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'Woody Guthrie: Art Works'

Nov 28, 2006

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"Wait! Don't assume you're not interested!" writes Ketzel Levine when including this book in her roundup of holiday gift possibilities. The book "cuts and pastes Guthrie's remarkable cartoons, drawings and journal fragments into a raucous kind of sketchbook."

Excerpt from Introduction

A Photographer Without a Camera: "I would like to paint you a picture with strokes of electricity."

There is no hard evidence that Woody Guthrie ever formally studied art. There are hints that he took correspondence courses, art supply lists that one would assume were made in class, instructive notes on shadow and form, and postcards from an art museum. What we do have are thousands upon thousands of pieces of art, line drawings, and color and form—some just barely squiggles, two oil paintings, brushwork, pen-and-ink illustrations, political cartoons, portraits, children's art, and a handful of pastels—that speak to us from ledgers and notebooks, decaying construction paper, and sketchbooks. Lost, more than likely, are hundreds more, distributed to friends and family, left behind in his many travels, sold to survive, gone. What remains is evidence is that Woody Guthrie was a visual artist.

In fact, it was in the visual arts that Guthrie first began to express himself creatively. Growing up in the frontier towns of Okemah, Oklahoma, and Pampa, Texas, he displayed a flair for cartooning and caricature, utilized frequently to amuse his classmates. Throughout his life he continued to paint, draw, sculpt, pot, letter, and design, often earning a living as an advertising designer, portrait artist, sign painter, illustrator, and landscape artist. He was as passionate about his artwork as he was about everything else he created and experienced.

Guthrie's approach to creativity was a symbiotic wedding of art and text. Did the images support the lyrics, or vice versa? There are no clear distinctions. Sometimes the artwork was created first, with text overlaid, and other times he created the lyrics and then illustrated them. Pictures were created to reinforce words; words pictures. Within this yin-and-yang relationship Guthrie created a dynamic, uniquely integrated art form, in which one is not complete without the other.

Still, to date, little has been seen of Guthrie's total creative output. Although his art has been published in conjunction with his writings, usually poorly, there are hundreds of pieces that exist independently. It is all assembled here for the first time, displaying surprising depth, variety, and a highly refined understanding of composition and expression. And just as Guthrie himself defied classification—as a folksinger, writer, poet, entertainer, radio personality—so, too, does his art. It is at once illustrative, abstract, socially conscious, bawdy, comical, and serious. With a wide spectrum of media Guthrie created art that stands on its own merits and is an integral part of his overall creative métier.

Beginning as a commercial artist, Guthrie first earned money as a sign painter, displaying a facility for the vernacular typography of the day. He would also paint large murals on storefronts, signed simply "Woody." One, advertising Cudahy Bacon, led to a job offer from a Cudahy executive passing through. He'd illustrate various products and submit them to companies, receiving job offers, cash, or food in return. He would also draw caricatures of bar patrons, receiving money or drinks as payment. While on stage entertaining he would even draw cartoons to keep audiences amused.

Concurrently, he began painting in oils: landscapes; portraits of Lincoln, Jesus, and family members; as well as copied classics, such as Gainesboro's Blue Boy and Whistler's Mother, which he then sold or swapped (once for a Martin guitar). He would spend his days painting and nights playing music.

Art historian Ellen G. Landau sees in Guthrie's early work a similarity to that of Thomas Hart Benton, and there is no denying there is a relationship both in their equalitarian, worker's view of the world, and the elongated stylized figures. However, I think we can find Guthrie's influence somewhat closer to home. As an adolescent in Okemah he was a fan of the popular Captain Billy's Whiz Bang magazine, published by Fawcett. Begun in 1919 as a mimeographed pamphlet, by 1923 it boasted a national circulation of 425,000. The humor magazine, somewhat risqué in content, accompanied articles with cartoons and illustrations by the leading artists of the day. There is a striking similarity to Guthrie's early work and these depictions of a slightly darker side of American life, with people inhabiting saloons and speakeasies during the prohibition.

More significant still is the influence of Will Rogers on the impressionable Guthrie. Rogers—radio personality, entertainer, movie star, rope-twirling monologist, writer— was born in Oklahoma in 1873. He began as a columnist for the McNaught Syndicate in 1923, and his wry observations of politics written in the simple vernacular of the West were picked up by more than one hundred newspapers within two years. The number swelled to some four hundred by the early 1930s, and it is estimated that more than forty million people read his daily column. Rogers's columns railed against the corruption of bankers in favor of the plight of everyman, and the hypocrisy of the elite. He was not a visual artist himself, and his essays were accompanied by single-panel cartoons that illustrated the editorial content. And although the illustrators varied, one mainstay was Nate Collier. Collier, born in 1883, was a popular cartoonist of his day, and the one closest associated with Rogers, having illustrated Rogers's first book The Illiterate Digest, published by the A. L. Burt Company in 1924.With his economical use of line, hatching, and white space, as well as comical characters, Collier appears to have influenced Guthrie right along with Rogers's prose. Into the bargain, Collier created a pen-and-ink doppelganger for Rogers, in due course something Woody would do for himself as well. When Guthrie was to begin a column of his own, his cartoons would accompany his essays, in a much looser fashion than Rogers or Collier—one that was (what I was trying to say is that both the writing and the art was looser than Rogers and Collier) unmistakenly Guthrie.

The argument could be made that Guthrie was simply working the current cartooning style of the day. There is as much a relationship between his playful renderings to both animated cartoons of that period and syndicated newspaper comic strips as to anything else. Whether this was a result of correspondence courses, or studying art and cartooning books at the Pampa Public Library is unknown. Nevertheless, there are clues left behind. In one of his notebooks in 1942, Guthrie created "Rubber Face John" who guides "Railroad Pete" a surrogate for Guthrie's unborn child, through various facial expressions. This was a parody of exercises in how-to-draw books of the day, such as Draw Comics: Here's How—A Complete Book on Cartooning by George Leonard Carlson, Whitman Publishing Company, 1933.

Reprinted with permission by the publisher.

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