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

by Walt Reed

 



 

"During this period, when the country was arming for World War II, I was also getting trucks, tanks, tread marks in mud, snow, et cetera, exactly the kind of mechanical, detailed picture assignments I didn't want.

"So when Tom Lovell called up one day and said, 'Let's join the Marine Corps,' I didn't hesitate more than a minute. His number was 962815 and mine was 962814. We claim we're the only ones in the Marine Corps who know each other's serial numbers. I was thirty -six years old at the time, and going through boot camp with a bunch of kids nearly killed me! We were then assigned to Leatherneck magazine and stationed in Washington, D.C. Since Tom and I were experienced illustrators, they really piled the work on. There were two overseas and one stateside editions of Leatherneck plus the Marine Corps Gazette, the officer's magazine. We were never sent anywhere, but just stayed in Washington, D.C. and churned out pictures.

"In between story and article illustrations, Tom and I worked on paintings to depict the history of the Corps. The other services had plenty of paintings of their history, but the Marine Corps had none. Many of our paintings were reproduced as wraparound covers for the Gazette; the originals are now in the Marine Corps headquarters in Washington.

"We got out in 1945; I was over-age by then, and it was time to reorganize. Just before the war I had done my first Post cover, an Alaska inland passage subject with a totem pole in the foreground, U.S. Navy destroyers and aircraft in the background.

"On a visit back home, out at Ellensburg, I noticed my young son, David, peering into a hole in an old poplar stump, looking for flickers nests. It immediately struck me as a good possibility for a Post cover. So I painted it, sent it in to them, and they bought it, saying they'd like to see a sketch for another idea!

"So I began to do a long series of Post covers -- approximately eighty of them over the next dozen years. My approach was to look for human interest subjects and then try to place them in a proper setting to fit the idea. Sometimes it would take a long time to bring the two elements together. One early idea involved a young boy playing in an abandoned auto chassis, but I couldn't figure out how to present it. Two years later, while driving through Jackson Hole in Wyoming, I noticed some old, rusty farm machinery in the corner of a field. It then struck me that this was a perfect spot for the old car. A western boy would be brought up on horseback riding, but when he spotted the old auto body, he ceased to be a cowboy and was transformed into a hot rod driver.

"There was only one drawback about doing covers for the Post. They went everywhere in the country, and because I picked and painted actual places, there would be several hundred people who lived nearby who'd scrutinize every detail to try to find something wrong. I had to be sure I knew all about everything included in a picture, and why it was there. There would always be someone like a telephone lineman who'd write in and say, 'I don't think that was the kind of insulator they used in that area . . .' The Post was good about those things. The only time I had to make a correction on a cover was when I sent in a picture that had an automobile in the foreground. I had completed everything, lights, chrome, trim, spokes, but forgot to paint in the door handle!"

During these years, when John concentrated on doing the Post covers, it gave him the freedom to travel around the country looking for paintable subjects. More often than not they tended to be western locales. Travel in these years had to coincide with school vacations. In 1947 the Clymer's daughter, Jo Lorraine, was born. She started first grade as son David was graduating from high school. Doris and John thought they would never get out of the P.T.A.! It was about this time that the Clymers built a new home up in the Connecticut countryside and moved from Westport to Bridgewater in the summer of 1953.

One of the greatest painting experiences for John was the trip he made to Alaska with artist friend Bob Lougheed and John's son, David, in 1954. Game animals had often been the central subject in many of John's paintings, but for years the models he found were in the National Parks or in zoos. He knew that the differences in attitudes and habits between confined animals and those in the wild were markedly different, and he wanted to observe and paint them in their natural habitat. One of the best places in North America to find big game animals was in Alaska.

They flew from Seattle up to Anchorage. There they rented a car, piled all their painting and camping gear into it, and started driving through the country. The road from Anchorage to Seward took them near Portage Glacier. It was only a short drive from the road to a beautiful lake surrounded by high mountains and big glaciers. Down at the far end of the lake were huge chunks of ice that had broken off the end of the glacier. They camped there that evening, and the next morning John was surprised to see that a little breeze during the night had moved all the ice floes clear across the lake. John painted this subject later for a Post cover called Portage Glacier.

