Editor's note: The following chapters, without illustrations, are excerpted from the 1976 book John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West, and were published on July 12, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of author and Northland Publishing. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact Northland Publishing directly through either this phone number or web address:


John Clymer, an Artist's Rendezvous with the Frontier West

by Walt Reed



First Years

IT WAS A TYPICAL SUNDAY SERVICE in the small Ellensburg, Washington, Presbyterian Church. ..The year: 1920. The Clymer family was there with their young son, who sat quietly a few pews behind them in the back row.

The sermon, delivered in a low key, was suddenly interrupted as the minister thundered, "Junior Clymer, stop drawing in the back of the hymnal this instant! Furthermore, you have until next week to erase your drawings from all the other hymn books we have found defaced! " This was the first public notice of the blossoming art abilities of young John Clymer.

His parents were aware very early that their son had an unusual talent for art. He was only five when he saw his first circus parade. Upon returning home he reproduced the whole Barnum and Bailey circus with scissors and brown wrapping paper by cutting out the silhouetted shapes of wagons, horses decked with plumes, elephants and other animals, together with the circus band and calliope. He placed it as a frieze around the baseboard of the living room, where it was the center of attention for as long as it lasted.

The origin of John's talent was unknown. His father's family was descended from George Cllymer, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather, Joseph C. Clymer, was a construction engineer on the Northern Pacific Railroad and John's father, John P. Clymer, took up railroading at an early age. The family went west from Ohio with the Northern Pacific Railroad and settled in Ellensburg. There John's father met and married Elmira Ford, daughter of early settlers in the Kittitas Valley of Washington. He and his wife built and operated a greenhouse and florist business. Their son, John Ford Clymer, was born in Ellensburg in 1907.

If he was talented in art, it was soon apparent that he was not a scholar. Long hours in a classroom bored him, and other than building a complete human skeleton of plasticene clay over a wire framework for a biology class, his school record was an undistinguished one.

The hours after school and summer vacations provided the opportunity to be out of doors, and John loved to camp and explore the mountains and forests which surrounded their valley on the eastern slope of the Cascade Range.

Aside from the vague hope of becoming an artist and the strong pull of the mountain country, John's life remained without much focus until the special day when a magazine salesman came to the door of the Clymer home. He carried sample copies of Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Hearst's International magazines, and John idly flipped the pages while his mother and the salesman talked. Suddenly he became aware of a double-page illustration by an artist named Walt Louderback. It was marvelous! He had never seen a picture like it before. And the rest of the magazines were filled with more exciting illustrations by Dean Cornwell, N. C. Wyeth and many others. This was a world of art John never knew existed. He went to the newsstands to look at other magazines, and whenever new issues came out he studied each artist's offerings. Walt Louderback was his hero, and he began to daydream about becoming an illustrator himself.

One day, as he was fishing from a log in Menashtash Canyon add thinking about the future, he reflected that by becoming an artist he could live wherever he chose; he could still live in the mountains. That made up his mind.

The problem was, where could he find training in Ellensburg? The school had no art instruction and there were no local artists he could go to for help. Soon afterwards, he saw an ad in one of the magazines for the old Federal School correspondence course. Although his parents were not enthusiastic about his resolution to become an artist, they let him enroll in the course and set aside an upstairs room with a large window for him to use as a studio. Their only stipulation was that he must go to high school for four years.

The correspondence course gave John exactly the kind of start he needed. He began spending more time on his correspondence assignments than on high school homework, and learned rapidly from the criticisms of his drawings. The school, in turn, gave him a lot of extra help, recognizing his artistic potential and determination to succeed.

When the first Ellensburg Rodeo was planned, John was asked to make posters of cowboys, Indians, and bucking horses for local businesses to display in their windows. One of his designs was reproduced as an advertising sticker and thus became his first published work.

