always been so dedicated to his craft. Beyond the extraordinary talent, there’s just something about his personality, the way he looks at life. He’s still so Midwest at heart. All of the wonderful success hasn’t changed him one bit. He’s so genuine and willing to do anything for a friend. He has full-on great relationships.”

Theirs, Ullum says, “has been an integral part of my life,” student days right through her work with the university for 20 years (currently in parent and family relations). She recalls hanging out for hours in Gagnon’s studio on the fifth floor of Hopkins Hall (“I took a lot of black-and-white photos and would do photo shoots of him painting.”) as well as their summer road trips (“We’d say, ‘We want to get to here, and we need this many people for gas money.’”) Eventually, there became “a depth of commitment to friendship” that extended to her kids, Nick Ullum ’11 and Samantha Ullum ’12.

“From the outside, you might think it’s impossible for Ohio State to be so friendly because it’s so big,” she says. “But the reality of it is that you’re going to find your 25 people, your tight 10 people, your best bud. What’s so spectacular about this place is that you can be lots of different things.”

In 2010, when Ullum was part of the team that opened the new Ohio Union, she “had the privilege of bringing Mark in” as the featured artist. “He installed a whole bunch of pieces all over, and people were thrilled,” she recalls. “Add art to public spaces, add Mark’s art anywhere, and people will stop, breathe, think, read an artist’s statement. A building all of a sudden has a heart in it.”

Gagnon put this exquisite bowl on a pedestal, the perfect vessel for these “flowers” (painted dried chesnuts, actually) arranged by floral artist and friend Emily Thompson.
Seven books that Gagnon sculpted topped Christmas trees in the White House Library. Michelle Obama curated the book collection.
The artist created 60 small sculpted reliefs for a Bergdorf Goodman project.
Thirteen portraits of influential Americans hang in Public School 169 in the Bronx.
Gagnon’s illustration of a nurse (and babysitter) charged with assaulting patients conveyed this story’s gravity.
Gagnon crafts these one-of-a-kind urns inspired by classic design.

This heart installation is evident in the way Gagnon’s window animates a city street, inviting people to be curious, to learn something they didn’t know half a block back. It extends to Ullum’s wish to give students the ultimate insider’s tour of the then-new Whitney Museum of American Art, with an official docent and Gagnon, an inspired alum and accomplished artist, as their guides.

When she proposed the idea to Gagnon, “He was like, ‘Oh, I’m all in.’ And you know what he did? He hosted this event the night before that likely changed some of those students’ lives,” she says. “They got to meet him where he lives, talk to him as an artist. They had so many questions that you couldn’t get anywhere near him.”

With Gagnon and his partner of 20 years, Django Voris, Ullum recalls, “We ran around and made these fantastic tablescapes. And we brought this famous chef in, another colleague of ours from Ohio State,” Collier Lumpkin ’06 MA. “It was so magical and so New York.”

A few years ago, Gagnon’s upstate Ohio State friend Briggs mounted an exhibition called “Warhol Effect.” It speaks to the importance of Gagnon in her life that Briggs credits him as the show’s inspiration — more than the six Warhols in her gallery’s collection. Gagnon contributed “all these little wall-relief papier-mache sculptures, devils and wrestlers and princesses and Japanese monsters, drawn from the Internet,” she says. “And he managed to make them completely appropriate in the company of Warhols. People just absolutely loved them.”

In her personal permanent collection, Briggs is the proud keeper of a Mark Gagnon hand-painted papier-mache book that topped an Obama White House Christmas tree in 2015. “Michelle originally wanted actual books,” Briggs says. “But books are too heavy. So they got something even better in Mark’s versions.”

To consider where various works by Gagnon live is a map of sorts — endearing objects as geomarkers — to his enduring Ohio State connections. Ullum is the keeper of his Christopher Columbus illustration in which the explorer sports the finest contemporary menswear. “Mark showed up at my house with him and said, ‘You have to have this because Columbus is where we met.’” She also has the “goat woman” painting from Gagnon’s first Bergdorf Goodman collaboration, when his 4,000-year history of fashion — as worn by animals — transformed all of the store’s Fifth Avenue windows. “Mark gave my daughter the boa constrictor that looks like Madonna,” she adds, “in fishnets and chains! She has it hanging in her house.”
Mark Gagnon

Mark Gagnon '82 stands in front of the holiday window he designed for the 2017 holiday season at Bergdorf Goodman department store.

Mark Gagnon and David Hoey

David Hoey, right, senior director of visual presentation for Bergdorf Goodman, and Gagnon are appreciative collaborators. 

