Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Andy Virgil - Part 3: Studios

What was some of the preparation Andy entered the illustration world with?

In those days when he was copying Rembrandts at the Met, he went about it as closely as he could to approximate the techniques of the 16th and 17th centuries. Following an incredible little book, rich with The Secret of the Old Masters by Albert Abendschein (D. Appleton and Company, © 1916 ), he ground his own paints with mortar and pestle, added the various mediums, gessoed his work surfaces, then built up such paintings by layering one tint placed over another: he under-painted in dark tones as did Rembrandt, then picked up these portraits with grays and whites,

and lastly laid on his layers of colors. Then glazed, varnished. I still have this book with Andy’s annotations regarding the painting of flesh tones. And that glass pestle.

Now he had to begin work in his chosen field and he had to produce a portfolio. Though I did not know him back then, I do recall him mentioning Fredman-Chaite, so I am guessing that was one studio he approached when seeking a job as an apprentice. I do not know what he showed them in order to display his own talent and dedication to art. Or if he only told him of his art education.

What he landed was a job at Cooper Studios some time in 1951 as an apprentice for their fabulous group which included stars like Joe de Mers, Jon Whitcomb, Joe Bowler. Andy cleaned their palettes, their brushes, acted as all apprentices in art studios: they were errand boys, cutting mats, probably delivering jobs, a veritable "gofer." But he was observing everything about this commercial art business. Apparently he especially befriended Joe de Mers whose work he admired. And de Mers kindly took Andy under his wing and loaned him his own photos with which to create his samples. Again, we have the pattern of Andy’s life: working late into the nights alone at his art. He did this at Cooper.

Also while he was there, and I am guessing it was only about a year or so before he built up his own portfolio, it seems there was a young woman who worked there, too. She appeared and disappeared from time to time. (I never got the impression from Andy that she was one of the artists. When he spoke to me of her, his recollection was of her casually washing the eternal coffee cups that everyone used.)

It turned out that this woman had tuberculosis, about which not enough was understood . Certainly, not by the general public. Suffice it to say, in those days, prior to 1952 , there was no real cure for it. It was called "arrested," at best, when in pulmonary tb the scar tissue built up over the diseased area[s] in the affected lung, and the fever abated, as did the cough, and the night-sweats. So she worked some of the time -- until she fell ill again. Then, a while later, she would return to work.

At that time, Andy was ready to strike out on his own. And we return to that rainy "Autumn in New York" afternoon in 1952 when he walked into Rahl Studios for the first time. And was promptly taken on as a member of that ‘stable’ of artists.

There were about 16 – 20 people there. I am not sure of the exact number. Several of the artists worked in the NYC studio which was made up of a series of partitioned cubbyholes for the artists. I think it was on the 14th floor of the French Building.

(Later, they moved nearby to 45 West 45th Street to a larger spread.) Those artists who utilized ‘in house’ space worked off a 60/40 percent commission. Those who worked from home gleaned a larger cut at 70/30 percent. There were several artists who commuted from such places as Norwalk and Westport, Connecticut and a couple came from Pennsylvania to New York City when their jobs were ready to be delivered by the sales staff. Rahl had a brother-in-law, Leo Vallen, as one of his salesmen; there was Norm Heffron, Roland Galen, (the latter two dealt more with out-of-town clients) Phil Rahl, of course (when he was in town from his Black Angus farm in Washingtonville, New York) and his extremely competent studio manager, Willard Seymour.

There were about three apprentices, one of whom -- George Walowen -- ultimately moved up to do artwork and/or sales (I’m not certain if it was both or just the one ) and there was Vinny Dwyer, I recall . Also with artistic talent. They delivered the art, cut the mats, prepared the samples from tear sheets which the sales staff would take around to the agencies and magazines. And in slow times between jobs, an artist would work up fresh samples for the salesmen to use to drum up business. There was the Costume Researcher (in later years they were dubbed Fashion Coordinators), myself who booked the models, obtained whatever any of the artists needed for their jobs, props from skis to peignoirs, period costumes, photos rented from Bettman-Archives or from the N.Y. Public Library. Sometimes it ranged from Victorian love seats to Eames chairs, and frequently clothes for the models who rarely had what we needed. One quickly learned to have a back-up outfit even when models said they had what we asked for. You could not waste time on a shoot if the clothes they brought were no good. You had to proceed, full tilt, regardless. Likely the clock was ticking on another model hired on that same job. Or another photo session was scheduled immediately after. Often clothes were purchased by me ahead of time just for the shoot and then returned to the department stores ASAP so the artists didn’t have to incur more expenses than they already had.