The money he earned was spent to buy a Colt Woodsman pistol for hunting. John couldn't afford a new one, but even used it cost him a lot of money, and he tried to think of a way to earn some of the money back. It occurred to him that the gun would make a good model for the kind of advertising art assignment he had just completed for his correspondence course. With youthful optimism (and complete ignorance of how advertising was usually commissioned), he made two careful pen and ink drawings and submitted them by mail to the Colt Firearms Company. They promptly bought them! The payment was small but the drawings were reproduced in several sporting magazines. This was in 1924. He had made his debut as a professional artist while still a junior in high school.

The best result, however, was that Colt sent him a copy of their calendar for the year, which was illustrated with a painting by Frank Schoonover. And, on the back, there was some publicity about Schoonover and his studio in Wilmington, Delaware. This gave John his only address of a well-known artist and he carefully saved it for future reference.

Meanwhile, the annual rodeo gave him a chance to do a lot more window displays and posters of bucking horses. He painted one of the rodeo subjects in oils and sent it off to Fawcett publications in Minneapolis, who bought it as a cover for one of their pulp magazines, Triple X. John began to feel more and more like an artist, and was eager to try his wings.

His uncle, Dr. A. J. Damman, lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, and he encouraged John to go up there to look for a job in an art studio. So, the week he finished high school, John packed his bag and went up to Canada. He found a job in a studio that did mail order catalogs and was put to work at the bottom of the scale, drawing details like buttons and herringbone patterns on men's suits. A more experienced artist would outline a stocking and John would spend all day drawing in the pattern of the knitting.

That fall an art school was started in Vancouver, and John enrolled for night classes. Meantime, he had been working on a large oil painting and brought it in to the head of the art studio for a critique. The studio director didn't feel qualified to evaluate it, but he offered John a day off to take it to a Vancouver artist he knew, John Innes.

As John describes it, "I knocked on the door, was let in, and there were three old fellows sitting there: George Southwell, Jack Radford, who wrote the art page for the newspaper, and Innes.

"Southwell looked at the picture and asked me if I would like to take lessons. I said, yes, I sure would.

"He asked me how much I earned. I made ten dollars a week at the time -- this was in 1925. So he offered to give me ten lessons for twenty dollars. Well, that just cleaned me out. So, I dug up my twenty dollars and took my ten lessons. But all he wanted that twenty dollars for was just to test how badly I wanted to do it. So then I shared his studio for the next four years for nothing! He just helped me with everything -- he was great. And the others were good friends, old Radford and Innes; I got along with them fine right off the bat.

"So I would work in the daytime, go to art school at night, and go to Southwell's studio and work till two A.M.

"In the second year there I sent some painting samples to magazines in Winnipeg and Toronto, and they both started sending me stories to illustrate.

"By the third year, in 1927, I got sick and went to the doctor.

"He said, 'How old are you?'

"I was just twenty.

"What in the world does a young fellow like you do to be in such terrible shape? Sit down and tell me exactly what you do from the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed.

"So I told him I got up and went to work at eight o'clock. By that time I was working for Outdoor Advertising in Canada, where I'd swing on the sides of buildings painting big pictures and lettering, until five P.M. Then I'd have supper and go to night school until eleven o'clock. After classes, I'd go to Southwell's studio, start in on my story illustrations and work until two or three in the morning. I kept going around the clock like that, painting as hard and as fast as I could, from eight in the morning until three the next morning.

"The doctor was holding his head when I got through. 'You've got to quit this schedule at once. Quit painting. Go out and build yourself back up physically. Take a job doing manual labor and get more sleep!'

"It happened that I had met a friend of my uncle's, a Mr. Hutchinson, who was the engineer on a little paddle wheeler, and he offered me a job if I wanted to make the trip on the Yukon River.

''Some people like to go to the southwest, but that didn't appeal to me at all. All I ever wanted was to go north or to the mountains. So I gladly took him up on the offer, packed my bag and made the long trip by boat up the Inland Waterway to Skagway where I took a train over White Pass, down to Lake Bennett and then on down to White Horse on the Yukon River. This was the starting point for our trips down the river.

