Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Don Freeman

Skitzy: an afterword

The stage is set in San Diego. A pigeon is nested in the letter B of an electric light sign on top of a tall building, a theater. The bird leaves its nest, flying above the city. Below, in the playhouse, a spotlight shines on a young man, age 21, trumpet in hand. An artist, who since the age of five, has been making theatrical skits with his brother and the neighborhood kids in Chula Vista. It is time to leave the nest and find brighter lights. As he raises the trumpet to his lips, the auditorium is filled with the liveliest depression era jazz. These are rough times, the late 1920's, and the stock market is set to crash. Still, the talented and the restless shall prevail.

Don Freeman is a survivor. He makes it across the country on his musical talents. When he arrives in New York, he is set on becoming an artist. He loves this city, because it is the energy of the street life and the theater that empowers his work. By night, his trumpet is his meal ticket. By day, his career is living; capturing life. He is out on the street with a sketchpad documenting what a photographer cannot. His pictures capture an energetic realism through the eyes of a cartoonist.

A cartoonist? It is easy to say this in retrospect, when Dr. Seuss and Jan and Stan Berenstain are household names. Though in a time when picture books were not necessarily cartoony, Don's work defies such labels. We can call him a classically trained artist as well as an illustrator and humorist. His work remains independent, for it is both serious and cheerful. When one night he loses his trumpet on the subway, he comes to realize his focus. He will make a living with his drawings.

If his life were a picture book, it would begin with a ringmaster's whip and a cheer from the crowd. Above all, Don was an entertainer. His work reflects an optimistic spirit with a grand theatrical sentiment. Like the title of his autobiography, Come One, Come All; it is a life worthy of many optimistic introductions and enthusiastic afterwords. For it is a show worthy of revivals. This is definitely not the first time his work has been celebrated after his passing. In 1980, The Day Is Waiting was published featuring a strung together story from the many unpublished sketches and watercolors Don made while preparing his stories for children. And more recently, the 40th anniversary of his most beloved book, Corduroy, featured an afterward with Don's preliminaries and letters to his editor.

Skitzy is a book created around the time Don was embarking on his third career as a creator of books for children. Published in 1955, it ties together Don's humorous storytelling skills with his keen observations of street life as documented in his self-published magazine Newsstand. At this time, Don had been a New Yorker for nearly 25 years. Quick at sketching from life, Don also had the patience to transfer these pencil drawings on stones and plates. A master lithographer with an outstanding sense of color design, Freeman literally created thousands of prints throughout his early years in New York. Newsstand was a chance for him to collect and distribute work. While he painted as well, Don had a stronger interest in art that was reproducible. In this sense, he could sell and distribute the work himself, without the constraints and pretensions of a gallery.

While Newsstand documented life on the streets of New York City, the public was more familiar with another aspect of Don's work: the theater. As a regular contributor to both the New York Times and the Herald Tribune drama page, Don's theatrical drawings, as wide as the stage, stretched across three columns of text. In these drawings, the drab and often somber attire of the poor were replaced with beautiful showgirls, spectacular costumes and fantastic backdrops. The strength of these theatrical drawings was not only Freeman's ability at depicting the players, but also the depth of the stage itself. His pictures often gave the viewer something they couldn't get even if they attended the show; a backstage perspective.

Don attended the theater, drew the theater, and the books he created have the suspense and old-time presentation of this insider's world. The first of these books that truly created the stage setting which would make Freeman's work unique was Pet of the Met from 1953. The story takes place on a set of a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. In it, the focus is on the goings about backstage, although we also get glimpses of the concert itself and the audience's reaction. In a sense, this book would later be reworked into the even more effective Norman the Doorman (1959) the second of his books to make use of wide, stage-like pages and a backstage perspective. Freeman often revisited both this theme and format throughout his career. Most notably was Hattie, the Backstage Bat (1970). This book, while not as well known as the others, is an amazingly perceptive parable of an outsider's view on the joys of the theatrical life.

In terms of style, Don did not follow trends. His drawings always remained loose and without borders. Sometimes he worked in watercolors, and other times in charcoal or scratchboard. While his work was often whimsical, the settings were usually realistic. He pushed the limits of children's books by being one of the first artists to create effective African-American characters and stories where humor was as important as a moral. In 1954, he created Beady Bear in a bold, black and white scratchboard style. The style and theme in this book share many similarities to the book that would become Corduroy. Corduroy's success is in part due to the combination of the Beady Bear style with Freeman’s more theatrical settings. Where Beady Bear differs is that the story features a journey out—a toy bear learns from a book that there is a world outside of the boy's house in which he lives. He sets out to find a cave and make new discoveries.

This journey out, away from the staged set, must have been on Don's mind at the time. As his focus became more on children's books and less on the theatrical world, his characters too, began to escape. In Mike's House (1954), a book illustrated by Freeman, a young boy loses his way en route to the library and discovers a new adult world of policemen and waitresses. Similarly in Mop Top (1955), a boy embarks on a journey out about town to get a haircut only to have some strange encounters with his neighbors before returning home. An even greater escape fantasy, however, comes from this very book, a much more personal story of Don's.

While Skitzy is by no means a children's story, it shares the sophistication and diligent execution of the above-mentioned works. Where it lacks in finished style and color, it makes up for in the spontaneity and confidence of its execution. It also differs from the picture books, in that rather than relying on text, it’s a mostly wordless story. In order to compensate for the lack of descriptive text, Freeman uses more pictures. This deliberately gives the book less of a staged look and imbues it with more action than any of Freeman’s works before or after. In fact, many of the sequences in Skitzy have an almost animated style, which is quite different than his picture books.

Ten years earlier, Freeman had illustrated James Thurber's The White Deer. Similar to Thurber's most famous work, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Skitzy represents in a humorous manner, perspectives of a working class man's fantasies. Like Thurber's The Unicorn In The Garden, which was made into an animated cartoon in 1953, there is an emphasis on psychology and the tension between man and wife. Both works are unique attempts from the time period at bringing mature themes in a cartoon format to an adult audience.

While not necessarily autobiographical, it would not be incorrect to view this as one of Don's most personal pieces. Unlike Thurber's Unicorn In the Garden (which originally appeared in The New Yorker), Skitzy never really had an audience. It was a piece that Don published himself several years after he had wrapped up his work on Newsstand. If the character is to represent Don, the author of Skitzy is a separate persona than the children's book author. Here is an artist who has gone out on his own, created a questionable artwork that might not have an audience, and decided to sell it himself. It is a bold, brave work. Perhaps it was ahead of its time.

If this is Don's New York success story, the work still remains humble. His 1971 children's book, Penguins of All People, also features a fantastical journey to New York. In this case, the father Penguin seeks success as an ambassador from Antarctica at the United Nations. When the penguin takes the stage, he amuses the crowd with his nervous antics. It is then that the simplest of intentions seems to be an answer to all of the world's problems - laughter . When the father returns home, he realizes that his son, whom he had originally ignored, provided him with this solution from the beginning. Therefore, in Don's more realistic journey out and return home, it is no coincidence that he continued to explore these themes in children's books. His picture books, while hugely successful, still remain personal and honest. Probably the best evidence of this is that his son Roy, shares the namesake of his other most well remembered creation, Corduroy.

Since Don Freeman's death in 1978, several of his unpublished books have been given a new life through posthumous printings including Gregory's Shadow and Earl the Squirrel. Even if you are familiar with all of Don's 32 picture books, Skitzy still has plenty of surprises to offer. I am thrilled that after more than fifty years this work is now being rediscovered by a new audience. There's even a happy ending. Don wouldn't have had it any other way.

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