At this point it is interesting to note that all expenses for models (and prop rentals on a job) came out of the illustrators’ commissions. At the same time, the practice for New York photographers was to bill the clients for all this! I was incensed to learn of this inequity, and the artists often complained mightily about how unfair it was. But they did nothing about fighting it. Because of these costs, whenever possible, artists would use their own possessions for props, or take photos within their homes and use family or friends to pose for them. Much that appeared in Andy’s work came from our home. Including our felines and our Irish setter who was in this Dobbs hat ad,

our antiques and my clothes and my homemade curtains. And from 1963 on, our daughter ! Many times over. (Her rates were reasonable.)

In my ‘spare’ time I maintained a "scrap" file on every imaginable subject clipped from magazines. The scrap served the artists and was often incorporated into their illustrations via the "Lucy" (or camera lucida, that mainstay of the commercial artist) when they had to place photos of their posed models on shipboard or in a country setting, in a ballroom,

or in a factory or a kitchen, bedroom , etc. Last, but key as all were for the functioning of Rahl Studios, was a secretary /receptionist/ bookkeeper.

Some of the artists and/or those who were added on in the years I was there included Fred Siebel, Dorothy Monet, Oskar Barshak, Robert Patterson, Leo "Dink" Siegel, Phil Dormont, Ben Prins, Boomy Valentine, Al Muenchen, Raphael Cavalier, Herb Saslow, Roy Cragnolin, and later Fred Otnes and Arpi Ermoyan were added. There was a single photographer, Jerry Kornblau. (He, much later, opened his own antique shop in the city catering to such as Andy Warhol.)

It seemed to me as an outsider that, generally speaking, these people each had their own illustration niche and hence were not in close competition with one another. Once in a while, though, if an artist was chosen by a client but was too booked up with other work, a salesman might in those early years offer as a substitute someone like Dorothy to fill in for Andy. Or Siebel who originated "Mr. Clean" right there at Rahl in the ’50s , or possibly Muenchen could fill in for Dink Siegel’s semi-cartoon animated figures. That sort of thing. I don’t recall this happening often though. Muenchen, an incredible talent whom Andy liked a great deal, was the car man. In a pinch, if Muench was unavailable, Roy Cragnolin might fill in for him. Another artist Andy particularly enjoyed was Fred Siebel, a brilliant, complex and multifaceted individual. Dink Siegel was loved by all – especially by all the models! If they were lost sight of between posing for a job and coming out to the front desk to get paid, one only need go back to Dink’s cubicle and there they would be. Dink was a genuinely sweet laid-back fellow – and a chick magnet. Our in-house balding but crew-cut bachelor, a Gary Cooper type, with a slender hooked nose. And he was also one of Andy’s poker buddies. Dorothy Monet was a rare charmer with friends in theater and movies like Shelley Winters, Robbie and John Garfield, the Lee Strassburgs whose daughter Susan visited the studio one day for she was interested in commercial art, Clifford Odets, Artie Shaw. Dorothy was a beauty of many talents. Decades later, I was stunned to see that it was she who wrote the tv script for a fine production on the artist Mary Cassatt for PBS.

Tomorrow: Name Droppings

Anita Virgil is an internationally anthologized haiku poet. She lives in Forest, Virginia.

Entire contents of these posts on Andy Virgil (both text and pictures) © 2007 Anita Virgil. Nothing may be reproduced without permission of the author.

* A selection of Andy Virgil's original art is available from Graphic Collectibles.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Andy Virgil - Part 2: The Dreamer

Andy Virgil was born Andrew Virgil Calafatello in January 1925 in New York City to Sicilian immigrant parents. He was the middle child of three. His mother, Josephine, a highly skilled seamstress in New York’s garment district, was the one who encouraged his artistic expression from the time he was very young. Andy was endlessly drawing planes and cars then. He did not draw the clunky cars he saw of the 1930s,

but, as his older sister told me, “He was visionary. He drew cars of the future. Like those of today . . . sleek, modern.”

And he was fascinated by the beauty of aircraft, a passion that lasted all his life. (Below: WW1 Fokker and Richthofen and his men.)

But school was something he did not like. Often caught gazing out the windows instead of listening to his teachers, when asked what he was doing, he replied he was looking at the clouds and drawing the pictures they made.

For junior high school, he attended P.S. 83 in Manhattan and, according to his sister, Ethel Luciano, while there he worked occasionally for the WPA artists at Harlem House Settlement House. This was his contact with professionals who noted the abilities that his school teachers had to have observed.

I think it likely this is where his precocious talent was encouraged, and it is my guess these people he met up with would have known to suggest he plan after high school to attend a school like Pratt.

