Monday, January 30, 2012

Collaborating on a Cigar Store Indian

My first job was at a Pittsburgh advertising studio. Another artist there was Paul Rendel, a very talented illustrator who became both a friend and mentor. Paul enjoyed carving wood, and when I said that his front door looked like a really fun project — he had carved a beautiful sun on it — he suggested collaborating on a wood carving.

I had just finished an illustration with a cigar store Indian, so that's the project I proposed. Paul liked the idea, too. The year was 1976, the Bicentennial.

We decided to do three things in preparation:
  • We each read different books on wood carving.
  • We drew our vision of an Indian, independently of each other.
  • And we visited the Smithsonian's collection of folk art.
left, photo by Edward S. Curtis  |  center and right, the Smithsonian Institution
Our drawings are long gone, but Paul's concept was an accurate depiction of a Sioux warrior, while my concept was a more romanticized and traditional cigar store Indian, which as you can see by the Smithsonian figures above (center and right), was purely fictional.

Our final piece, named Kicking Bear,
was a happy compromise.

Here's Kicking Bear in Paul's garage, at an early stage of the carving. Because uncured wood has a tendency to split, we used wood that was at least 80 years old, salvaged from the Queen City Railroad Station in Cumberland, Maryland. Paul tried various glues for the lamination, including marine glue, but settled on Elmer's Glue.

Because Paul had the working space, and because he was the more experienced carver, Paul did the major part of the carving, and I did detail work (always the detail man). When the carving was finished at Paul's house, it moved to my apartment, where I did most of the painting.

Smithsonian Magazine
Kicking Bear was a real person, an Oglala Sioux who was both a warrior and a medicine man, and sometimes called a prophet. He took part in the battle known as Custer's Last Stand, and shortly thereafter made a pictograph of the entire battle. Above is a detail. (Kicking Bear became a friend of Frederick Remington, and it's believed that Remington had asked him to do the drawing.)

The skirt on Kicking Bear — the statue — faithfully displays that rendering. Above, and at the front of the skirt, are chiefs and medicine men, the battle high command. Below, Custer is depicted alone and unscalped. Kicking Bear explained that the outlines superimposed over the dead cavalrymen were their souls rising.

Around his neck, Kicking Bear wears a bear claw necklace from which is suspended a medal from President Grant. The carved and painted medal replicates an actual one that states, "Liberty Justice and Equality," which of course was a broken promise, one of many.

While Kicking Bear offers a pipe (presumably a peace pipe) he holds a tomahawk behind his back. He appears to have one foot upon a stone, but from the rear, the viewer sees a skull.

The figure of Kicking Bear nests into the base, which proclaims on the front that the tobacco is "Mild & Mellow."

The two sides of the base depict a tobacco farm at different seasons. One side shows the crop in full growth, while the other side side shows the tobacco being dried, or "cured." Note that the barn sides open during the curing process.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
And here we are in a very posed photograph from long ago. Paul Rendel is on the left, and I'm on the right. Needless to say, I didn't actually do any staining in dress slacks!

The carving of Kicking Bear was a year-long project for Paul and me, and Paul's wife endured sawdust in her house for much of that time. A selling price was established for the carving, and I eventually bought Paul's share, though not before Kicking Bear was displayed at several art shows. I later gifted the cigar store Indian to my older brother, at whose home it now resides.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Origin of Cigar Store Indians

 from work originally by Helmle Hiatt | Index of American Design
Museum guides and armchair historians will sometimes tell you that the cigar store Indian was positioned outside tobacco shops for the benefit of illiterate patrons. While there's truth in that, it's not why cigar store Indians became so popular in the 19th century, and the real story is far more interesting.

detail from "Dockside Marriage," by Charles Wysocki
It starts with ship figureheads. From the time of the 16th-century galleons, bows of ships were adorned with figureheads, and shipbuilding ports attracted ship carvers to make them. Figureheads were massive wooden sculptures, and they were a beautiful art form.
This double figurehead is on display at The Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.

from Brian T. Bolten  |
On two days of the American Civil War — March 8-9, 1862 — in a naval battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Confederacy attempted to break a Union blockade. The CSS Virginia (which is known more familiarly as the Merrimack) had successes the first day. On the second day, March 9, it came up against the Union's USS Monitor. It was the first time two ironclad warships engaged in battle, and though the battle was inconclusive, it forever changed naval history. Navies around the world realized that wooden ships, and particularly wooden battleships, were a thing of the past. (You can read more about the famous "Battle of the Ironclads" at Brian T. Bolten's excellent site, here.)

