Bill Heeter bought his first animation cel from “The Simpsons” in the early 1990s. Then he bought another. You know how this story goes.
“Two led to four and four led to this insanity that I have now,” Heeter said.
Heeter, who lives in Colorado Springs, estimates he has 700 to 800 cels from the Fox animated series, along with probably that many more from Chuck Jones’ run at Warner Bros., the work of Dr. Seuss and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Some of them he hadn’t seen in years.
“I’ve got all this wonderful art and it’s in boxes and under the bed and in the closet, everywhere except where people can see it,” he lamented one day to his wife, Kristi Correa, who lives in Tacoma. “And she said, ‘Well, stop whining. Call up some museums and galleries, and see if they want to show it.’ ”
That conversation took place across the street from the Tacoma Art Museum, and not long after, Heeter met a kindred spirit, curator Margaret Bullock.
“When he first came in the door, he was telling us about the other collections he has, like Warner Bros. and Dr. Seuss,” Bullock said. “And then he dropped ‘The Simpsons,’ and I was like, wait, wait, wait, back up.”
Bullock felt the collection merited consideration on several levels. The museum’s mission is to display the art and artists of the Pacific Northwest, and series creator Matt Groening ticks that box. He grew up in Portland and went to The Evergreen State College, where he contributed non-“Simpsons” drawings and stories for the school newspaper.
And as a fan of the series from its start as shorts between skits on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” Bullock sees the genius in the show that’s been skewering pop culture and American life for more than 30 years now, making it the longest-running scripted series in prime-time TV history (Season 31 debuts in September). In fact, she proved herself something of an expert as she enthusiastically dived into Heeter’s collection.
“I don’t memorize every scene and piece of dialogue over 30 years, but Margaret pretty much does,” Heeter said. “I’m amazed at her memory. She (looked over the collection) for two days, we’re doing dialogue back and forth, recapping certain scenes, ‘Do you remember that? Have you seen this before?’ There are 700 or 800 cels in the collection, and I think she had a hard time narrowing it down to the 150 that are in the exhibit. It was just a lot of fun.”
That sense of fun carries over into the highly stylized “Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family” exhibit. Designed by Ben Wildenhaus, it marries elements from the show with the cels, helping create a colorful three-dimensional context for the two-dimensional art form. There’s a brown couch for family photo opportunities, just like in the show’s opening, and the exhibit is alive with small details that evoke memories of the citizens of Springfield.
Bullock said there are nods to the Pacific Northwest peppered throughout the series. Some of the names in the series come from Portland street names. And then there’s that episode about the monorail, which is pretty much everybody’s favorite.
“I’ve always thought personally that one is sort of Northwest connected because it’s about this boondoggle project that’s sold to this town to have this little monorail that runs from one part of town to another that really has no point,” Bullock said.
Sound familiar, Seattle?
The exhibit highlights what Heeter thinks are the golden years of the series before the show was completely digitized after Season 13. The cels were hand-drawn and colored, and had an unruliness that mirrored the show’s spirit.
Heeter says he’s constantly improving and culling his collection. Cels of secondary characters — his favorites are Mr. Burns and Moe the bartender — sell for about $450. Perpetual fourth grader Bart goes for $100 more. The whole family — Bart, Lisa, Maggie, Marge and Homer, named for Groening’s parents and siblings — goes for $650 to $750. The most valuable pieces come from the show’s “couch gags” during the opening. These comedic bits are rare and include original backgrounds, selling for around $2,000.
Far too much money for the collection to sit in boxes.
“I want people to see it,” Heeter said. “I have room on the walls for 15 pieces, not 1,500.”
“Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family,” through Oct. 27; Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $18 adults, $15 students and seniors, free for children 5 and under, free 5-8 p.m. Thursdays; 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org