But after graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School at 115th and East River Drive, Andy went to work for a while in a marble-sanding factory and then was drafted into the army. He served about a year in the states as an artillery man and was, of course, with his vision, a crack shot. But a long-time arthritic condition of the spine that began to plague him in his teens led to a medical discharge. (About this condition, as about all later physical problems, he was a complete stoic. Never complained, just constantly popped aspirin.)

This, then, was the time for attending Pratt. By then he was definitely a freewheeling “artistic type.” (I have a snapshot he treasured of skinny him, wild-haired astride a motorcycle!)

He graduated from Pratt, then went on to Cooper Union. He continued to pursue his studies under Reginald Marsh at the Art Students’ League. In his very early 20s, he was also setting up his easel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he was given permission as a student to copy huge paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt. (Below: "Lady with a Pink" and "Head of Christ" by Rembrandt)

In 1954, taken by Andy to “meet the family” before we married, I was overwhelmed by the small and very ordinary row house in Flushing, Long Island whose walls were groaning with these huge masterworks in gilded frames. (And, of course, there was also the cheery little Sicilian donkey cart on the end table by the plastic-covered gold brocade sofa! Our daughter, Jennifer, adored that trinket above all else at her grandparents’ home -- and remembers it to this day.)

Though both parents were aware of his talent, Andy’s father, Guiseppe, took a dim view of his son’s desire to make a career in art. Holding down two jobs to barely care for his family of three children, Andy’s father saw no future to his son’s dream. His recommendation was that Andy should learn typing so he could get “a real job” as a clerk for the City of New York and have security. But Andy was determined to pursue his ambitions. He vehemently refused to heed his father’s suggestion. A volatile relationship existed between the father and his maturing son. In all fairness, it must be said that many years after, when Andy’s star was rising and his work was appearing all over, his father was heard bragging about him – to others. And, it is also interesting to note that Andy’s younger brother, Mario, became a professional commercial photographer (his studio , Mario Cal, was on 57th Street near Carnegie Hall) . He still teaches his craft for the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Andy’s older sister, Ethel Luciano, became a school teacher and has helped fill in some of these childhood recollections.

I have a feeling, in retrospect, that Andy’s core of toughness derived from those early confrontations with his father where he learned to stand up against what he felt to be wrong and at the same time doggedly pursued what he felt was right. This trait was to play out mightily in his career. And it also rose to the surface on rare occasions in his life when he stood up and dealt with someone he felt was being a bully. (When you are as slight of build as he always was, you choose your battles carefully. But neither would he back down when confronted by injustices done to others.)

Growing up as he did on the streets of East Harlem, he was exposed to many types of people, and he learned to be a shrewd judge of character. He used to regale me with stories of some of the Mafia-types who collected their money from the little neighborhood stores, candy stores where there were pinball machines. He and his friends learned how to tilt them just so to make the lights light up and allow them to win too many free games! But the presence of the sharply dressed Zoot suiters of the day looming in the candy store doorway with their fedora hats acted as a governor on these young pikers’ behaviour, these street-wise little boys. Needless to say, they desisted. But there was also a touch of admiration for the, shall we say? raw power these studs emitted. I am ashamed to admit Andy’s sister told me he had a Zoot suit at one time! When I knew him, thank goodness, it was Paul Stewart on Sixth Avenue -- and delectable.

Amazing how differently people turn out from similar environments ! Some went bad. But Andy’s friends at that time shared his other passion which was music. That, too, shows up in some of his artwork, for, more than painting, Andy wanted to excel at jazz trumpet. Idols in music were the Big Bands, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and his Herd, and such. Later, his ultimate idol was Canadian trumpet player Maynard Fergusen (below).

We used to go to Birdland to hear him, talk with him. Andy would play his records while he worked on commercial jobs at home. And listen to and tape (7” reels on a Tandberg) endless WQXR late night programs on jazz with Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Chuck Mangione (below). “Cool” jazz most reminds me of Andy.

All of one’s life feeds into one’s art. But you need to know the origins to more fully appreciate the end results.

Tomorrow: Studios

Anita Virgil is an internationally anthologized haiku poet. She lives in Forest, Virginia.

Entire contents of these posts on Andy Virgil (both text and pictures) © 2007 Anita Virgil. Nothing may be reproduced without permission of the author.

