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'The Simpsons' invade TAM

America’s longest running family show explored

The cloud wall with 'The Simpsons' animation cels. Photo credit: Gabi Clayton

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There's never been a show like Bart at TAM: Animating America's Favorite Family at Tacoma Art Museum. One of the larger galleries at TAM has been turned into the home of the Simpsons: Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa and Maggie, and many of the 80 some odd supporting characters from America's longest running family show, The Simpsons.

Not only does the show feature more than 100 created-by-hand animation cels, scripts and drawings by Matt Groening and his team of animators, but visitors are greeted by a life-size sculptural recreation of the living room sofa featured in the opening scene of every Simpsons episode, brilliantly painted walls, fluffy cartoon clouds suspended from the ceiling and many other additions to the art on display.

Wall texts and hands-on displays provide a history of the show, now in its 30th season, and examples of how the art is developed from preliminary sketches to finished animation.

Full-color animation is created by painting on cels, transparent celluloid sheets that can be overlapped with other painted cels to create changing scenes. A background of a swimming pool, for example, can be overlaid with cels that picture Lisa and her friends swimming, or a scene picturing the town of Springfield can be overlaid with various pictures of Bart skateboarding. This prevents the artists from having to laboriously recreate each scene over and over. The fascinating thing about seeing the cels displayed as art is that you see actual three-dimensional images complete with cast shadows, which is marvelous to look at and something never seen in the televised cartoons. As another example of this, there is one on view in which one of Bart's eyes is on a separate cel from the rest of his face and casts a shadow on his cheek, and another in which each of his legs is on a different plane.

The gallery walls have been painted in the colors of the cartoons, brilliant blue and yellow and pink. The large cut-out clouds hang from the ceiling in front of a sky blue wall upon which more than 15 animated cels are displayed. The adjacent wall bright chartreuse. Elsewhere are vivid yellow and fuchsia walls and standing panels, and these primary colors are offset in the cels by more muted tones of blue and purple and teal that keep the overall effect from being too bombastic.

It is well known in this part of the country that Groening is a native of Portland, Oregon, and a graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia. He created the original series as a series of animated shorts for The Tracy Ulman Show in 1987. The Simpsons as a stand-alone series began in 1989.

Throughout the run of the show, there are ongoing activities such as studio facilities that allow children to make their own flipbooks and cartoons, a special day for homeschooled children, cartoon trivia night, and an illustration-drawing rally where visitors can watch local illustrators at work and talk to them about their processes. All special events are detailed on the TAM website.

This show is a laugh riot, and the art, if not on a level with the pop imagery of Warhol and Lichtenstein, is pretty darn close.

Bart at TAM, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through Oct. 27, $18 adults, $15 students and seniors, free for military and children 5 and younger, Neighborhood Nights Thursday from 5-8 p.m., Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258,

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