signs and signifiers: the snapper

He is made out to be an original traveling troubador, but the reality is more varied and complex in the case of Woody Guthrie than being a mere singer of Cantos in the transplanted Spanish heartland of dust bowl America. America was undergoing its major crisis of creative destruction that is endemic to the economic system and the likes of John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos captured the spirit of common people adjusting to waves of populism that marked the final thud of Victorian industrial capitalism, pre Keynes that is indicative in the patterns of behavior written by Edith Wharton. There were also two competing views of America’s future; Veblen who had no real confidence in democracy and saw technocracy as the end result of capitalism with representative and universal suffrage as being merely a transitional phase, and the more sociological approach of John Dewey who saw democracy with more elasticity and hidden potential. …

A snapper was jargon  for sign painters, culled from the snap of a chalk line to layout the text, and the  propensity for traveling itinerants to snap up the jobs as they came into town of which sign painting was choice work for those of talent.  Guthrie used his sign illustrating and lettering skills and not his guitar, to make his way early on.

“Contrary to popular mythology, it was with paint brushes in hand, not a guitar, that [Woody] Guthrie hit the road for California. He had hocked his guitar . . . and it was his artistic skills that he brokered for room and board.” –Nora Guthrie

---A raunchy ink sketch signed “Woody” on lined paper. It is obviously a World War II pro-enlistment drawing. It shows a passerby speaking to a sign painter (and Woody started off as a sign painter), stating that if he wanted more boys to enlist in the Army, “I don’t think you should cross her legs in times of war!” The sketch is in fine condition with a central fold; there are some marks to the lower border which are likely Woody’s fingerprints. --- Read More:

from NPR: There is no hard evidence that Woody Guthrie ever formally studied art. There are hints that he took correspondence courses, art supply lists that one would assume were made in class, instructive notes on shadow and form, and postcards from an art museum. What we do have are thousands upon thousands of pieces of art, line drawings, and color and form—some just barely squiggles, two oil paintings, brushwork, pen-and-ink illustrations, political cartoons, portraits, children’s art, and a handful of pastels—that speak to us from ledgers and notebooks, decaying construction paper, and sketchbooks. Lost, more than likely, are hundreds more, distributed to friends and family, left behind in his many travels, sold to survive, gone. What remains is evidence is that Woody Guthrie was a visual artist….

---Image courtesy of The Woody Guthrie Foundation. Original Artwork by Woody Guthrie (c. 1948) Colorized by Steven Brower © Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc Copyright 2004 by the Woody Guthrie Foundation--- Read More:

…In fact, it was in the visual arts that Guthrie first began to express himself creatively. Growing up in the frontier towns of Okemah, Oklahoma, and Pampa, Texas, he displayed a flair for cartooning and caricature, utilized frequently to amuse his classmates. Throughout his life he continued to paint, draw, sculpt, pot, letter, and design, often earning a living as an advertising designer, portrait artist, sign painter, illustrator, and landscape artist. He was as passionate about his artwork as he was about everything else he created and experienced….

---From a list of folk singer Woody Guthrie's 1942 New Year's resolutions: a collection of low and high goals. The second page gets more metaphorical and far-seeing ("19. KEEP HOPING MACHINE RUNNING"; "31. LOVE EVERYBODY"). The item before "PLAY AND SING GOOD" strikes a pang: "SEND MARY AND KIDS MONEY", a reminder of the family he'd left behind for the rambling' lifestyle. Culture-making, however great, always comes at a cost. This July will mark the 100th anniversary of Woody's birth. --- Read More:

…Guthrie’s approach to creativity was a symbiotic wedding of art and text. Did the images support the lyrics, or vice versa? There are no clear distinctions. Sometimes the artwork was created first, with text overlaid, and other times he created the lyrics and then illustrated them. Pictures were created to reinforce words; words pictures. Within this yin-and-yang relationship Guthrie created a dynamic, uniquely integrated art form, in which one is not complete without the other.

Still, to date, little has been seen of Guthrie’s total creative output. Although his art has been published in conjunction with his writings, usually poorly, there are hundreds of pieces that exist independently. It is all assembled here for the first time, displaying surprising depth, variety, and a highly refined understanding of composition and expression. And just as Guthrie himself defied classification—as a folksinger, writer, poet, entertainer, radio personality—so, too, does his art. It is at once illustrative, abstract, socially conscious, bawdy, comical, and serious. With a wide spectrum of media Guthrie created art that stands on its own merits and is an integral part of his overall creative métier….

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---Guthrie’s visual art is documented with over 300 plates, almost all in full color—even for many of the line drawings, thereby capturing the ambience of blue-lined notebooks, yellowing journals, and decaying construction paper—in Woody Guthrie: Art works (New York: Rizzoli, 2005). --- Read More:

…Beginning as a commercial artist, Guthrie first earned money as a sign painter, displaying a facility for the vernacular typography of the day. He would also paint large murals on storefronts, signed simply “Woody.” One, advertising Cudahy Bacon, led to a job offer from a Cudahy executive passing through. He’d illustrate various products and submit them to companies, receiving job offers, cash, or food in return. He would also draw caricatures of bar patrons, receiving money or drinks as payment. While on stage entertaining he would even draw cartoons to keep audiences amused.Read More:

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