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

by Walt Reed




AT THE END of the summer, on the trip back to Vancouver, John did a lot of thinking about his future. He had found a wealth of material to paint but lacked confidence in his ability to carry it out.

Meanwhile, he was still carrying that address of Frank Schoonover in his wallet and decided that this was the time to visit him and ask for guidance. It was a long journey from Vancouver to Delaware to make on impulse without even a letter of introduction. Schoonover was connected with the Wilmington Sketch Club and was giving a lecture there the evening of John's arrival. He received John kindly, invited him to attend his lecture, then turned him over to two of his young students for the afternoon. They took him on a tour of the Brandywine River area.

Clymer has a vivid recollection of the experience. "As we were approaching one of the old battlefields, one of them said, 'Oh, there's Pete up there.' A young fellow near a big stone wall was just putting his sketching gear away. It was Peter Hurd. He said he was sorry he had to go; he was invited to dinner at the N. C. Wyeth's. I was terribly impressed and never forgot the name of Peter Hurd. Afterwards, I also met Gayle Hoskins, an illustrator and former Howard Pyle student, who at times also lectured to the group.

"Following the lecture, I asked Mr. Schoonover about the tuition and what kind of market there would be for selling pictures in the area to help me pay for it. When Schoonover found that I could sell enough pictures in Canada to keep my nose above water, he recommended that I go back and keep on going to life classes and painting there.

"So I got on the next train and went right back to Vancouver! I found myself getting back into the same old routine: taking classes in art school, working at the sign company again and doing story illustrations for Canadian magazines.

"Southwell was opposed to my becoming an illustrator; he didn't think much of that. He wanted me to be a mural painter and thought I had an aptitude for decorative things. He suggested that I go down to Hollywood and see a friend of his who did sets for the movies.

"When I arrived I found the place to the the size of a castle, a huge, impressive building. It scared the hell out of me, and I was shaking when I went in there. The man was very nice to me and took me all through the studio. Several painters were doing backdrops the size of huge murals for a period movie; other people were doing portraits for sets of Louis XV or Henry VIII or whatever. After he looked at the things I had brought along, he said yes, he would give me a job. I thanked him very much, backed out of there, got in the car and lit out for Vancouver as fast as I could go. I decided Hollywood was not for me!

"I knew I still wanted to be an illustrator and resumed working and studying for another year in Vancouver, making gradual progress. When the editor of MacLean's Magazine came on a visit, he pointed out how much more if practical it would be for me to move to Toronto where most of the Canadian publications were located.

"So I decided to move to Toronto. There I had a chance to visit in person with some of the art editors whom I had known only by correspondence. Most of them seemed to have the same reaction I'd experienced earlier upon my first meeting with the art editor of Western Home Monthly in Winnipeg, for whom I had been working by mail for two years. I was still just a young, skinny kid of twenty-one, and he took one look at me and said, 'Are you John Clymer? We've been paying you too much!' However, they continued to give me work at the same scale, and I added several other publishers as clients. I also' started painting for the Ontario Society Artist shows and had my own show, too. It was a good year for me, but 1 wasn't satisfied. I still lacked confidence and felt that I needed more training."

Clymer couldn't shake the feeling that he should study at the Wilmington School. So, back he went. Although it was about three years later, Schoonover still remembered him. By then the Wilmington Academy of Art had been created. Many of the lecturers for the evening composition classes were former Howard Pyle students. Gayle Hoskins was there, and Stanley Arthurs, Frank Schoonover, and Douglas Duer, as John remembers. This was also a period of constructive growth.

Clymer finally realized his ambition of meeting N. C. Wyeth, who was very helpful to him. Wyeth was involved with some big murals, and over the next two years Clymer regularly took his paintings to Wyeth for criticism. He went as much for the opportunity to talk with Wyeth about art and the painting Wyeth was currently doing as for the critiques of his own work. No matter how busy he was with commissioned work, Wyeth made it a regular practice to set aside one day of the week to paint for himself: a still life, a landscape, or some painting problem to force himself to work from nature. John was impressed with this self-discipline and followed it himself for many years thereafter.

It was during this time that John first met Harvey Dunn, another of Pyle's students, who then had a school in Leonia, New Jersey. Hoskins was an old friend of Dunn's and arranged for Clymer's introduction.