After returning to Anchorage they took a loop road that swung east and then north up to Fairbanks. There they saw their first caribou. As John reports, "They are, I think, the most beautiful of all animals to paint -- the way they hold themselves. They have a big white mane and the antlers on the large ones seem almost too big for the animal. The large palms on the antlers in front make them look heavy. When they run they tilt their heads a bit, so that the antlers lie back toward their shoulders. It makes a beautiful line to paint, and gives them a very graceful movement when they are running."

"It was also interesting to learn how curious they are. A group was just.down off the road a short distance away, so I got out of the car and started walking toward them using the trees for cover. I got fairly close to them when they first noticed me. They turned and ran, but in about a quarter-mile circle. I just stood still and eventually they completed the circle and ran back up to me where they stood and looked me over."

From Fairbanks they flew to Kotzebue in the Arctic to visit the Eskimos. John says, "Without a doubt this was the highlight of any of my painting trips. The people were so friendly and the settings of old boats, sled dogs tied up along the beach, and the Eskimo summer shelters with racks everywhere hanging heavy with drying salmon were unlike anything I had ever seen. This was the season of the long day. The extended evening sunset suffused everything in a rosy light that lasted for hours. Older people and children walked up and down the beach enjoying this brief summer season. Their voices and laughter mingled with the barking of the dogs and the rolling surf are sounds I will never forget. We made sketches of the people, the children, of the dogs, the fish racks, the boats, and the houses, as fast as we could in the time we had. Then we flew back to Fairbanks, picked up the car and continued on to Mount McKinley National Park. Here we saw Dahl sheep -- a white, bighorned species -- from a distance. We also had an excellent view of Mount McKinley, which is a tremendous sight as it thrusts abruptly straight up among the surrounding mountains.

"There were plenty of ptarmigan, a small bird that matches itself to the color of the tundra. During the summer the tundra is a mixture of mosses and other small plant life, little berry bushes and all sorts of trees in miniature. The color variations go from all the ochres and umbers to reds, yellows, and greens that make a beautiful mat of interwoven color. The ptarmigah look the same and when you walk you can hear them making little noises, but you have to look very carefully to see them. They were sometimes within three feet of me before they would move. In winter, when the snow comes, they turn pure white.

"We were patrolling the Denali road looking for wildlife and found our first grizzlies when we came to the Toklat area of the park. A female and two cubs were among a bunch of berry bushes in a valley below the road. They foraged there for the next two days, far enough away for us not to bother them, and we could follow them along, park our car and paint. The female knew we were there all right, and she'd keep looking up at us once in a while, but otherwise they went about their business. It was an excellent opportunity for us to sit and watch their
behavior, how they walked and moved around. This particular bear had a black face, black ears and the front feet and shoulders were a very dark brown, but her sides were the color of straw. It made a wonderful pattern to paint and was much lighter in color than I thought grizzlies ever were. After that I saw others and found that they are all individuals and vary considerably in color pattern.

"Farther along we spotted the Dahl sheep again, on the side of a mountain not too far from the road. Dave decided he was going to get some photos of them by sneaking around a draw where he thought they couldn't see him. Bob and I shifted around to a place where we could follow both Dave and the sheep with our binoculars. He got closer and closer to them but they knew where he was every minute and they just kept moving slightly along, staying above him on a little rise or rock outcropping. He'd be looking all around for the sheep and couldn't find them. He finally gave up and came back, never having seen the sheep that were right close to him the whole time.

"There were many other things to see. At one place we were watching some caribou in our binoculars and as they passed a little round rock outcropping surrounded by snow there was a fox sitting up on top of it, as on a pedestal, watching them pass along in front. In a nearby place the ground was all freshly torn and scratched up by the big claw marks of a grizzly bear. He had apparently been digging up the tundra trying to uncover ground squirrels. As we were examining this we were also looking over our shoulders for the grizzly's return.

"On another day we went out with a young artist who pointed out a place where a grizzly had been making a meal of a caribou. When he'd had all he could eat, he circled the carcass scratching up the soil and covered it with tundra. Then he'd lie spread-eagle on top of it to sleep. The wolves would come and circle all around him, but were afraid to attack. He'd wake up and eat some more caribou flesh; then cover it up again. This went on for about ten days, while the wolves waited for their turn. This later became the subject for a painting, as did many of the things I saw on this wonderful trip."

