Category Archives: Paper

Sincerely Yours

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True confession: if I wasn’t an artist and designer, I’d probably be an archivist (and a kick-ass one, at that). The recent book Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art resonated with me because it dovetails those two personal loves – art and archiving – so well. Mary Savig, curator of manuscripts at the Archives, selected 55 standout examples of artists’ letters from the museum’s files to be reproduced in these pages. Each letter gets printed on a full page (or more), alongside context-setting descriptions of what happening in each artist’s life written by an art historian.

Once one gets through Savig’s scholarly, too-analytical introduction, these letters offer a lot of enjoyment and surprises. More often than not, they afford glimpses of the casual, candid sides of otherwise dusty names. Several letters are simple, lovely salutations to family and friends, while others delve into weightier matters.

The correspondence in Pen to Paper came from the desks and workspaces of many big names, including Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Cornell, Mary Cassatt, Isamu Noguchi and Eero Saarninen (gee, but Mr. Saarinen’s writing sure was precise). Arranged alphabetically by artist’s name, the letters range in age from the early 19th century up through 2004, when handwritten letters had been replaced by e-mail. Superficially, it’s a cool book to page through and drink in all the different handwriting and paper styles on display. Many of the mid-20th century letters’ descriptions make reference to the Palmer Method, the classic “cursive” penmanship style commonly taught in U.S. schools. Although the writing is often hard to decipher (on purpose, in the case of The New Yorker‘s Saul Steinberg), the full contents of the letters thankfully get neatly typeset in the back. Which were my favorites? Content-wise, the one that resonated deepest came from earth artist Robert Smithson, who lamented in 1971 (rather presciently) about art being prized for its material, investment value over its life-enriching properties. There’s also an excellent letter from the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (an artist I’d never heard of) that delves into racial identity in a way that seems strikingly contemporary.

Pen to Paper is available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Pen to Paper spread with Ray Johnston letter.

Maxfielf Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Maxfield Parrish letter with his elegant handwriting (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Howard Finster letter with funky portraits (Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art).

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Edward Weston spread with a 1936 letter.

Slip Me a Mickey, or Two

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I love vintage newspaper comic strips, their rich visual language, and what they say about the period they were printed in. When it comes to re-introducing vintage comics to a new audience, Fantagraphics is one of the best – repackaging often overlooked strips in handsome bound volumes with expert commentary and historic tidbits. In 2011, they teamed up with the Disney company to take on the task of republishing their Mickey Mouse daily comic strip from its classic 1930s era onward. It’s a fabulous project, still ongoing (the ninth volume, Rise of the Rhyming Man, publishes this month). I’d even go as far as to pronounce first volume, Race to Death Valley, as the best book of this type I’ve ever seen. Although I’ve been reading and collecting Fantagraphic’s Complete Peanuts books since they first came out in 2005, the quality of the the first two Mickey volumes has prompted me to switch (besides, Charles M. Schulz, bless his soul, got kind of safe and bland by the mid-’70s).

Probably the most significant thing these Mickey Mouse books does is to put the name of its artist and writer, Floyd Gottfredson, front and center. Although Walt Disney himself drew the first Mickey strips from the late ’20s, he eventually came to rely on a team of men to write and draw the strip –despite Disney’s unique signature printed on every installment. Initially hired as an in-betweener in Disney’s animation department, Gottfredson quickly appealed to the boss to take over duties on the daily strip. Disney waved his magic wand and granted Gottfredson his wish in 1930. Smart move on Disney’s part – the then 25 year-old Gottfredson ended up guiding the Mickey Mouse strip for a full 45 years! That’s nearly as long a tenure as what Charles M. Schulz had with Peanuts.

Gottfredson truly put a lot of vivacity and spunk into the Mickey comic, complementing the rodent’s screen image as the scrappy underdog with a heart of gold. The cartoonist transformed what had been a standard gag-a-day format into a thrilling adventure, with broad, character-filled stories which would unfold for months at a time. His first important story was Mickey Mouse in Death Valley, which had Mickey and Minnie Mouse on a frantic search for a desert gold mine belonging to Minnie’s wealthy uncle. In typical Depression-era fashion, they’re pursued by colorful heavies, including crooked lawyer Sylvester Shyster and his dumb henchman Pegleg Pete, along with a mysterious figure known as The Fox. It’s a rollicking tale, with each panel brimming with wonderful details (did Gottfredson slip in a white-haired cousin of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?). In other stories, Mickey takes on a fearsome cat boxer named Creamo Catnera (a play on real-life champ Primo Carnera), becomes a roustabout at a circus, and tussles with a band of greedy gypsies. In the latter story, Mickey and Minnie’s friends Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow take on a prominent role. I love how Horace and Clarabelle are the pragmatic older couple pals of impetuous Mickey and Minnie – sadly, their prominence in the Disney cartoons and comics would diminish as the ’30s went on.