"Dunn was just wonderful to me. He was a great big man, and I came up to just about his belt buckle. I weighed around 110 pounds in those days, a little short guy. As I was leaving, he was looking down at me and said, 'You know, if you really want my advice, you look too sickly to me to be an illustrator. It's a tough job, you know!' That made me mad! Big guys just naturally made me mad anyway, because I was little, and if they told me I couldn't do something, by jiggers, I'd do it! I decided right then and there that nothing would stop me from becoming an illustrator."

Meanwhile John had been corresponding regularly with his childhood sweetheart in Ellensburg, Doris Schnebly, and they decided to get married. That was in 1932, during the depression, and in order for John to earn a living they went back to Canada where he knew the magazine market.

After getting established in Canada again, John felt he could begin to tackle Siwash and Northwest Indian themes. The Road to Teslin, She Who Talks with the Spirits, and several other paintings were done at that time. These paintings won him membership in the Ontario Society of Artists and an Associate Membership in the Royal Canadian Academy. They are representative of some of Clymer's earliest paintings and are based on his knowledge and material gathered on the coast of British Columbia during the years he lived there. The Totem Pole People were the subjects for these early paintings.

These pictures have a strongly designed, decorative appearance, contrasting with the more realistic approach of the series of paintings of the American West which the artist began nearly thirty years later.

Here Clymer describes the background of the early Indian paintings.

"People are often at a loss to explain my early Indian paintings, although they admire the simplicity and imaginative qualities in them. George Southwell, with whom I studied and shared a studio in Vancouver, British Columbia, for four years, was. from England and had a very fine art education. He had studied in England, France, Germany and Italy, and he was familiar with the techniques of many of the contemporary painters of his day. He gave me sound technical training in design and composition. I was interested especially in the work of Frank Brangwyn, the great British mural painter, and Southwell paid special attention to Brangwyn's method of composition and color. These early Northwest Indian paintings reflect my leaning toward design and composition and are an expression of this training.

"Although I finally chose to pursue the field of illustration rather than decoration, I always took time out to paint pictures for myself. In commercial art I had to do so many different kinds of subjects and always in a manner to please the customer. Occasionally, I would just have to 'cut loose' and paint something for myself to relieve the tension. These early pictures were not meant to be factual pictures nor painted for realism. My main concern in them was for the overall decorative effect. I took the elements I wanted to use and made them into designs. I called some of them decorative panels, and they should be considered as such rather than as telling a story. These early pictures are all of the Northwest Coast Indian people. I used their motifs in my designs because I was fascinated by the simple clothing, the wonderful decorative quality of their wood carving which is manifested in their houses, totems, masks, and utensils. I was also impressed by the natural beauty of their surroundings, big blue mountains, cloudy skies and tall totem poles." .

In addition to his painting and illustrating at this time, John also began to do work for Blue Book, a glorified pulp magazine in New York City. This was an excellent training ground, and many American illustrators got their start by working for the editor, Don Kennicott. He would send the manuscripts to John in Toronto, not realizing how long it took for the mail to get there. His letter and manuscript invariably reached John on a Friday with a Monday due date! They called for four or five dry-brush illustrations and a couple of spots, usually requiring costumes and history to be researched. The pictures had to be finished and in the mail on Saturday evening, but John enjoyed the challenge and continued to work for Blue Book until he moved to the States.

After about four years, just after their son, David, was born, John decided to take time out to study with Harvey Dunn in New York. Doris and son went back to Ellensburg to visit her family. John had no intention of staying in New York; he was just going to attend some of Dunn's classes at the Grand Central School of Art. But Dunn was an extraordinary teacher, and John was at the right stage in his own development to benefit most from Dunn's philosophical approach to picture making. He also had the chance to meet many other young illustrators and to see originals by Dean Cornwell and others whom he most admired. New York was the center of American magazine publishing, and most of the best illustrators were there. The atmosphere was so stimulating that John decided he wanted to stay. All along his ultimate ambition had been to work for the American magazine market. Even when he had been studying in Wilmington he had gone to New York to call on art editors. He had made the trip every week for two years, but was not successful in getting a single manuscript. Then, one day he was suddenly given a feature story by Good Housekeeping with three double-page spreads! It was a major assignment, unheard of for a first job, with a two-week deadline! As John remembers, "I went home, and I was in bed, scared, for two weeks! I couldn't paint, I couldn't draw, I was just sick! That's when I went back to Canada; I had just had it! Then the second time I came down, after four more years in Canada, I had gotten over the buck fever, and it was all right."