And so those ship carvers, many of them young men, scouted for and found two areas that would be appropriate for their talent.

Painted Ponies  |  William Manns • Peggy Shank • Marianne Stevens
One was carousel figures, like this equestrian horse by Daniel Muller, who is considered the greatest of the carousel carvers.

Painted Ponies  |  William Manns • Peggy Shank • Marianne Stevens
A shop of carousel carvers from around 1900 was a busy place of mass production.
The second industry that ship carvers "carved out" for themselves was that of the cigar store Indian. This handsome figure takes a place of honor in the living room of collectors of American folk art. Today, antique cigar store Indians sell in the range of $50,000. The one above probably cost a lot more because it is the work of Samuel A. Robb, who is regarded as the master of the American cigar store Indian. Recently, a carving by Robb of the English comic character, Punch, sold for $542,400.

According to Terry Kovel, by 1900 there were 100,000 cigar store Indians in use. But slowly, as that Civil War generation of ship carvers died off in the early 1900s, so did the popularity of the carousel and the cigar store Indian.

My next posting will feature my own cigar store Indian.
It was a collaboration with another artist —
a fun project and a good story!


Friday, January 20, 2012

The Allure of Antique Buttons

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my passions is collecting antique buttons. (You can see some of my own buttons by clicking on "The Button of the Month" on my side bar.) This past weekend, I went to a button show hosted by the Florida State Button Society. Collecting buttons has become a hugely popular hobby, and if you had seen the amazing displays that I saw, you wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Millicent Safro   |   Tender Buttons

For sheer size and glitz, the most dramatic buttons are probably those called "Victorian Jewels." These buttons usually measure 1½-2" in diameter and were once used by Victorian ladies on coats and capes.

Most dealers display their buttons on thin cardboards, like the one above. The button you choose can be easily removed from the board.

Millicent Safro   |   Tender Buttons

The show featured a lot of copper 18th-century buttons, also in the 2"-diameter range.

I was introduced to a style of buttons known as "Jacksonians." These were popular in the early 1800s, and were used on waistcoats. Though they were produced by different makers, they were all made from brass, had the same distinctive rims, and measured approximately ½". They were worn on civilain clothes, despite looking rather military.

Betsy Ciffone   |   Heavens to Betsy Antiques

Betsy Ciffone of Clinton, Tennessee, stores her buttons in jewel displays, and antique buttons are indeed often little gems. One of her buttons that caught my eye is the tintype portrait below. Such photographic buttons were a popular genre in the mid-1800s, although this was the first one I'd seen.

Betsy Ciffone   |   Heavens to Betsy Antiques

This is a framed display made by John C. Hepler, a tailor who started collecting in the 1850s. Mr. Hepler is famous among button collectors because in the 19th century he had the largest collection in the country, numbering over 78,000!

Jerry DeHay   |   The Buttonpusher
Uniform buttons, and not just military ones, are popular with men. The buttons above are from livery, the uniforms of servants. Families of nobility and wealth would have personalized buttons made with their own family crests.

Button dealers buy large collections and often have lesser buttons in quantity. Some will put their excess in a large tray and sell them for a flat price. They call such trays "pokes," and this is what a one-dollar poke looks like.

I'm a neophyte at all this, but I'm having fun. I'll be sharing my purchases with you each month on the side bar, but in the meantime, here's a little sub-grouping of Victorian buttons I've collected that appeals to my love of things Neoclassic. I call this grouping "gods and heroes."


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Designer Spotlight: Steve Jobs

I've been reading Walter Isaacson's new biography of Steve Jobs, and it's a fascinating, unvarnished look at a very complex person. With a fierce drive that was both left-brain and right-brain, Jobs created groundbreaking tools that advanced technology, but which were also beautiful to look at and beautiful to use. He was an uncompromising perfectionist, and a man of style and taste. So I thought that today I would mention some of his own takes on design.