* A selection of Andy Virgil's original art is available from Graphic Collectibles.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Introducing Anita Virgil

Andy Virgil was my uncle... unfortunately, he died in 1980." Andrea Luciano, Andy Virgil's niece, wrote those words to me in an email message last August 31. Just three weeks earlier, on August 09, 2006, during a week of posts about Andy Virgil, I wrote: ". . . the first piece I ever saw by Andy Virgil made me want to find more work by the artist. . . I find it so frustrating when there's no information available on the careers of illustrators like Virgil . . . " When Andrea sent me her brief note, neither of us could have imagined it would lead to the most thorough and ambitious examination of an illustrator's life my blog has ever seen.

"I have just heard from my niece, Andrea Luciano and would appreciate your contacting me. I would first of all like to see exactly what you are posting of Andy's work. All of it." With those terse words, I "met" Andy Virgil's widow, Anita. Though I suspect she was understandably suspicious and protective of her late husband's work, I dearly hoped I could prove to her that I had only the best intentions of honoring him by posting my small collection of his work. Happily, our correspondences lead to a collaborative effort beyond my wildest dreams. Anita is both an artist and an internationally anthologized haiku poet and I was thrilled when she agreed to write Andy Virgil's story so that we could at last learn more about a great talent who lived too short a life and has gone, sadly, unrecognized.

I've had guest authors before but none has ever brought such passion and sensitivity, such thoroughness and detail, such generosity and such willingness to share the intimate moments, both high and low, of her life as has Anita Virgil.

The journey of telling Andy Virgil's story took many months, and involved several delays and set-backs, but along the way a tentative acquaintance became a real friendship and a lasting affection. Putting together Today's Inspiration, I've made many friends and enjoyed the kindness and generousity of many people. I am especially grateful to my friend, Anita Virgil, for everything she has shared with me and will now share with you.

Leif Peng

Andy Virgil - Part 1: Autumn in New York

When Anita Dorne first laid eyes on a young man who came looking for a rep at Phil Rahl Studios, she had no idea that she was looking at love. The talented, determined young man before her was Andy Virgil, and this is his story.

"I still remember him that rainy autumn day in New York City," she writes today, "looking like a skinny drowned rat with a black portfolio almost as heavy as he was."

Anita continues:

The year was 1952 and, though I was the Costume Researcher at Rahl Studios, I was manning the lunchtime reception desk when Andy walked in.

I was 21 at the time, a graduate with honors from New York's High School of Music & Art, and recipient of a scholarship to The Art Students’ League. I had already worked right out of high school as an assistant to the Art Director of Town & Country Magazine. That was Souren Ermoyan, but in a couple of months, he left to become Art Director for Good Housekeeping Magazine. His assistant, Tony Mazzola, took over. (Tony later became Editor of T&C and then moved on to become Editor of Harper’s Bazaar for decades.) So it was that the two of us became the Art Department. I worked alone with Tony the rest of my time there before taking the job later on at Rahl Studios, New York's second largest art studio. Cooper Studios being top dog.

This soft-spoken shy individual gave me his name, Andy Calafatello, and said he had an appointment and I announced him by phone to Rahl. Patiently, he sat and waited opposite me on the couch at 551 Fifth Avenue (which was the Fred French Building, memorable for its huge and ornate double brass doors).

The door to Rahl’s office was shut. All was quiet. And when it finally opened, a burly attractive dark-haired man with a crew cut and the Madison Avenue Brooks Brothers attire, came out and ushered Andy and his huge wet portfolio into his office. A little later, Rahl’s right-hand man, Willard Seymour, joined them.

A long time ensued behind the closed door. The life of the studio picked up as the illustrators trickled back in from lunch. When the young man emerged from the meeting with Phil Rahl and Willard Seymour, he was a member of that studio. It was at that time they suggested he use his middle name, Virgil, as his professional name.

Once he had settled into a cubicle at Rahl, Andy kept pretty much to himself, working always with the same intensity, listening to his music, mostly classical, and staying on late at night in the often cold empty studio. He was pretty solitary -- except for me. Early on, we became good friends. I’d bring my lunch back to his cubicle and we’d talk about everything and listen to music together. He adored Mendelssohn’s "Violin Concerto in E Minor" and played it over and over. Its quietest moments will always remind me of him -- those first opening notes and the incredible plaintive phrases within it later. How they presaged our life together!

Later, since I was taking night classes in Fine Art at New York University, and since he nearly always stayed working late into the night, he would ask me to join him for dinner. Big mistake! I accepted -- and was often late for class since we so enjoyed each other’s company and forgot the time.

I recall breathlessly rushing into the city night to catch the Fifth Avenue bus with Andy waving goodbye as I climbed up the bus steps.

It wasn’t love at first sight on my part: I was already "a goner" and obliviously dumped my sad tale of woe on Andy who patiently listened and listened. But his feelings for me were different.

