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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Marilyn Conover Interview; Part 2

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif

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MC: I didn't have a baby when I started [in the illustration business] but my husband was never able to take care of us. Before there was that women's lib crap and all that stuff I was - are you married?

LP: I am, yeah. We have two teenage sons.

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MC: Did your wife work during their childhood?

LP: I was fortunate to make enough as an illustrator that she could stay home with the boys until they were ten or eleven years old.

MC: That is heaven. If I could have been able to do that - but I couldn't. The day they were born my husband came up to the hospital and gave me a comprehensive sketch to do. We were working together at that time. I did have a second child but - I mean, it is a devastating thing for a woman to be in that kind of competitive business. It was very competitive and I had to be the best or we sank. To do that and try and be there for your children is an impossibility.

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MC: I mean I was there and I did it but I look back with the most painful feeling about all the years I illustrated. Getting into New York and onto Time magazine and all that - it was nightmarish. A woman with no help. We split up after about seventeen years when the children were about twelve and nine and it's not a happy thing for me to talk about and I almost feel sick thinking about all those people.

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LP: Wow.

MC: I mean I loved them but... oh, another one (kind of a third rate one, but) Bob Abbett? Have you talked to him?

LP: I actually featured his work not too long ago, yeah.

(below, a 1964 Bob Abbett illustration from Reader's Digest Condensed Books)
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MC: Well I don't know that I can add any more, darling. I really don't know that I want to go back anymore. I'm 84 and I've done it. If you have specific questions that I could answer factually, ok, but I don't want to start digging up or talking or reading or writing or anything about it. I really don't.

LP: Sure, I understand. But even so, I really appreciate that you took this time to tell me all of this. That's just great.

MC: Well, bless your heart. Oh! John Gannam! Do you know his work?

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(above, 1949 ad art by John Gannam)

LP: Yeah, I've written about John Gannam as well, sure.

MC: Oooh man, he was great! The one's we loved the most were Al Parker and John Gannam - oh, and then Bernie Fuchs - he came along a little later.

(below, 1960 ad art by Bernie Fuchs)
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LP: Of course. Now, I have to ask you; was he a big influence on your work? Bernie Fuchs?

MC: to a degree, yes.

LP: What about Bob Peak?

MC: No, if anybody, Bernie Fuchs was everybody's saint. He was about two years younger than I.

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(above, 1960s story art by Bernie Fuchs)

LP: When you lived in Westport did you know him personally?

MC: No, at that time in Westport it was a very clique-y group.

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Who was the other one... oh, Bob Heindel. You know him? He was another one of that group of Bernie Fuchs' friends.

(below, Robert Heindel story illustration, 1967)
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MC: By that time I was single and it was very new for a woman to be doing that type of work, illustration, in the '60s. So I didn't know Fuchs but I'll tell you who I did know... and I don't remember her last name, it was... Gloria something... and she was the wife of one of the artists and I loved her and she worked for me all the time as a model; the wife of one of the Westport artists and I know Bernie Fuchs used her a lot, too. And she used to say to me, "Marilyn every time I go to the library I bump into one of their wives. And every time I go to look through Albert Dorne's reference files one of the wives is there - and when I go to pick up photos from the photographer's, the wives are doing all the work. How the hell do you do it all?" And I said I just did it.

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MC: I mean their wives did all that stuff so they [the artists] could stay in their little ivory towers of talent and greatness and self-importance. And the men would all go to lunch together at the different places. I mean they never became as big as Andrew Wyeth or deKooning or any of the great artists - so these people had to keep instilling in themselves how important they were.

LP: Now, did you feel excluded from all that because you were a single woman?

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MC: No. Nooo. I didn't feel excluded. We were all just independent illustrators. We were all just too busy working.

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Continued tomorrow

Marilyn Conover Interview, Part 1

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A few years ago I tracked down and phoned Marilyn Conover, an artist whose impressive work I'd just then discovered. I was expecting to have another in what had become a series of pleasant strolls down memory lane with another remarkable illustrator of the mid-20th century. In fact, Marilyn Conover, 84 years old at the time we spoke, had virtually nothing good to say about her career during that 'golden age' of the commercial art business. Conover's candid recounting of a time I imagined would be filled with fond recollections of past accomplishments was actually so off-putting to her that she told me it was making her physically ill to discuss it with me. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif

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LP: I found this series of illustrations you did for a story called "Here Come the Brides" by Geraldine Napier...

