Elwood Smith: From Famous Artists School to Becoming a (Real) Famous Artist
Do you remember the Famous Artists School ads on matchbook covers and in the back of magazines like Life and Look and The Saturday Evening Post? If you’re over a certain age and your scribbles and paint dabs had been selected to be on school bulletin boards since kindergarten, you might have been intrigued, as was I, by headlines such as this: “A Fascinating… Money-Making Art Career Can Be Yours,” “Test Your Art Talent,” “If You Can Draw This…”
If you could draw the dog or the pirate or the pretty young woman, the ads promised, you could win the contest, which afforded a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find and nurture your real, hidden talent and open up an exciting, glamorous, well-paying career in magazine illustration and advertising art!” And you would be guided by the famous teachers pictured in the ads: Norman Rockwell, Jon Whitcomb, Dong Kingman—the guys who illustrated the glamorous covers and the fiction pieces in those magazines.
I took the test in high school—and even though I drew a bathing suit on the dog and dog-fur on the woman—a Famous Artists School salesman came to the door of my family’s house in suburban Inglewood, California. My father kicked the poor guy out, shouting: “No one ever flunks your phony test, do they? It’s a racket, to sell your expensive correspondence-school program!” Although I was embarrassed by Dad’s bluntness, I kind of believed he was right. And when I read Jessica Mitford’s book Poison Penmanship, which eviscerated Famous Writers School, a similar operation that also ran out of Westport, Connecticut, I was sure he was right.
Until a few weeks ago, when an article entitled “The Draw of a Mail-Order Art School” appeared in The New York Times. The news was that the Famous Artists School archives, including more than 5,000 pieces of original artwork, had been donated to the prestigious Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Famous people had taken the course, reported the article, and a few did go on to enjoy fascinating, money-making art careers. Really? Anybody I knew? “Few students ever parlayed the course into a career, either,” reported the Times, but some did, to impressive effect, like Elwood H. Smith, a revered illustrator and cartoonist whose work has appeared for many years in The New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal and in numerous children’s books.”
Elwood Smith! I knew him! I’d commissioned his distinctive cartoon-style illustrations for projects like corporate magazines.
I immediately picked up the phone, gave Elwood a call and asked about his experiences with Famous Artists School. Here’s what he had to say about the school and about his career in general:
Elwood, you told the Times reporter that you took the Famous Artists School test in 1959. What was your parents’ reaction to you becoming a cartoonist? And how did they feel about paying the tuition?
After graduating from high school, I began working in a local factory. Attracted by an Albert Dorne advertisement with his caterpillar eyebrows, I sent in one of their “How To Draw” contest entries and, like almost everyone else, I didn’t win, but I did attract a salesman. I can’t recall if my parents paid for the course, or if I did with my factory wages. But it seemed a good idea to develop my skills in the evening while working a day job to ready myself for art school.
Did you feel, as the article stated, that no one ever flunked a Famous Artists School test — or that getting in meant that you really had talent?
I suspect that anyone with the money for the course could get in. I may have had more talent than some, but I doubt anyone at the school cared about that.
Did you think it was a good course?
It was! I learned how to draw cartoon characters and quite a few things about perspective. As I recall, the Cartoon Course had 24 lessons and I think I finished twelve. I saved most of my course materials:
It looks like you really practiced drawing those chase figures! Where did you ultimately go to art school? Was there a cartooning major?
After working for a year in the factory, I had enough money for a year’s tuition at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art, which Mrs. Nancy Feindt, my art teacher at the local high school in Alpena, Michigan, had recommended. I owe a huge debt to my Mrs. Feindt. She nurtured the artist in me and showed me that I could make a living making art. I majored in cartooning, but it was only a two-year school and, other than for life drawing, the teachers were less than stellar. The cartoon instructor was a sweet man, but not an inspiring teacher.
Sorry to hear that. What were your first jobs like?