And he kept them to himself. Except maybe for those large soft sad eyes I caught often looking at me, a bit too long. Or for an occasional single rose he would leave on my desk . . . .

At one point, he wanted me to help him decorate his apartment when he obtained one. I think it was just a ploy to engage me more in his life, but that never happened and events by the new year took a dreadful turn. He had invited me to go to Carnegie Hall to a Brahms concert.

It was a cold January day. When I met him, he was in an elegant thin grey Chesterfield coat and I remember fussing at him for not being dressed warmly enough. Especially as he had a cold. Somehow, during that concert -- maybe it was the music -- he took my little dry hand with his beautiful soft long fingers, and I realized I might be beginning to fall in love with this sensitive, genteel man! Luckily, he was too polite and respectful of my ‘distraction’ with someone else, and I had only just begun to realize how I felt, so nothing transpired between us.

It was not long after, when I’d not seen him at the studio for a while, that another meeting behind closed doors in the office of Phil Rahl occurred with Andy and Willard. When they came out, there was a grimness on their faces. Andy had developed tuberculosis! He would promptly be hospitalized.

Tomorrow: The Dreamer

Anita Virgil is an internationally anthologized haiku poet. She lives in Forest, Virginia.

Entire contents of these posts on Andy Virgil (both text and pictures) © 2007 Anita Virgil. Nothing may be reproduced without permission of the author.

* A selection of Andy Virgil's original art is available from Graphic Collectibles.

Friday, January 26, 2007

2007 NCS Division Awards

My pal Mike Lynch, cartoonist extraordinaire and all around good guy (and he's handsome, too) asked me to alert everyone to the upcoming 2007 National Cartoonist Society Division Awards.

If you're an illustrator, animator or cartoonist, this is your chance to win fame and fortune - ok, a really nice plaque - from a great organization of fabulous folks. Just think how you'll be envied by your peers and admired by the ladies when you step onto the stage on awards night next May 26th in Orlando, FL and say those magic words, "I'd just like to thank my parents, without whom none of this would have been possible..."

So run - don't walk - right over to Mike's blog for all the details and a link to the NCS Division Awards Entry Form!

Stop reading and go already!

Aurelius Battaglia and the Illustration Revolution

For the first half of the 1950's, magazines presented their readers with a steady diet of traditional, "realistic" illustration. With the arrival of art director Leonard Jossel at Collier's in 1956, that began to change. Jossel hired the likes of James Flora and David Stone Martin, both of whom had already revolutionized album cover art, to do large, full colour double page spreads for the magazine.

For the Colliers Short Story in the front of the magazine, Jossel called on Aurelius Battaglia...

Jane Oliver...

Jan Balet (who had been pioneering the art of stylized magazine illustration for some time already, pretty much on his own)...

and Robert Shore, among others.

Jossel's foray into stylized illustration was only the first tremor in what would soon become a seismic shift in commercial art. Television was impacting advertising revenues and circulation numbers for all the major mainstream magazines and perhaps Jossel and the managers at Collier's felt they needed to give readers something visually different and compelling to draw them in.

As well, the magazine had been struggling for years against its main competitor, the juggernaut Saturday Evening Post. Perhaps Collier's managers felt their avant garde approach would distinguish them from the still traditional appearing Post.

Whatever the case, the magazine was already in its death-throes. Collier's ceased publication in December 1956. But Jossel's experimentation with stylized illustration had caught on. Soon, other publications were using more and more non-traditional, decorative styles of art. And even those illustrators one would label as "realistic" were experimenting more and more with interesting new techniques and avant garde approaches.

A quake of massive proportions had begun rumbling across the illustration landscape; its aftershock is still being felt to this day.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Battaglia's Portrayal of African American Heritage

You get a break from my blather this week! I previously posted all the information I could find about Aurelius Battaglia. There is a tribute website created by his niece, Marzia, and a photo of the young Battaglia in Amid Amidi's Flickr set. Beyond that, I have no new information on the artist. So let's sit back this week and just enjoy the pictures...

All of these images are now in my Aurelius Battaglia Flickr set.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Singing the Praises of Aurelius Battaglia

It was while working on the profile of another illustrator that I became aware of Aurelius Battaglia's spectacular Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs.

What a revelation! This thick hardcover book is bursting with page after page of Battaglia's beautifully designed and stylized illustrations. The small sample you'll be seeing this week won't begin to give you the scope of this masterful volume.

If this is not Battaglia's magnum opus, I can't imagine what is. It made me realize how influential artists like Battaglia were on the evolving look and style of illustration in the 50's - not just on children's book illustration, but on the entire field - even to this day.

You can take a closer look at these images in my Aurelius Battaglia Flickr set.