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MC: Oh God, that's early stuff. That was in... '61 or '62... I was in Westport CT when I did those and working for some goofy studio in Boston, I think. I went on to be represented in New York and did my best stuff... Time covers and illustrations for magazines... and then I went on to portraits from there.

LP: Well I'd love to know more about that - about your whole career, in fact.

MC: Well, I used to do all the beautiful girls standing by televisions and new refrigerators and all that. The magazines were crammed with gorgeous illustrations back then.

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LP: Yeah, I just love all the stuff you find in the magazines back then; Al Parker, Al Dorne... all the guys from the Famous Artists School...

MC: That Famous Artists School was a piece of crap. I mean those fellows didn't do the correcting [of student assignments].

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It was right there in Westport, a few blocks away from me, and the only artists who did any of the correcting were guys who couldn't make it in the real illustration business anymore. And they were never allowed to handle the same person - the same student - more than once.

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MC: It was started when a bunch of those gorgeous guys got smashed at a party and thought it'd be a great idea - and it was! - and they made money forever, I mean ten or twenty years. When I used to go get the train to New York I used to go by the plant every day but, I mean, that was just a sham to get money out of little people in Dubuque and everywhere else.

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MC: I mean if I was an artist working there and I wanted to follow up with you and you wanted to follow up and ask me questions; if you wanted to contact a real artist, you couldn't do that because they didn't want you to develop a relationship with a real artist because that would circumvent the slobs that were running the thing. I mean I can't tell you how much I wouldn't use that 'school' as a beacon of any sort. And those guys in the beginning, I mean they invested in it and that was that.

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LP: Can you tell me about the beginning of your career?

MC: I started out with Bielefeld Studios in Chicago...

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... then with Kling Studios (that was a big studio).

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They had Tom Hall and Howie Forsberg - that was huge at that time in Chicago. Do those names ring a bell? Tom Hall?

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LP: Oh, absolutely. I've talked to Tom Hall's daughter as a matter of fact. So were you working in Chicago or was that long-distance work?

MC: I was born in Chicago. That's where I started. That's where I worked for my first 'name' studio and where my husband, who was also an illustrator and had been a Marine, worked for Gil Elvgren.

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LP: I'm sorry, did you just say your husband worked for Gil Elvgren?

MC: He was his apprentice, yes. Why?

LP: Marilyn, I don't know if you're aware of this but today Gil Elvgren's originals sell for as much as two or three hundred thousand dollars each.

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MC: Oh, we used to be in the studio when he was painting the damn things. You know, they were really beautifully done... what did you say; two or three hundred thousand each?

LP: Yeah.

MC: Oh my god... he was thirty five when Hendrick [Marilyn's husband] and I were twenty. We were just wide-eyed apprentices but...

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... you know who Dave Garroway was? He was the first one to do the Today Show out of Chicago - he was part of this whole party group we had with Gil and Joyce Ballentyne. She worked with Stevens-Gross with Gil Elvgren.

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LP: Maybe you could explain something to me... were they all students of Haddon Sundblom? Because I know he had many apprentices and they all have sort of a similar style...

MC: Gil was. Oh yes, Haddon Sundblom invented the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. He made Santa Claus the big, jolly, chubby guy we all know today.

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MC: His son jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge or one of the bridges, I think. He was not too great a father.

LP: Oh my gosh!

MC: But... that's happened to a lot of great people. Y'know, it's making me sick. I don't want to think of those years anymore. They were the hardest years of my life.

Continued tomorrow

Murray Tinkelman on Alex Ross: "He was vastly underrated."

Friday, April 11, 2014

In May of 2009, I interviewed Murray Tinkelman about his career. Our far-ranging discussion included many sidebars; one in particular, about Alex Ross, provides a fitting conclusion to this week's series on the artist... ~ Leif


LP: There was a guy at Cooper's who left before you got there... a guy named Alex Ross.

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MT: Yeah, I knew Alex.

LP: Oh really?

MT: Yeah. He did leave before I got there. The covers he did for Good Housekeeping were wonderful.

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MT: But he could also do a sexy woman...

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... he was also very innovative. 

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MT: He's second only to Al Parker in his innovation and experimentation.

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(Above: one of eight Alex Ross illustrations from Cosmopolitan magazine, June 1956. Ross did each illustration for each story in a different style - repeating a feat previously accomplished only by Al Parker, to the best of my knowledge)

LP: I'm so happy to hear you say that, Murray - especially you - because when I look at Ross' work, I see a lot of departure from the traditional look of that period.