When the AppleII case was being designed, Steve Jobs looked at more than two thousand shades of Pantone beige and was not satisfied with any of them. He actually wanted to create a new shade of beige, but was talked out of it by Mike Scott, Apple's then-president.

Jobs scoured Macy's for product designs and fell in love with the Cuisinart (the image above is the vintage machine that he would have studied). He brought a Cuisinart back to the Apple headquarters and explained that he wanted a machine that looked "friendly." "User friendly" is a phrase that would become synonymous with the Macintosh, and white would become Steve Jobs' color of preference.

Ansel Adams   |  Moonrise, Glacier Point, 1948

At his first house, Jobs had no chairs, but he hung Ansel Adams photographs on the wall and sat on the floor next to an antique Tiffany floor lamp.

Courtesy of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass   |

Steve Jobs was a great admirer of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and he was so intrigued by Tiffany's ability to mass-produce fine art, that he took the whole Macintosh team to visit a Tiffany exhibit. He wanted them to know they were not just great programmers — they were artists!

Bill Atkinson, one of Macintosh's lead programmers, came up with the algorithm that would allow the Macintosh to draw circles and ovals. Jobs said that drawing circles, ovals and squares wouldn't be good enough, that users would need to draw squares with rounded corners. When Atkinson scoffed, Jobs took him outside and within three blocks pointed to about 18 examples, including a No Parking sign. Atkinson was sold and programmed a tool for making squares with rounded corners.   |

At the time that the casing for the Macintosh was being designed, Steve Jobs was driving a Porche 928. He said he wanted the computer to look like the classic car. I don't see the connection, but if you look at the back of the Porche, you'll definitely see the back of those later, colorful iMacs.

Calligraphy by Hermann Zapf  |  Champion Papers

While at Reed College, Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class. He loved the beauty of script, and it is one of his legacies that today we have many handsome computer type fonts from which to choose.

Incidentally, it was Steve Jobs who championed WYSIWYG (pronounced "wiz-ee-wig"), which is an acronym for "What you see is what you get." Older readers will remember when computer type was reversed from black screens!

And now, back to my reading ...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Remembering Ronald Searle

Ronald Searle, Britain's preeminent cartoonist and caricaturist, died December 30, 2011, in the south of France, at the age of 91. His unique and instantly recognizable style was a huge departure from the editorial, book and advertising illustration of the 1950s, and he quickly became very popular. Besides numerous publications in England, Searle illustrated many covers for the New Yorker, and over 100 books. His work inspired a generation of artists.

Searle's obituary in the New York Times, which is interesting reading, can be found here, and a blog dedicated entirely to his work can be found here.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bad Hair Day

I recently bought an ambrotype (in a gutta percha case) to add to my photographic collection. The sitter has very unkempt hair, and as I look at this image, I wonder if it might have been too much for the photographer to produce a mirror. "Oh, my, has the wind picked up? Why don't I allow you some time to get yourself together before we begin the session?"

Of course the photographer might not have had a mirror. In our own age of materialism, it's hard to imagine that 50 years before this photograph was taken, the average American family lived without carpets or curtains, usually owned only one or two candlesticks, and had just enough chairs in the house for family members to sit down to a meal. Jack Larkin's fascinating book, The Reshaping of Everyday life, 1790-1840, says this about the households of 1800:

"... Most walls were bare, as well; American houses were strikingly poor in images. Appraisers found fewer than one household in ten with a painting, print or engraving. Only looking glasses, or framed mirrors, broke the empty expanse of walls, and most houses had no more than one or two. Their rarity made them important objects, prominently placed in the parlor or sitting room. Not only was a looking glass crucial for respectable grooming — a family without one surely faced some difficulty in looking presentable — but it also helped eke out scanty illumination by throwing back reflected candlelight."

Perhaps in the immediate following decades, grooming — particularly of the hair — retained a lower standard. And so I submit to you a gallery of prominent political celebrities of the mid-1800s. You can decide for yourself.

William C. Bouch, Governor of New York, 1843-44

Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States, c. 1850

Henry Clay, Senator from Kentucky
and two-time nominee for Presidency of the United States, c. 1850

James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, 1859

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, 1858

Horatio Seymour, unsuccessful Democratic candidate
for Presidency of the United States, 1868

And for good measure, I'll throw in the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed circa 1850, on a good day.