Closest to home, the generosity with which Gagnon has distributed artwork around his South Street Seaport neighborhood demonstrates how much he’s part of the place. His work is everywhere, presenting a community gallery of sorts: a large cow painting and a dotty papier-mache chicken at the farmer’s market; murals of eyes and signage for the local Little Water Radio station, which he named and helped get off the ground; portraits in shop windows of New York notables such as Robert Fulton (as in the Fulton Fish Market, which was nearby for nearly two centuries).

The artist from Salem, Ohio, population roughly 12,000, has found a small town for himself within a city of 8.5 million. “Columbus really prepared me for New York in many ways,” he says. “The Ohio State campus taught me how to socialize outside of home.” Carry that into his current neighborhood, and he says he’s “probably made 20 good friends” just by wandering out the front door of his combined home and studio. Gagnon moved in 1998 to the South Street Seaport — where history has been up close and observable, tangible. He watched 9/11, he says, “right from our rooftop, when there were nothing but fish people living here.” Walk around these streets with Gagnon and it’s clear you’re getting the captain’s tour. He knows his people, in fish and other businesses. He knows his maritime history. He knows things like, “Oh right, Richard doesn’t work on Tuesdays.”

His Walt Whitman portrait hangs above the bar at Fresh Salt, a café in an 1885 smokehouse. It’s one of the 17 locations that was home to Out to See — a cultural festival that Gagnon created for the neighborhood. Under Whitman’s watch, the 6-foot-2 Gagnon reaches up to a mark on the wall about half a foot above his head. “When Sandy hit, it entirely wiped out this place,” he says. “The water was up to here.”

The historic South Street Seaport neighborhood is imbued with Gagnon’s art and his influence. He was instrumental in founding independent Little Water Radio station, and his arresting portrait of Walt Whitman hangs on the wall above the bar at Fresh Salt.
Gagnon helped get Little Water Radio station off the ground.
Gagnon has lived in the South Street Seaport neighborhood since 1998.

Advice for a life in art

There are no shortcuts to a fulfilling (and sustainable) career as an artist. Here are Mark Gagnon’s suggestions, which apply to many fields.

Find ways to meet people in creative circles you’d like to join. Offer to intern, assist an artist, work in a gallery. Put yourself in a world where, when the opportunities arise, you’re there for them. I had just moved to New York, and I applied for a retail job at Macy’s. The creative director was Linda Fargo, who said, ‘I don’t know what to do with you.’ That’s how I ended up helping with window design.

Accept all offers. Trust that a job done well will lead to other opportunities. It always does.

Work every day. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just sit down and make something new. It doesn’t even have to be anything you keep. I’ve done this pretty much every day of my life.

Take risks — whatever that means for you. Experiment in a new medium, approach someone whose work you admire or take another route outside your comfort zone.

On Beekman Street — with its 19th-century facades and sense of time slightly out of step with the rest of rushed New York — is Emily Thompson Flowers. Gagnon wandered in here right after the shop opened about five years ago, to introduce himself as a neighbor and fan.

As he tells it of the papier-mache vases he’d been putting together around the corner, “I came in with these crazy vessels and said, ‘I make these things.’ And Emily was like, ‘Yeah great, put them in my shop.’ We became friends.”

Says Thompson, in her small shop crowded with wild things, including giant leaves and yellow and orange poppies and stunningly blue traveler’s palm seeds: “We just found each other kindred spirits. There’s a very particular aesthetic to both of our work. Definitely the dark side represented, but also humor in there.”

They’ve been collaborating since, and their work together has been featured in Architectural Digest and on the seventh floor at Bergdorf.

“I’m very animated in my approach,” Thompson says. “I like to push my flowers into conflict with each other. It’s like they’re animals fighting for their meals. Or gathering around water. It’s about nature inhabiting the architecture. It has absolutely nothing to do with flowers in a vase, really.”

This room for reinvention — artistic license to play with how we conceive of nature and structure, people and precedent — clearly delights them both.

And it always connects back to history, its indelible sites and characters. Thompson chose to set up shop here, she says, “because of this wonderful tradition of being a merchant in a place of the original merchants of New York.” Then she adds, smiling, “also because of Moby-Dick.”

Whether the mythical mammal of inspiration is a white whale or a state beaver, a lifelong friend from a college roadtrip or a new neighbor, if you are Mark Gagnon, the form is always up for reinvention. For moving forward. For finding new ways to show your hand in art and history.

“I like the mistakes,” Gagnon says. “Everything is temporary for us. Everything is imperfect. So why not push that?”

Take in the treasures

If you missed Mark Gagnon’s stunning window display at Bergdorf Goodman, it’s not too late to catch up with it. The New-York Historical Society is featuring items from the display in a long-term exhibition at its museum at 170 Central Park West. You also can follow the artist on Instagram @mark_gagnon.

About the author

Amy Goldwasser

Amy Goldwasser is a New York writer, editor and consumer of art who helped reinvent Ohio State Alumni Magazine in 2017.