"When I arrived at White Horse, boats were in a cluster up on the banks of the river where they were being caulked and readied for the short summer season. Our little stern paddle wheeler, the Thistle, was pushed down into the river. She was about fifty feet long, with a shallow draft. A large barge, some thirty or forty feet in length, was strapped to the front of it. The barge was then loaded high with all kinds of cargo: gasoline, kerosene, canned goods, flour, cloth, everything you could think of.

"Since there were no roads in there at that time, the only way into the interior was by the river. Our itinerary was to make round trips with supplies to the trading posts up three different tributaries of the Yukon: the Pelly, Teslin and Stewart rivers.

"The crew consisted of the Captain,. the pilot, chief engineer, the Chinese cook, myself and four Indian lads as deck hands. We went only a short distance downriver to reach Lake Labarge, which was still filled with ice. Just a little ice around the edge had melted when we arrived. We couldn't get the boat around it, but the ice was kind of mushy so the Captain decided to try to go right through it. The Indian boys and I were put out on the front end of the barge. We had poles and we'd push the ice down, allowing the barge to slide up on it and the ice would sink underneath the boat. We did fine until we got to the middle of the lake and boy, did we get stuck! Finally, after repeated reversing, backing up into the narrow little channel we had made, then ramming forward again, we made it to the opposite shore. In fact, we just did make it before we ran out of fuel wood.

"Ashore, we restocked our wood by cutting down dead trees, sawing them up and carrying them aboard. It took us about six to eight hours of wood cutting to run the boat for four hours. And, some days, we'd only make three miles upstream against the current.

"The Captain had contracted with the Indians along the river to leave a certain number of cords of wood at various places to keep us supplied with enough fuel. The Indians, who were having a good year with fur trapping, didn't want to be bothered with the wood. So we would come around a river bend where we expected to find a wood pile, and there would be nothing. Then we would have to get off and out through the woods looking for dead trees, because green wood wouldn't burn.

"That far north in the summer the sun didn't go all the way down at night; there would be a kind of twilight and it would be up again. So we would be working all the time, catching a little bit of sleep, then up again cutting wood, carrying it on board, or we'd reach a place where we had to unload gasoline or something. We really worked our passage!

"And, by now, the mosquitoes had hatched. Each of us acquired our own grey halo of them. They were constantly at our eyes, ears, noses; there were so many at times you'd inhale them! It was never possible to ignore or get used to them; they were just to be endured.

"All along the river there were trappers' cabins, little log buildings with everything they owned piled on top or around them. Most of them looked like big piles of junk with a door in the front, everything from snowshoes and dog sleds to kerosene cans and empty canned food boxes piled every which way. There'd also be the biggest woodpile you ever saw. The trappers spent most of the summer building woodpiles, getting ready for winter.

"There were also packs of sled dogs, mostly huskies, that would follow the boat along the edge of the river. The Indians didn't feed them in the summertime, just turned them loose, so they were ravenous. When we stopped or were close to shore, our Chinese cook would throw scraps out to them. Then there'd be a real dog fight.

"The engineer had been making the trip for years and knew everyone along the way. When we reached the trading post at Teslin and unloaded, he took me with him to visit some of his friends. The Indians lived in little square log cabins with the roof going up on all four sides to a peak. At the point was a small open hole, so the construction was like a teepee with the hole at the top for the smoke to go out. Inside, the family belongings were piled around the room alongside the walls with the center area open and a little fire in the middle. The floors were dirt and people sat or slept on the ground around the fire.

"I remember that night hearing the constant baying of the dogs tied to trees around the village. It sounded like music to me, and I have never forgotten the atmosphere of that place. I had a camera along but shot only one roll all summer! Somehow I didn't take any pictures of the village, although I took a photo of a skin canoe made of moose hide tied around a rough pole framework, and a single picture of one of the trappers' cabins.

"But I did take away many memories of that whole experience, and I have drawn upon them for lots of pictures of the Northwest over the years. I never planned it that way, but that chance summer's trip has guided and shaped my life ever since."


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