Each Fantagraphics Mickey Mouse volume highlights Gottfredson’s best stories from a certain period, in chronological order. While Race to Death Valley covers the years 1930-31 (overlapping into the first week of 1932), the next volume, Trapped on Treasure Island, picks up where the previous one left off, reprinting strips from January 1932 up through the first week in 1934. I purchased both of these volumes at a great discount at Daedalus books. They’re also available via Fantagraphics’s website and (of couse) at Amazon.com.

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Golden Adventures, Brushy Animals

Cornelius De Witt illustration from The Golden Encyclopedia (1946).

Cornelius De Witt illustration from The Golden Encyclopedia (1946).

I feel the need to do a catch-all post sharing the vintage kid books which we’ve come across lately – so here it is! These three books were all acquired at thrift stores and used book sales. For admirers of vintage 20th century illustration, they’re especially great. They are:

  • Adventures in Geography, written and illustrated by Gertrude Alice Kay (1929; revised 1941). A globe-spanning story of a young boy and his eccentric uncle taking a luxury steamboat voyage to exotic locales, described in detail and illuminated by Ms. Kay’s lovely, impressionistic watercolor drawings. The visuals have a classic storybook flair with saturated colors and rounded edges. Gertrude Alice Kay led a fascinating life. Apparently the contents of this particular book first appeared in issues of Ladies Home Journal magazine. It’s a charming, evocative little book.
  • The Golden Encyclopedia, written by Dorothy A. Bennett; illustrated by Cornelius De Witt (1946). This large-format book is a typical encyclopedia, explaining things like plant and animal life, history, industrial production, games, music and geography in a way that’s informative yet never condescending of its young audience. What attracted me to this book was De Witt’s incredibly detailed illustrations, many of which take up an entire page in this 10×13-inch volume. It’s 126 pages, with artwork on nearly every page – an incredible undertaking!
  • The Big Book of Animal Stories, compiled and edited by Margaret Green; illustrated by Janusz Grabianski (1961). A compilation of famous animal legends and stories, brightened by beautiful, brushy artwork by Polish artist Grabianski. His work is delicate yet robust, and filled with joy. Hopefully my photos will suffice, but the blog The Art of Children’s Picture Books did two posts sharing plenty more images from this marvelous book.
Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

From Adventures in Geography by Gertrude Alice Kay.

The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

From The Golden Encyclopedia, illustrated by Cornelius De Witt.

The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

From The Big Book of Animal Stories, illustrated by Janusz Grabianski.

Funky ’70s Kid Books, Back in Print

Whenever a vintage kid book is brought back into print, my mouth breaks into a grin. Anyone who has ever set foot in a thrift store or library knows that kid books in particular tend to get battered, folded, spindled, mutilated and affixed with random PB&J sandwich stains over time. With especially rare child-oriented books, the chance of finding a still-pristine copy of an obscure treasure becomes almost nil. That’s why it’s heartening to see Princeton Architectural Press bring back two ’70s kiddie books done by a pair of design/illustration legends, Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, reproduced as they were when originally printed. Both The Brownstone (1973) and The Pancake King (1971) deliver ’70s-funky yet timeless messages for kids and adults in colorful, large-format editions.

A gentle “be kind to those different from you” theme runs through The Brownstone, which follows a family of bears as they attempt to hibernate in their big city apartment. The Bears merely want to settle in for the winter, only they’re interrupted by a piano-playing cat, dancing kangaroos, a timid mouse family, and a gourmet pig family. Mr. Bear calls on the landlord, Mr. Owl, to help them out of their predicament, resulting in a game of musical chairs where the tenants all change places. It ends harmoniously, of course. Paula Scher was a young designer at CBS Records when she wrote this book, enlisting the help of cartoonist Stan Mack (of Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies). Mack’s pen-and-ink illustrations are lively and detailed. I also enjoyed the way Scher laid the book out (I’m assuming she designed as well as wrote) with spreads that show a cross-section of the brownstone on the right, while other spreads have chaotic vignettes from the story on the left-facing page. Kids will love studying the characters’ expressions and seeing how they react to being moved from floor to floor in the building. It’s a fun story with a solid, subtle message.

Illustrator Seymour Chwast was already well-established with the legendary Push Pin Studios when he decided to lend his art to a whimsical Phyllis La Farge story about a boy who loves making delicious pancakes. The Pancake King also has a timely message which will resonate with today’s kids about the satisfaction of loving what you do, regardless of what will come of it. The story follows a boy named Henry Edgewood, who attracts attention from his family and neighbors for his great homemade pancakes. Henry’s notoriety also draws in a shady businessman, Arthur J. Jinker, who makes Henry famous by taking him on a glitzy pancake-selling tour. Henry soon realizes that making pancakes for fame and riches isn’t fulfilling, however, so he returns to being a happy, humble Pancake King for his parents and his faithful dog, Ezra. Chwast’s funky, organic style of art is all over this book, printed in a color-drenched wide format. To adults, Chwast’s art has a vaguely nostalgic look reminiscent of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, although kids will find appeal in his curvy, colorful style as well. As a bonus, the book contains a recipe for Henry’s pancakes – yum!

The Brownstone and The Pancake King are available at Princeton Architectural Press or Amazon.com.