MT: Absolutely.

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LP: And I look at that stuff and I wonder: "How come this guy isn't getting more attention?"

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MT: I haven't got the slightest idea.

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MT: I'm still trying to get Alex into the [Society of Illustrators] Hall of Fame. I showed a about half a dozen of his slides at our last Hall of Fame meeting.*

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MT: Y'know, I was boarding an airplane in a small commuter airport about seventeen, twenty years ago... and we're on the tarmac. (There was no jetway, you just went out onto the tarmac and up two steps into the plane). And there was a guy in front of me - a very handsome guy - and he was carrying a package under his arm.

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MT: ... and it looked like an illustrator's package because it was neatly taped and so on. And I kinda strained my neck and bent way over and I see a return address... and it's Alex Ross.

LP: Wow!

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MT: So I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, "Mr. Ross, I'm a huge fan of yours. I've admired your work for years!" "Oh really," he says, "and what's your name?" "Murray Tinkelman," I says. "Oh, I've admired your work, too!"

LP: Very cool.

MT: Yeah. Y'know, when his illustration career ended, Alex Ross turned to painting.

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MT: And he painted untold numbers of absolutely gorgeous semi-abstract floral paintings - maybe 20" x 30" acrylic - very bright, very cheerful... joyous paintings. 

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MT: I don't think they were really heavyweight, but they were incredibly sellable. He'd have an annual one-man show every year for maybe six or eight years at Joe DeMers' gallery on Hiltonhead Island. He was a terrific artist, vastly underrated.

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Addendum: In a 1980 speech about Ross’s achievements as an illustrator, Fred Whitaker, long-time American Artist writer and celebrated water colour painter, likening his work to such famous American illustrators as Remington, Homer and Hopper.

Whitaker said, “When the story of today’s art epoch is written, there may well be general agreement that the real art contribution of the mid-twentieth century was that of the illustrators and commercial artists. I know of no artist who experiments more than Ross in approach to the mode of presentation; in color, in the manner of applying paint, in his brushing, in the use of new angles of compositional arrangement. His one great fear is that he may become static, even afraid of copying himself.”

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* To date, Alex Ross has not been inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

The Norman Rockwell Museum Presents: Baseball, Rodeos, and Automobiles: The Art of Murray Tinkelman - on view through June 15, 2014

“Baseball, Rodeos, and Automobiles” celebrates over 60 years of artistic creation by Murray Tinkelman, one of the nation’s most prominent illustrators, educators, and illustration historians. The exhibition explores the artist’s interests, imagination and evolving technique, including elaborate pen-and-ink drawings that have become his trademark.

Alex Ross: "... a mind unencumbered by academic regulation..."

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Below is the first Alex Ross illustration I ever saw. It was more than ten years ago and I was just getting seriously interested in mid-20th century illustration. This piece intrigued me. Such a lovely girl... such a knowing look... such nerdy glasses... and such an orange sofa.

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That slightly unsavory looking fellow making entreaties... I don't think he knows who he's dealing with. Neither did I...

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... but I had a feeling I'd stumbled on someone worth investigating further. This Alex Ross was different somehow.

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Alex Ross once said, "As one who has experimented with practically all known mediums, materials, and tools, and has, I hope, a mind unencumbered by academic regulations, I am disappointed that I have not yet come up with that secret technique to mystify all the experts."

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"I am convinced, however, that my experiments are not wasted."

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Alex Ross was indeed tirelessly experimental in the art of picture-making. He wrote the words above in 1962, but it was already evident to Norman Kent when he interviewed Ross 15 years earlier in 1947: "Your newest work is losing its slickness," said Kent, "and I attribute this in large measure to your experimenting with mixed methods."

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"One of these days an art director will call you up and tell you not to bother with making a finish - that he is going to make color plates right from your sketch."

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(It happened in Cosmopolitan magazine, 1956 ~ L)
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Ross' experiments with media and style - and with subject matter - only accelerated during his busy 1950s period. "I believe I spend more time planning a picture than in the actual painting," said Ross. "The subject is my first consideration. At this point I face a crucial decision. I am one of those odd people who have a genuine liking for both modern and traditional painting."

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"Where this paradox will lead me is anyone's guess."

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Continued tomorrow
 

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