Matt Groening leaves his mark on Baltimore

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening had been signing autographs in Baltimore for nearly an hour when a fan asked him to draw on his body.

Sam Gallant, a radio personality who works for WTMD and WYPR, wanted Groening to create an image of Herschel Krustofski — also known as Krusty the Clown — on his right biceps. Gallant said he planned to go to a tattoo artist and have Groening's handiwork tattooed on his arm.

"Are you sure?" asked Groening, who came to town this fall to celebrate the opening of "What Makes Us Smile?" a yearlong exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum that Groening co-curated with set designer Gary Panter and museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger. "Don't you want to see what I draw first?"

Gallant was insistent, so Groening (pronounced GRAIN-ing) took out his pen and started drawing. The happy fan returned to the museum several hours later with his arm in a bandage, the tattoo complete. "I grew up watching 'The Simpsons,' " he said proudly. "I think I am who I am because of 'The Simpsons.' "

The Krusty tattoo is just one of the ways Groening is leaving his mark on Baltimore. Featuring contributions from more than 90 artists, including such luminaries as filmmaker John Waters and humorist-physician Patch Adams, "Smile" is one of the most well-attended exhibits mounted since the museum opened 15 years ago this month.

Enlisting celebrity curators such as California-based Groening and New York-based Panter, the set designer for "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," represents a new direction and something of a coup for the museum, which features self-taught artists who work outside the mainstream of the art world. Their participation has helped draw attention to the current show and give visitors an idea of what to expect. As Hoffberger puts it, Groening is "responsible for making more people laugh around the world than any human walking the planet."

A resident of Santa Monica, Calif., Groening took time out from his latest visit to Baltimore to explain how he became involved in "What Makes Us Smile?"

Question: How did a Baltimore museum snag you to help curate its latest exhibit?

Answer: The American Visionary Art Museum is my favorite museum. I love this museum. To be a part of this show is fantastic. I want to salute the artists. … I think they have done an amazing job.

Q: How did you discover it?

A: My older son used to go to Goucher College, so every time I would visit him, I would come here. I read about it, and I love the gift shop This, to me, is the center of Baltimore.

Q: What do you like about it?

A: I'm fascinated with unusual art, and that's what you find here. When I came for the first time, I couldn't believe it, it made me so happy. The gift shop is a museum of contemporary pop ephemera as well. And I like the way they've reused old buildings. … It's a national treasure.

Q: How did you go from being a fan of the museum to serving as co-curator of its latest show?

A: When I came here for the first time, I went though the museum and I went to the gift shop. I have to admit, I was partly curious to see if they carried any "Simpsons" merchandise. I thought, wouldn't it be neat if there was something from "The Simpsons" here? And as it turned out, there was. I was so thrilled to be part of the museum.

Q: What did you see for sale?

A: I don't remember exactly. A Bart Simpson eraser, maybe. I felt so good, I went to the salesperson and said, 'I had something to do with this.' I guess I was feeling less humble than usual.

Q: We heard you bought a souvenir with a credit card, and the people in the gift shop, owner Ted Frankel and salesperson Stevi Everett, recognized your name and made a fuss over you.

A: That's right. It's coming back to me now. I left my business card, and Rebecca [Hoffberger] contacted me later to see if I would meet with her the next time she was in California. She said she had an idea for an exhibit about humor and asked if I would be part of it. I thought it was a great idea. Plus, it gave me an excuse to come back and look at the art.

Q: What do you think of the way the exhibit turned out?

A: It's fantastic. Better than I thought it would be.

Q: Will you be back?

A: Whatever they ask me to do, I'll do. I'm glad to take some of the weight off John Waters' shoulders. He's the go-to guy around here, isn't he?

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