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Look What I Found: Two from Raymond Briggs

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I spent the last quarter of 2015 delving into the work of Raymond Briggs, the indubitably British cartoonist, graphic novelist – and it’s taken me this long to do a post about him!

It started last October, when I received the birthday gift of a Blu-ray edition of When the Wind Blows, the 1986 movie adaptation of Briggs’ story of an elderly British couple preparing their rural home for a nuclear attack. James and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft) are a typical, kindly and even-tempered duo who greet the upcoming bombings with a mixture of cheerful optimism and pragmatic naiveté (“There’s no need to forget your manners just because there’s a war on,” Hilda cautions her husband during a rare outburst). With bone-dry, observant humor, Briggs points out the absurdity of this quaint couple preparing for nuclear annihilation as if it were a minor inconvenience in the simple routine of their lives. The movie itself is one of the most unique animated efforts ever made – director Jimmy Murakami stages the action with traditional animated cels photographed against miniature sets of the Bloggs’ home. Most of it preserves the colored-pencil shadings of Briggs’ work, although other scenes are done with expressionistic methods more in keeping with the anxious soundtrack from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. This is an amazing movie with perfect voice-acting from Richardson and Ashcroft. Twilight Time included a lot of worthwhile extras on the Blu-ray, although the main one – a feature-length documentary with Murakami returning to the site where he was interred as a child in World War II – was a disappointment.

Viewing When the Wind Blows sparked an interest in the book which piqued my interest in Briggs in the first place – his acclaimed 1998 graphic novel, Ethel and Ernest: A True Story. This was Briggs’ poignant chronicle of his own parents’ courtship, marriage and deaths, told chronologically from when they met in 1928 up through the early ’70s. Mr. and Mrs. Briggs greet war, child-rearing, labor and politics with a typically British “cheerio, can-do” unflappability – the fact that they so closely resemble Mr. and Mrs. Bloggs is no coincidence. This couple seems much more real, however – Briggs captures them as quirky and all-too-human, yet worthy of admiration. I read this book last December, around the same time that I got to check out Briggs’ classic TV special The Snowman for the first time. Briggs’ elegantly shaded pencil lines have roughened up into jagged chicken scratches over the years, yet this book shows how his parents’ ordinary lives – facing incredible societal changes with grace and good humor – reflects the very spirit of the United Kingdom.

When the Wind Blows is available at Twilight Time’s website, while Ethel & Ernest can be had cheaply at AbeBooks.com.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Film still from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Animation drawing from When the Wind Blows.

Picture disc single of David Bowie's "When the Wind Blows," 1986.

Picture disc single of David Bowie’s “When the Wind Blows,” 1986.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Page from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

Panel from Ethel & Ernest.

A ’70s Disney Fan’s Scrapbook

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I was delighted to receive an unusual gift over the holidays – a perfectly preserved scrapbook kept by a Disney fan in the 1970s. Christopher got this in an online auction, explaining that he originally intended to take some of the rarer paper ephemera out of the book and ditch the rest. We both ended up thankful that it was kept intact.

From what I can tell, this scrapbook was kept by a young kid, probably about my age (b. 1968), who likely lived on the East coast of the U.S. The earliest dated item is a small Disneyland pamphlet guide from 1975, while the last items are news stories promoting Disney’s first PG-rated feature, The Black Hole, from December 1979. This kid saved everything – souvenirs from Disneyland and Walt Disney World, toy packaging, wrapping paper, mail-in items promoting Disney collectibles, TV Guide ads for Disney movie broadcasts, even an example of the little blue Mickey Mouse price tag familiar to many a Disney park visitor of the time.

Apparently the most loved Disney thing to this particular fan was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Live On Stage, a limited engagement musical which premiered at Radio City Music Hall on October 18, 1979. Strangely, the scrapbook has nothing at all related to The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, two favorites of mine from that era (1977).

They saved the groovy outside packaging on this SCRAP BOOK.

They saved the groovy outside packaging on this SCRAP BOOK.

Helpful into on '70s Walt Disney World.

Helpful info on ’70s Walt Disney World.

River Country closed? Waaah.

River Country closed? Waaah.

The magical little blue price tag.

The magical little blue price tag.

WDW shopping bag, newspaper ad for Sleeping Beauty re-release, cut up LP cover.

WDW shopping bag, newspaper ad for Sleeping Beauty re-release, cut up LP cover.

The Winnie the Pooh Sunday comic strip never ran in MY paper.

The Winnie the Pooh Sunday comic strip never ran in MY paper.

Brochures from Disneyland and Anaheim hotels.

Brochures from Disneyland and Anaheim hotels.

Snow White lives again, according to the NY papers.

Snow White lives again, according to the NY papers.

Wrapping paper for every mood.

Wrapping paper for every mood.

Dumbo Pop varieties and hard candy wrappers.

Dumbo Pop varieties and hard candy wrappers.

Does Richard Schickel still think it "simply blows one away!"?

Does Richard Schickel still think it “simply blows one away!”?