Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nearly Anonymous: John Averill

John Averill had at least two articles written about him in American Artist magazine during the 1950's. What's great is that they both describe in detail his passion for working with his own printing press. What's frustrating is they provide no real biographical info.

So we must piece together the clues that are available about Averill from a variety of sources. For instance, its quite clear that he was a Chicago artist (as you'll see a little further down in this post) and may have worked at the photo-engraving company Collins, Miller, and Hutchings, Inc.

I'm guessing this because he both illustrated and art directed the many CM&H ads he worked on. If he had been hired as a freelancer to illustrate those ads, its unlikely he would have been art director as well.

Averill worked on one long-running, high profile national ad campaign: his series for 7-Up, which appeared in the mid-50's, mainly in Collier's magazine (though I have found examples elsewhere).

Aside from that, it appears he was much in demand for small space ads like the one below, where one would most often find the work of a cartoonist/illustrator. That's not to take anything away from Averill: his work was recognized by the Art Directors Club of New York on many occasions. He received three notations in the 1948 AD Annual alone.

When Fred Bouton, VP of Creative at JWT in Chicago wrote about a handful of Chicago's top talents in the November 1952 issue of Art Director & Studio News, he chose to placed John Averill alongside such legendary Chicago artists as Haddon Sundblom and Joyce Ballantyne.

Below, Bouton praises Averill's self-promo publication 'Seed Corn', which the artist hand-printed from his own 'Molehill Press'.

"I am a free-lance commercial artist," Averill wrote in the December 1952 issue of American Artist. "One of the first things a free lance must learn is that he cannot sit in his studio and wait for clients to come to him. He learns that he has to do a lot of pavement pounding with his sample case."

"Not liking to pound pavements and spend long hours on hard benches in reception rooms, I sought an easier way to let art directors know my services were available. The easy way was obvious, a way that artists often recommend to their clients but seldom use themselves. It is to advertise."

Averill was surprised at how inexpensive a simple hand press was - at the time, less than fifty dollars. He had always been interested in printing, and was on a tight budget, so the press sounded like the perfect solution. Once the press arrived and Averill began printing his own work, he fell in love. "Often when playing in my pressroom," he wrote, "a feeling of sadness comes over me, a sadness for those lost years without a press and without the thrills of creative printing. Why didn't someone tell me about these small hand presses sooner?"

Below are a few examples of Averill's many mailing pieces. He wrote, "An advertising man told me that frequent mailings were more effective than an occasional elaborate one."

Some years later, a second article appeared in American Artist, with the editors commenting that they had received, "several hundred letters" after the initial article.

For the benefit of what was obviously a tremendous reader response, Averill explained how he produces multiple colour prints from a single linoleum block.

Most interesting though, is the concluding paragraph of the article where he wrote, "Each year I manage to sell several hundred of these amusing prints from several different designs, and I only wish that I had no commercial ( or economic ) obligations so I could devote myself to making them full time. In spite of its limitations, even the modest labors involved, I find producing these prints a fascinating occupation."

* My John Averill Flickr set.


  1. Loving this series Leif, great work. Hopefully through your efforts someone may come forth with more information regarding these more obscure talents. Keep us posted!

  2. Likewise---here to say same Leif.

    Particularly keen on this type, approach of mid-to- late 20th cen. Illustration & enjoy it when you delve into it..

    As always, thanks for your efforts here....


  3. Fantastic works!

    Really great!


  4. Harely3:17 PM

    Charming, uncomplicated work. The characters made up mostly of black silhouettes are great fun.

    I'm also relieved to learn that 7-Up will take away my too-sweet, too-sour worries.

    Thanks again for your efforts.

  5. I can't believe I found this blog! A couple of years ago I bought an unusual picture frame at a 'dig-n-save' in Madison, WI. When I got it home and took off the back I found four block prints signed by John Averill!!! They are all of birds in various situations, numbered and titled! I loved them so much I framed them and have them hanging in my lake house. I was pleasantly surprised to find the history of John Averill!!

  6. Anonymous10:19 PM

    John Averill is my Great Grandfather. I was always curious about him, but a class assignment in my history class was to do a family tree and there was an old suitcase that I had in my room full of his works. There are several greeting cards, blank cards and even poems and short stories. I love the simple art work he would do I have several of his original prints of the birds.

  7. Thank you for your blog post! I found a gorgeous Averill print of a rooster in the old house I bought in Chicago. So lovely to know more of its history :)

  8. Anonymous10:24 AM

    I am also related to John Averill and my mother whose maiden name is Averill showed me this website. Very cool stuff. I would love to find a print of his.

  9. tjoyceco@comcast.net10:46 AM

    John Averill printed a series of 37 booklets on his private press, in an upstairs room of his home. The series was called SEED CORN. He called his press, The Molehill Press. Complete runs of the 37 issues are rare. The 1961 book, SEED CORN, is a hardcover book with selections from his booklets.