During the years he was in Bridgewater John also did occasional advertising illustrations. One notable series was done for the New England Life Insurance Company's "A Better Life for You" campaign. And for twenty-eight years, up to 1969, John painted an annual historical calendar picture for the American Cyanimid Company.

True magazine also provided John with the opportunity to paint adventure stories, many of them of the north and west. For one issue John himself, with Doris's help, did a story on his favorite vacation spot, his native Kittitas Valley in Washington State, illustrated with John's sketches.

Field and Stream magazine gave John the kind of wildlife subjects he liked best. John did several covers for them and illustrated a number of stories. In 1956 he teamed up with Frank Dufresne, writer and Western Editor for Field and Stream. They went on a trip to Alberta to gather material for a story about upland game birds, traveling through the central part of Alberta with the Fish and Game people. The resulting story, written by Frank and illustrated by John, was "Wings Over Alberta," which appeared in the September 1957 issue of the magazine.

On another trip John and Frank traveled in British Columbia on a little dirt road from Williams Lake to Anaheim Lake and the Dean River, where they fished for trout. From there they followed the road over and down to the Talchako River for salmon fishing. After the T alchako the road went down to the little town of Bella Coola, at the head of a large inlet on the coast. Just outside the town was a large rock on which Alexander Mackenzie, an early Canadian explorer searching for an overland route to the Pacific, had inscribed" Alexander Mackenzie from Canada, by land, the twenty-second of July, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three." John felt as thuugh he were back in time as he realized that this was twelve years before the Lewis and Clark party had reached the Pacific. "The Unforgettable Dean" which appeared in the August 1959 issue of Field and Stream, was written from the material gathered on this trip. John did some paintings of the fishing on the river to go along with the article. .

"One of the most interesting trips I made with Frank," says John, "was through the Northern Cascade Wilderness Area with the Fish and Game representatives. This was a pack trip, and we saw all kinds of deer grazing on the sides of the mountains. I was all ready to climb up there and have a good. look at them, but the man from Fish and Game said, 'Don't bother. They'll be right down here in camp this evening.' I didn't believe him, of course. Later, when we were laying out our camp gear, he started making a pile of sticks and rocks by his sleeping bag.

"I said, 'What are you doing that for?'

"He said, 'You've got to do that to chase the deer away, so you can get some sleep tonight.'

"I didn't believe that either. Eventually, we all got to sleep. It wasn't too cold in my sleeping bag. I had left it unzipped, and my knee was sticking out, when all of a sudden I woke up. A deer was licking me on the knee! And sure enough the fellow next to me was throwing sticks at another deer. The deer are up in the mountains in the summer, and it's hot, and they want salt. They would come down in the evening and chew on anything that had perspiration on it, like the saddle blankets and harness or any of our clothes. In the morning when it got light we started looking around, and all the saddle blankets were up on a side hill and the harness and clothing were scattered all around where they carried it up away from camp to chew on. It took us a long time to retrieve it all. One deer had found the soap and was chewing on that, with the soap suds drooling out of the side of his mouth.

"Sometimes we walked for a change. As we hiked along north from this camp, the wild flowers were everywhere and the lupine was higher than our knees. Lower down past the lakes and into one of the canyons, the ground was covered waist high with ferns. Some of the old virgin cedar trees were still standing and were just enormous.

"For this trip I did a big color illustration of the pack train watched by deer, which came out in Field and Stream in 1960.

"Ever since the war we had been making our trips west in the summer. We kept studying the country and learning as much as we could about the early history of the places we visited. I was becoming less and less interested in magazine assignments and deadlines and more and more interested in painting wildlife and subjects of my own choosing. I had been exhibiting with Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City, and they were selling my pictures. After one of the trips to Montana I did my first history painting. When I took it in to Grand Central they weren't at all sure they could sell it. However, in about a week someone came in and bought it. The next day another person came in and said, 'Where's that history painting you had here the other day?' He was very disappointed to find that it was gone and asked to see the next one I did.

"The time had come, I decided, to finish up my remaining commitments and to make a clean break. W orking on illustrations would only interfere with all the things I wanted to record. I was not going to take another commercial job. From now on I was going to become a full-time painter."

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