Although the New York market was a mecca for illustrators, Westport, Connecticut, was where a large number of them lived. The small town, about an hour from midtown Manhattan by train, had a particular rural appeal and became an artists' colony in the early twenties.

When Doris returned from Ellensburg, she and John decided to find a house in Westport, moving up in the fall of 1937. There they met Harold Von Schmidt and his wife, who took the Clymers under their wing. They became good friends, and John could go to Von with any special problems. John was always fortunate in having guidance from more experienced persons, and Von helped him for many years. He also came to know many other illustrators and painters in the area: Bob Lougheed, Karl Godwin, Lea Gustavson, Remington Schuyler, Amos Sewell and Charles LaSalle were all Westporters, and later Tom Lovell moved up from New Rochelle.

John continued to study with Dunn from W estport and was also painting for exhibition. The first year he came down from Canada he sent a painting to the National Academy in New York, and it was accepted. He was not yet known in New York as an illustrator. While no longer true, in those days the Academicians were very exclusive; illustrators were personae non grata. It was the same in Canada, with great personal jealousies and rivalry even among the members. John found the attitudes of the illustrators refreshingly different. They were all friends and helped each other. When someone did a good job, the phone would ring with congratulations.

After he became established as an illustrator, John no longer had the time to exhibit, but he continued to paint occasional pictures for himself.

It was characteristic of most art editors then to pigeon-hole an illustrator. During his last two or three years in Canada John had been getting a lot of Chinese stories to do. When he made the rounds of the magazines in New York, all his samples were of Chinamen. Fortunately, for some reason, Chinese stories were also in vogue in the States, and John got one assignment after another at each magazine he called on!

One of the stories had a murder in it. Other editors saw it, and John suddenly began to get murder and detective stories exclusively. That was fine, but most stories also had a love interest and editors wanted that featured, particularly the beautiful young heroine. John felt completely out of his element in trying to do fashionable young women, and struggled through every assignment.

One day he was walking down Fifth Avenue with Bob Harris, who was one of the best "boy-girl" illustrators. As John recalls, Bob suddenly stopped and said, "Look at that! Isn't that wonderful?"

"I looked up and down the street and couldn't see anything wonderful anywhere. Finally I saw that he was looking at a window display of women's hats. To him, the hat he saw was going to make his next illustration. To me, a window full of women's hats was one of the least likely things I would ever look at. I always thought women's hats were silly! I looked at Bob and back at the hats and realized I wasn't cut out for that stuff. I called my agent and told him I wasn't going to do any more boy-girl stories.

"About then an ad agency wanted an illustration of a field of peas in bloom for one of the canning companies, in which they planned to feature their freshness by showing drops of dew on the leaves. They had sent down to Florida for a plant, in the middle of winter, and I did the painting of a whole field of pea plants in bloom with the leaves in the foreground covered with dew drops!

"When that was reproduced in the magazines, the agency for the Pennsylvania Railroad saw those little dew drops and decided I was an artist who handled detail -- just right to do their steam engines with all the bolts, nuts and rivets and all the other detail they wanted, including the bits of gravel along the tracks. I would do all this literal detail and complicated perspective as accurately as possible, and even then the picture would come back with three pages of criticism. I had the wrong valve in this place, the hose wasn't quite right in the lock between the two cars, et cetera. I went down with one of the pictures personally, and they called in an old engineer to critique the painting. He looked at it carefully and said, 'What number engine is this?' To trainmen the number was like the name of a specific train. 'Oh, he says, that engine! Well that engine never had the valve there; it was down here.' So I'd write it down as one more detail to change. When I finally delivered the approved painting, I had had enough. When Pennsylvania called for another, I apologized and told them how busy I was and just couldn't meet their deadline. Even without a single job in the house, I was determined to never do another Pennsylvania Railroad train!


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