Elwood H. Smith is an illustrator who speaks a language that appeals to various strata of readers. I can remember my father laughing out loud at the comics. I have read The New York Times for thirty-five years, and they deign to include the ‘comics’ for it’s low brow aesthetic. That is fine with me, but there is some humor lost here. Dagwood is the spirit of Elwood Smith – simple, to the point and under the radar. Smith was born in Alpena, Michigan on May 23, 1941. He studied art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Institute of Design at IIT, in Chicago.
As a child Elwood poured over the Sunday comics in the Detroit Free Press. “I spent hours studying the colorful halftone images. I remember comparing the cartoonists’ drawing skills, separating the great ones from the lesser ones.” Another rich source of art flowing into my own household was The Saturday Evening Post.
The magazine featured cartoons by the likes of John Gallagher and Henry Syverson (my favorites) but nothing excited me as much as the arrival of a new Saturday Evening Post cover illustrated by Norman Rockwell. It wasn’t until I met my high school art teacher, Nancy Boyer Feindt, that I stretched beyond my narrow, but carefully constructed world of art. My parents weren’t familiar with the arts but they were genuinely supportive of my determination to be an artist and, later on, my desire to play the guitar. My father worked as a foundry foreman in a factory. He built my first electric guitar with wood supplied by his pattern maker.” Clearly, Elwood Smith had supportive parents.
After spending eight years learning typography and design as an art director for a small publishing company and several advertising agencies, and a career as a guitar player, Elwood began his career as a full-time illustrator. Smith had been torn between art and music. He moved into the business arena, “I was a poor fit for the corporate world.” Smith even contracted an ulcer. He spent some time in Chicago sharing a space with the noted illustrator, Slug Signorino, and then moved to New York City.
“When I moved to New York, I was stimulated by all the illustrators I met at parties & art openings. Many of them were heroes, like Seymour Chwast, Milton Glazer, Paul Davis, Ed Sorel and Marshall Arisman. It was a heady time hanging out with highly creative illustrators like Guy Billout, Steven Guarnaccia and Lou Brooks; and designers like Michael Doret and Chris Austopchuk. The people and the energy of New York City were crucial to my growth as an illustrator during the five years I spent living there.”
This was a grand era of design in the United States. Paul Rand was aging, and Pentagram from London were doing amazing work in graphic design; Milton Glaser (whom I met) was doing with ‘Push Pin Studios’ remarkable posters, and Massimo Vignelli, who died this year, was redesigning the New York City subway map that is still in use today.
This author, doing his best work, had the opportunity to work with some of these greats, many of whom emanated from the Design program at Yale, specifically designers Bennett and Elton Robinson.
Despite Smith’s vast talent for humor and his illustrative ability as a child, he spent two years at a mediocre art school in Chicago, “I attended some evening classes at Chicago’s Institute of Design. Mostly, though, I’ve learned through observation, imitation and gobs of elbow grease.” He and his wife Maggie Pickard, who passed away recently of pancreatic cancer after thirty years of marriage, moved to Rhinebeck, NY in the early eighties.
As a child, and common with gifted ones, Elwood Smith did not feel he fit into the peers around him. Elwood drew from an early age, and received support from his parents. Smith drew as means of acceptance. His high school supported Smith’s talents, when we had art class in school, and encouraged him to attend an commercial art school. His work is reminiscent of Edward Gorey without the mystical aspect, and much more celebratory. Smith’s gift is simple straight humor with characterization of personas. Smith “formulated a style” when he arrived in New York. “I tried to converge my various influences into one, and what resulted was a very cartoony thing done with tight cross-hatching.” What he called his ‘first New York stylistic incarnation’ was, however, noted for its very mannered, very stiff line, accented with wit. “I got work right away because art directors could see something that was a little different.” There is an ease of character here, that defies the usual ‘artist’ angst deal.
Elwood Smith today is an award-winning, internationally known illustrator whose work has graced the pages and covers of TIME, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, American Heritage, Forbes and Fortune among other publications. His art has been featured in advertising campaigns for SONY, Inglenook Wine, Ameristar, Land’s End, The Wisconsin Humane Society, TGI Fridays, Seitsema, Praxair, QVC, Gametek, Samsung, Mrs. Field’s Cookies and many others.
Elwood Smith’s wife and “creative partner” Maggie Pickar, said on his website, elwoodsworld.com:
“When a new job comes in, Elwood usually gets so excited that his head splits open like a ripe cantaloupe. The ideas & drawings spill out into the project like sour cream on a baked potato. Like Reddi-whip on a hot fudge sundae.” How very loving and touching this characterization is. The work and world of Elwood Smith surely inspires creativity for young, aspiring, gifted illustrators.
I‘ve been away from Drawger for much too long. I’m in the process of moving to Great Barrington, MA from Rhinebeck, NY and I might not post often until the dust settles, but I’ll check in here as often as possible. It’s been one hell of a roller coaster since Maggie died on March 25th of last year. So much has happened since that day in February when we found out she had Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I look forward to the move to my new home. There’s much more to tell, but I won’t bore those who’ve taken the time to peek at this entry. I’ll add more to the saga in upcoming posts.
My favorite gig these is creating art for the New York Times Science Section. The marvelous art director is Peter Morance, someone I’ve known since my earliest days in New York City. The editor & writer is Dennis Overbye and the two of them are an illustrator’s dream team. At least they are for me. Here’s my latest illustration for the column.
Best Wishes, E