Vail Daily column: Art for sale
Ryan Summerlin January 24, 2014
If I had to make a living with my artwork, I could do better with a cardboard sign and a beard at a boulevard stop somewhere.
When I was only 10 years old and living with my grandparents and my great uncle, I used to watch him make wonderful pen and ink drawings in his diary. I tried in my own crude way to copy what he was drawing. Rather unsuccessfully, I might add, but I did start copying the cartoons from the funny papers which was good practice.
Several years later, that all changed when my grandmother gave me a book on cartooning that changed my life forever. “Fun With a Pencil” was written by Andrew Loomis and it described very nicely how to draw cartoons the simple, easy way.
Within a month I had dropped out of my mechanical drawing class and enrolled in a commercial art class. I was drawing cartoons on anything that was put in front of me. I even had cartoons on the edges of my geometry lessons.
When I went in the Navy in 1942, I started making cartoon sketches of what Navy life was all about. Before long I published a book, “The Navy Goes To College.” I had the local junior college print shop do the work for me and I bought the paper and paid for the binding. It took almost a year to double my money, but it was profitable and I never looked back.
My next creative artwork was on the porch of the Badger Pass ski resort in Yosemite. I started putting my ski cartoons on the bulletin board every day after lunch and about the fourth day someone offered me a dollar for the pencil drawing. It was fun, it was easy and it was profitable. I was skiing all day every day except for the half hour it took to draw the cartoon. When I got shipped back overseas, I converted all of my notes to finished artwork and had my first ski cartoon book ready to self-publish by the time I got discharged.
That first ski cartoon book led to a part-time career drawing cartoons on the casts of people who had recently broken their legs. If I timed it right, then the patient would still be groggy from the ether and not hungry. That way I could get their dinner and maybe $2 for the cast murals. Not too bad for a guy living in the parking lot in an 8-foot-long trailer.
‘Are My Skis on Straight?’
During that winter I sold out all of my copies of “Are My Skis on Straight?” At the same time I collected more than enough cartoons for my third ski cartoon book and snagged my first commission to paint walls full of cartoons.
I wanted to paint them in the skier’s dining room but my idea was taken over by the artist in resident at the lodge in Sun Valley, Max Barsis. As compensation for the idea, the general manager, Pappy Rogers, let me paint carton murals on the employee cafeteria walls. He gave me a season’s pass and free meals as long as I was still painting them. (You can imagine that it took me all winter to paint them, considering I was getting free food.) Those cartoons were only taken down about 10 years ago. A friend who is still in Sun Valley took photos of them all and printed them out for me as a reminder of those fun but lean years.
It was beginning to look like the paint brush was mightier than the ski pole.
This led to a $200 set of murals in Chuck Helm’s ski shop in Ketchum. Not bad when the monthly salary of most people in the Wood River Valley in those days was about $150 a month.
At Squaw Valley in 1949-50 while I was teaching skiing and starting to produce my first feature length ski movie, I was also busy painting casts and creating a pen and ink cartoon every day. I was still selling them for a dollar each and doing pretty well. Every time I sold 11 of them I could buy another roll of 16-millimeter film for my future movie.
On a night off from showing the current film in Boyne Mountain in 1954, I went to a mountain top restaurant party.
It was a brand new place with newly painted white walls. Before I knew it, it was after 1:30 and I had one wall almost completely full of my ski cartoons. I only had colored Sharpie-type pens to work with so I figured in the spring they would all get painted over and the lodge could revert to its elegance. They are still there today and covered with plexiglass so no one can deface them.
John Kircher, who grew up skiing at his father’s ski resort, Boyne, and remembering the cartoons I’d drawn at the restaurant at the top of the hill, asked if I’d do a set on the walls of a new restaurant he was building at Crystal Mountain near Seattle. Laurie knows how long it takes me to paint a mural on a wall and she suggested that I have large decals made of the cartoons so I wouldn’t have to play like Michelangelo and hang off a scaffold, upside down all winter. While I was at it I had a smaller set made for our home here at the Yellowstone Club in Montana.
The past four books I have published have been full of my cartoons and my book on wine terminology is nothing but cartoons.
Pen and Ink Drawings
Way back in the spring of 1948, I made five serious pen and ink drawings of some famous skiers of that era. I made them with a fine quill pen and they have hung in my office very since. About 20 years ago, a man who had a gallery in Vail said, “Why don’t you lithograph them, hand paint them, number them and autograph them to the buyer.” I thought I could sell them for $25 each. He said he would start at $75 each and raise the price as demand dictates. Today a set of these five hand painted lithographs surprises me by selling for a lot of money.
Unfortunately, my eyesight is going away and my ability to draw is going with it. But I have often been lucky in having fun on the walls of a lot of places that I have visited.
I have really been lucky to have been given that cartoon book by my grandmother at such a young age. That ability has gotten me through some rough financial spots in my life. It has brought a lot of joy to me to create the art and to the people who have viewed it, I think. I still devote more of my office space to my drawing board and materials than I do to my writing space.
To date, I have published 10 books and written three others waiting for publication, and all but one of them has some of my cartoons. Right now, I am putting the finishing touches on my autobiography. So far it is 529 pages, not counting cartoons and photographs. I did find the first ski photograph that I ever took. It was in 1940 taken with a 39-cent, Univex plastic camera.
If I can get some of my eyesight back, then I hope there will be more fun days at the drawing board to come.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.