In art school, I worked as an usher and then a stock boy in a small supermarket. After graduation, I couldn’t afford to freelance, so I took a job at Irving-Cloud, a small publishing house an hour north of Chicago. I worked there as an assistant art director for a couple of years and then landed a job in the art department at the department store, Marshall Fields. After six dreadful months there, I became an advertising agency art director. While working at Arthur Wilk Advertising, I began working on my illustration portfolio and then worked at a small art studio before starting my own, Ink Studios in Chicago, with two buddies. That venture was short-lived. I was represented by another studio for a while before becoming a full-time freelancer.
Can we back up a little bit? You started cartooning at an early age, right?
Yes, and when the other kids stopped drawing pictures, I kept on making them. I can’t say why, exactly.
Who were your favorite cartoonists as a kid?
I loved the Sunday comics and comic books and focused on them with laser eyes. I compared styles and decided who was top-flight and who was a lesser artist. Although I read them all, the best of the best, I decided, were the comic strips: Popeye, Barney Google and Pogo. In my earliest years, I examined the pictures, and then, once I learned to read, I absorbed the words along with the artwork. I read many comic books, including Superman and Batman, but the funnier strips like Little Lulu and Popeye were my favorites. Later on, in the 1950s, I discovered the artists who drew for EC Comics, like my favorite, Jack Davis. He made great art for comic books like Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales and The Vault of Horror. I couldn’t come close to drawing like Davis, but I was able to get some of the energy of these earlier influences into my own work.
Did you go to museums as a child and teenager or have any other early art influences?
My parents didn’t have literature or art in the home, and Alpena was too small for a museum. We didn’t get a television set until I was about 15 years old. My only exposure to art came from The Saturday Evening Post—Norman Rockwell covers, cartoonists, John Gallager and John Severson inside—and the comics.
When did you come to New York? Whom did you work with then?
I arrived in New York in the fall of 1976 and started freelancing. After a couple of years, Seymour Chwast called me and invited me to join Push Pin Studios. They represented me until my late wife, Maggie Pickard, began to rep me in 1982 or ’83. My assignments were mostly from magazines, advertising and The New York Times.
Who have been some of your best clients?
I’ve had many fine clients over the years, but I must say, working for editor/science writer Dennis Overbye and for New York Times art director, Peter Morance, has been a joy. I’m also very happy with my new publishing company, The Creative Company. But, again, I’ve worked with many wonderful art directors, graphic designers and editors over the years, too many to list here. It has been a good run.
What is your favorite project of all time?
My favorite project was not an assignment, but a show of my work at the Norman Rockwell Museum—the NRM—for my 70th birthday.
Congratulations! How did you first get involved with the Rockwell Museum?
The NRM had invited me to group shows over the years, and I got to know Stephanie Plunkett, the deputy director-chief curator, and Laurie Norton Moffatt, the museum director/CEO. As my 70th birthday approached, I screwed up the courage to ask Stephanie if I might have a one-man show at the museum. That show, “Elwood’s World,” was a highlight of my career. And, to top it off, they had a birthday party for me the day before the show closed. I cannot praise the wonderful staff at the NRM enough. I gave several lectures there, such as “On Process” and gave a media tour. They honor illustration as real art and don’t have the condescending attitude present at most “fine art” museums.
The first time I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum was back when it was in the Old Corner House in Stockbridge. The docents were telling people, “Rockwell wasn’t really an artist, he was an illustrator.” That sent me into fits. I said out loud, “Yeah, and Michalangelo was an illustrator too; he did commissioned work for the Medicis.” But they’re not apologizing any more, are they?
On the contrary, every single person I’ve met at the NRM has been enthusiastic about the art of illustration. No apologies proffered, none necessary.
What are you doing with them now?
I’m in the process of donating a large portion of my work and book collection to the museum. I know they’ll take good care of my stuff long after I’m gone. I’ll soon be moving to Great Barrington, and I am delighted that I’ll be a stone’s throw from my favorite museum.
Do you have an outstanding project worth showing off? There’s still time to enter the 2014 RDA.
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