Friday, June 23, 2006
"This boy’s gonna be a commercial artist."
I was in the 8th grade [ca. 1927]. I always drew pictures and they used to lend me to the high school to draw pictures for the high school paper. I guess the principal really thought I was going to do something someday, because I was a pretty bright kid. I didn’t start going downhill until high school. As soon as I met girls, my grades went to pieces. A phrenologist came to town and evidently he gave the principal a free pass and she took me there. I remember being in this hotel room and this phrenologist feeling my head! And then he said to her, "This boy’s gonna be a commercial artist." I didn’t know what a commercial artist was. Never heard the term before.
-- Jim Flora to Angelynn Grant (interview), November, 1990
Perhaps the tale is apocryphal. Flora was, after all, a storyteller. But if the above incident really happened (the discredited "science" of phrenology retained an antediluvian flock in the early 20th century), it either speaks well for determining vocation by the bumps on a kid's noggin -- or it was a lucky guess.
After Flora left the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1939, he cultivated a modest clientele in his hometown, mostly corporate and retail accounts. "I began to do work for Procter & Gamble," he recalled. "Dull, terrible work for point-of-sale things. I would draw people washing diapers, things like that." In the late 1940s, while employed by Columbia Records -- and dissatisfied that he had been promoted away from graphic design -- he began accepting outside assignments. Flora's freelance career took off in the early 1950s after his Mexican caper. Because his mortgage was at stake, he stood at the crossroads of art and commerce. An artist pleases himself; a commercial artist must please a client, and by extension the marketplace. Flora surely faced pressures to compete and to indulge art directors and sales brass, whose own mortgages hinged on the outcome of his graphic problem-solving; consequently, some assignments were less art and more like -- jobs. In a 1998 interview with Steven Guarnaccia, Flora admitted, "When I was freelancing, I had to do a lot of work I wish I hadn’t had to do."
Here are two examples which may or may not have been fun to do, but let's agree they're fun to look at. "You and Your Allergy" appeared in Collier's, August 1956, and "Boston's $50 Million Mile" ran in Collier's, May 1956. No need for graphic forensics. Just admire the master's handiwork.