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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Ben Denison, In His Own Words: Part 1

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A few years ago I wrote about Chicago illustrator Lucia Larner.

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Not long afterward, I received an email from a gentleman named Ben Denison:

"I also worked at [Chicago art studio] Stephens, Biondi, DiCicco with Lovely Lucia," wrote Ben. "She inspired me and I admit to imitating her on many of my illustrations for Playboy and other assignments! My cartoon for Playboy's first issue was just auctioned for WAY more than I could ever have dreamed, and you can find it by googling Ben Denison."

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Naturally I immediately began corresponding with Ben. Each time I wrote, he'd generously provide thorough (and thoroughly entertaining) information about his life, his work and his career, giving me a rare, detailed, first-hand account of the intriguing Chicago commercial art industry of the 1950s.

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Sadly, our email exchange ended as abruptly as it had begun. One day in 2008 a note from Ben's daughter Mary arrived in my mailbox: "So sorry to have to inform you that Ben passed away on March 18th. I know that one of the things he felt he had left undone was his work with you. Please let me know if there is anything else we can do to help. It is such a comfort to us all that someone is so interested in Dad's work."

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Over the next several months Mary Denison and her sisters made a valiant effort to assist me in completing the documentation Ben and I had begun... but due to any number of circumstances, the project fizzled out. Recently however, several of Ben's originals have popped up on the Internet - at Heritage Auctions and elsewhere - and more specifically in the Today's Inspiration Facebook group - which prompted me to revisit my correspondences with Ben Denison.

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Through a little further investigation, I discovered even more of Ben's work online - enough to comfortably support the text he had provided to me during our email exchanges.

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After languishing in my files for these last several years, here at last is Ben Denison, in his own words...

The Early Years

Born: Falls City, Nebraska, December 1926. Didn't draw anything but those square tailed airplanes and machine gun tracers coming out of machine guns that most kids drew. I did collect clippings though. Starting with those Erte' type dance costumes that were in my mother's "Dance" & Ballet Magazine" collection and progressing through Brick Bradford comics and the Big Little Books available of the time to Flying Aces.

Didn't take any interest in drawing or art as such because I wanted to be a jazz cornet player like Bix Beiderbecke and his Rhythm Jugglers. (Google that!) Still do!

The lady at the Reisland's Drug Store in Falls City told my wife years later that they used to "worry" about me because I was always looking at the lady's magazines at the magazine counter. Good HouseKeeping, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, etc. Seeing fashion drawings by R.R. Bouche', Erickson, Verte's et al.

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My mother, Maybelle was a musical prodigy, piano and voice who, when she had the opportunity to sing the leading role in a performance, was struck with stage fright and never performed in public again. She taught piano, voice and dance. Hence the dance and ballet magazines. Mother tried to teach me piano but gave up and my two sisters played piano and violin and danced. I was only interested in jazz and played my cornet way more than they enjoyed. Guess that made me a "Black Sheep"!

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When I was in high school in Omaha NE, I took a drawing class and was told to draw something. I got out something from my clipping file, probably a gun or a tank or a car, but an object at any rate, drew it, and was summarily told that copying was not allowed in her class.

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My logic was not appreciated and that class was dropped.

Went to Falls City High till my senior year 1943-44 at Benson High, Omaha. After graduation I worked as a sub-postman ('til I was fired - don't ask) and got a job selling shirts and ties at Nebraska Clothing Company in Omaha. During some down time I made a little sketch on the back of my sales book of my boss, Bill Fiellor. A fellow sales person with whom I had been talking about what we wanted to do with our lives said, "Hey Ben, that really looks like him, why don't you be an artist!" So I took the drawing up to the lady who did the fashion drawings in the advertising department and showed it to her and said, "I'd like to learn how to be an illustrator!"

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She looked me over, dapper salesperson as I was, called Fiellor to find out if I showed up on time and - Bang - I had a job carrying and filing stuff and learning about the advertising business. I've have been at that for about 62 years.

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My parents reaction to my decision to be an artist, (I preferred "Illustrator"), was raised eyebrows, a shrug and a "Here we go again!"

But I did stick with it, found out how to file all those clippings I had collected in boxes under my bed. I learned paste up (rubber cement, powder to keep the ink from smudging,) I picked up and delivered ads to the Omaha World Herald and the advertising agency, Bozell and Jacobs.

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After some months as a gopher at NCC, I became a gopher at Bozell and Jacobs where I would end up working before and after art school at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and again after service in Korea. There I learned enough about illustration, how it was done and reproduced was given much guidance by Floyd Wilson, art director and Hans Neilsen, a great illustrator and water colorist, then went back to NCC and was shortly "on the board" doing shoes, undergarments, and occasionally even a suit or dress. I learned to add Lord and Taylor to my clipping file.

About childhood art, as you can tell there just wasn't any! Enough for now, I'll mix a drink and ruminate on this!

* Tomorrow: Ben's Chicago Art Studio Days

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