fantastic… but lousy advertising clip

those culture jammers….

by Art Chantry (

I really love checking out the early careers of those well known culture jammers. the people whose work is so powerful and so prominent that we take for granted that they’ve always been exactly what they now seem to be.

We have this ‘cult of personality’ that passes for knowledge in our culture. the idea that there are ‘great men’ whose genius and wisdom and karma guide us through the world and our lives in it. we tend to bestow upon these people way too much credit. most of them, strangely, are just people, human beings, “folks just like us.” it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. they have humble beginnings and even have been known to put their pants on one leg at a time.

So, I really get off on finding “humble beginnings.” a good example is the early work of the legendary Peter Max that i wrote about a while back. he was “just another hack” illustrator before he glommed onto the style that made him famous – a style he “appropriated” from a dozen other, better, practitioners of his era. now, we remember him as an icon of the 60′s decade and even credit him (in some circles) for creating psychedelia, a claim that is as ludicrous as it is ignorant. but, there it is floating around like fact. garbage in/garbage out.

AC:i just can't help but imagine how depressed he must have been to sell his wonderful little images to a 'clip art' company. all the guys i know who ever were forced to do that have always felt bad about it (think of all the 'crap work' you've taken on just to make rent). so, after all the years of drudgery i've endured while doing what i do, i can't help but empathize with the low point he must have been hovering at. little did he know that just around the corner was the greatest dreams fulfilled. he just needed to hold on a little bit longer. thank god he didn't quit on us.

The career of the legendary dr. suess is also full of humble beginnings and ups and downs. at this point it’s hard to believe that a guy whose work is so prominent and pervasive and so damned classic ever struggled to make a living. but the facts are, that he hard a VERY hard go of it from the very start.

I have book that documents some of his early ‘advertising’ work (if you can believe he did advertising.) he also did cartoon ‘gag panel’ work (quite mediocre) and there is also a book out there of his propaganda work for the war effort. a while back, a weird sculpture popped up on antiques roadshow that some guy found in some junk. it seems dr. suess in dabbled in the fine art world!

The mere fact that all this stuff has been documented and archived and published speaks to the impact and importance of dr. suess in our culture. we love him so much we try to preserve every thing he worked on as somehow worthy and important. it’s hard to find a more beloved figure closer to our hearts. we all grew up with him, he was a surrogate grandparent for many of us.

So, it came as a sad surprise when one day, while perusing an old clip art book i own (i collect clip art. charles spencer anderson told me i have one of the best clip art collections in the country), i tripped across several pages of clip art im

y that looked surprisingly familiar. I kept double-taking on them and realized that they looked JUST LIKE DR. SUESS images.

This weird little clip art book was published by a company called “valdes associates.” there were several volumes in the set i have (this one particular volume is titles “borders, noodles, doodles & nuggets”), but most of this stuff has been re-published many times over the years (as has most clip art).

This particular company is peppered with artists who either, 1) made a habit of closely copying styles of other more famous artists (there is a really bad version of saul steinbergs’ style in here, for instance. i least i don’t THINK it’s steinberg). or, 2) actually ARE these famous artists moonlighting as hack advertising clip art sources. there are several pages of images that look so much like dr. suess that it just plain HAD to be the case.

I did some checking around and, yes, dr. suess actually did make extra money doing clip art, particularly during the period just before he released his first seminal children’s books. he was just trying to earn a few bucks. a popular way to do so was to knock out some clip for a stock house.

These images are obviously not very good clip art. they have almost no use for any application out there at all. but, they really look cool and they really speak to the direction suess’s mind was heading in his other art. they are fantastic and fantastical. but lousy advertising clip. it’s almost like the clip art company here was just doing him a favor buying the stuff because they liked him so much (not an unusual practice at the time).

so, it’s reassuring to know that the great and legendary culurtal icon dr. suess actually had such hard times that he stooped to drawing clip art for uncopyrighted usage out there.

seems sorta pathetic and sad. think how down and discourage he must have been as he knocked this stuff out (just for a few bucks to survive). yet, it’s so whimsical and wonderful. it’s like he just couldn’t retrain himself.

it’s a good lesson to remember as we all work on our stuff. even godheads like THE dr. suess started off as a total loser just like you.

Art Chantry: i have an old peter max poster (a stop smoking poster) that i had hanging up for a long time. i stared at it forever and finally figured out he did the entire thing in three three-color split fountains! two crisscrossing splits (one vertical and one horizontal) for the background colors and one additional split for the line art. there wasn’t any black ink on it at, but it still had more colors than a rainbow in it. it was a brilliant piece of production work, actually. i’ve tried to duplicate the gimmick myself and come up way short of what he managed to pull off – and all in three simple passes through the press!

he was brilliant print designer and a brilliant hustler. i just think his style is terribly derivative. that’s all. not a leader, but a follower.

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