Who Put the El in Elwood?

To find out who put the El (and everything else) in Elwood, and for more about Mr. Elwood H. Smith, enter his wild and wonderful world at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Elwood’s World: The Art and Animation of Elwood H. Smith is the  first in an ongoing series of exhibitions honoring outstanding contemporary illustrators at the museum tucked away in the snowy hills of Southwestern Mass.  The exhibit runs from the Opening Event on February 19  to May 15, with various special talks as well. On view will be the artist’s original imagery for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and many other publications; favorite children’s books like The Truth About Poop and Hot Diggity Dog; and moving imagery for unique, hand-drawn animations.

Here is an excerpt from my essay in Mr. Smith’s catalog:

Elwood H. Smith is a perfect cartoon character’s moniker. Therefore it is fitting that the artist whose name it is – and who sometimes answers to “Wood” – draws in a goofily sketchy manner that recalls the classic strips of twenties and thirties. Smith arguably channels the likes of comic strip masters Frederick Burr Opper (“Happy Hooligan”), Frank Willard (“Moon Mullins”), Elzie Segar (“Popeye”), Walter Berndt (“Smitty”) and Russ Westover (“Tillie the Toiler”), among many others of their ilk, synthesizing, repurposing and ultimately producing original creations that are unmistakably “Elwood.”

“Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and all the comic characters brought me to the drawing board,” he said in an interview in Innovators of American Illustration (Van Nostrand 1986). “I read ‘Pogo’ and didn’t understand any of it but liked the drawings.” And let’s not forget George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat,” “one of my biggest influences today,” Smith added.

Had he lived when his comic strip heroes flourished, he would doubtless have fathered a few popular syndicated comic strips of his own. But he was born into the latter part of the Twentieth Century (May 23, 1941 in Alpina, Michigan, to be exact), and evolved into an artist after the golden age of newspaper comic strips was long over. Fortuitously, the era of ribald Underground Comics was just starting when he was in his early twenties. However, Smith didn’t take that route, either.

2 thoughts on “Who Put the El in Elwood?

  1. Elaine Young

    Great Illustrations. As a designer of 30 years, it is inspiring to see “True Illistrators” still producing original dynamic artwork. With the new artists coming out of schools and with the new technology I hope that this authentic creative production of great illustrators continues in the industry.

  2. Stephanie Plunkett

    Thanks for your outstanding essay, Steve. We look forward to welcoming everyone to the Norman Rockwell Museum to enjoy more than two hundred of Elwood’s drawings this winter and spring. The installation includes the artist’s own musical compositions, his 2 and 3D animations, and a recreation of one of his “gravity” pictures in which objects literally rain from the sky. A great photo-op!