Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Dr. Seuss: The Man, Artist and fellow Yellowfisher
Today is the 50th anniversary of the children’s classic, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss and being of sound yellowfish mind and body what better time to take a few minutes to look at the life and art of Dr. Seuss. It states on DrSeussart.com that, “Seuss single handedlyforged a new genre of art that falls somewhere between the Surrrealist Movement of the early 20th Century and the inspired nonsense of a precocious child’s classroom doodles.”
His life is a fascinating one. But we shouldn’t be surprised by that however in reading over his biography I saw a life lived in the yellowfish zone - be it while he was working as an illustrator for a magazine, in the advertising department at an oil company, developing short animated films for the war efforts, writing his chldren’s books, painting and sculpting his own fine art or simply tending to his garden...he saw art in everything and reading it is a great reminder to us all that being true to yourself and working hard at something you are passionate about is what it’s all about. Enjoy!
The following excerpt is from the Dr. Seuss Art website at www.drseussart.com. Please visit the site for the full biography as well as to see the many images and photographs.
Childhood Yes, there really was a Dr. Seuss. He was not an official doctor, but his prescription for fun has delighted readers for more than 60 years. Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Ted”) was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Theodor Robert, and grandfather were brewmasters and enjoyed great financial success for many years. Coupling the continual threats of Prohibition and World War I, the German-immigrant Geisels were targets for many slurs, particularly with regard to their heritage and livelihoods. In response, they were active participants in the pro-America campaign of World War I. Thus, Ted and his sister Marnie overcame such ridicule and became popular teenagers involved in many different activities.
Despite some financial hardship due to Prohibition, Ted enjoyed a fairly happy childhood. His parents were strict, but very loving. His mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, had worked in her father’s bakery before marrying Ted’s father, often memorizing the names of the pies that were on special each day and ‘chanting’ them to her customers. If Ted had difficulty getting to sleep, she would often recall her ‘pie-selling chants’. As an adult, Ted credited his mother “for the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it” (Morgan, p. 7).
If you’ve never seen a photograph of Dr. Seuss, you probably picture him as a young child or a grandfatherly gentleman. You may not have considered his robust years as a college student.
Ted attended Dartmouth College and by all accounts was a typical, mischievous college student. According to Judith and Neil Morgan, co-authors of Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel and personal friends of his, “Ted grew to respect the academic discipline he discovered at Dartmouth—not enough to pursue it, but to appreciate those who did” (Morgan, p. 28). He worked hard to become the editor-in-chief of Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth’s humor magazine.
His reign as editor came to an abrupt end when Ted and his friends were caught throwing a party that did not coincide with school policy. Geisel continued to contribute to Jack-O, merely signing his work as “Seuss.” This is the first record of his using the pseudonym Seuss.
Graduation from Dartmouth was approaching, and Ted’s father asked the question all college students dread: what was Ted going to do after college?
Ted claimed to have been awarded a fellowship to Oxford University and the elder Geisel reported the news to the Springfield paper, where it was published the following day. Ted confessed the truth—Oxford had denied his fellowship application—and Mr. Geisel, who had a great deal of family pride, managed to scrape together funds to send him anyway. Ted left for Oxford intending to become a professor (he couldn’t think of anything else to do with an Oxford education). It would be the first of many turning points in his career.
Sitting in his Anglo-Saxon for Beginners class, his doodling caught the eye of a fellow American student named Helen Palmer. Helen suggested that he should become an artist instead of a professor. He took her advice and eventually, he took her hand in marriage as well.
Judge, Standard Oil/Advertising
Marriage and career, however, did not come quickly. Ted needed to earn a living before he could think of a life with Helen. He decided that he could make a living as a cartoonist, and was thrilled when one of his submissions was published in The Saturday Evening Post. His work caught the eye of the editor for Judge, a New York weekly, and Ted was offered a staff position. Many of the characters from these sketches resemble the more-familiar characters of his books: Horton-esque elephants, turtles that look like Yertle, and Nizzard-like birds.
Standard Oil recognized Ted’s talent—or at the very least, his obsession with Flit, the pesticide Standard was manufacturing at the time—and offered him a job in their advertising department. Flit’s competitor, Fly-Tox, offered Ted a similar contract and in true Ted Geisel form, he flipped a coin to make the decision. As a result, the phrase “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was introduced into the American vernacular (Morgan, p. 65). In all, Ted spent over 15 years in advertising, primarily with Standard.
World War II
While Ted was not an advocate of war, he knew that war against Japan and Germany was imminent. Ted contributed anywhere from 3-5 urgent political cartoons each week to PM Magazine, considered by many to be a liberal publication. Despite the steady work from PM, however, Ted wanted to contribute more to the war effort.
At 38, Ted was too old for the draft, so he sought a commission with naval intelligence. Instead, he wound up serving in Frank Capra’s Signal Corps (U.S. Army) making movies relative to the war effort. He was introduced to the art of animation and developed a series of animated training films, which featured a trainee called Private Snafu. At first, many balked at the idea of a “cartoon” training series, but the younger recruits really responded to them. The Private Snafu assignments that Ted oversaw included scripts set to rhyme (Morgan, p. 109).
Ted also contributed to two Academy Award-winning films during his stint as a soldier. Few copies of the films under their original titles remain (Your Job in Germany and Your Job in Japan), and it is unknown as to whether any copies of the Oscar-winning remakes, Hitler Lives and Design for Death, respectively, exist. (Morgan, pp. 118 –120, and Cohen).
Ted was still contributing to Life, Vanity Fair, Judge, etc., when an editor at Viking Press offered him a contract to illustrate a collection of children’s sayings called Boners. While the book received bland reviews, Ted’s illustrations were championed; he considered the opportunity his first, official “big break” in children’s literature (Morgan, p. 72), and another turning point in his career.
By this time, there was no question that Ted could make a living as an illustrator and cartoonist—but he also enjoyed writing. While traveling on the luxury liner Kungsholm, Ted became bothered by the rhythm of its engines. At Helen’s urging, he applied the incessant rhythm to his first children’s book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.
Though Mulberry Street is a delightful peek into the vivid imagination of a child, publishers in 1937 were not receptive; in fact, Ted presented his manuscript to 27 publishing houses and received 27 rejections. Discouraged, Ted literally bumped into an old Dartmouth friend who happened to work at Vanguard Press, a division of Houghton Mifflin. His friend offered to take the manuscript and illustrations to show them to key decision-makers. Vanguard wound up publishing Mulberry Street, which was well received by librarians and reviewers.
His next career turning point was in response to Rudolf Flesch’s book and John Hersey’s article, both entitled Why Johnny Can’t Read; the premise for both article and book was that children’s books were boring. Hersey was outraged with the current primers, calling them “antiseptic” and the children in them “unnaturally clean.” He called for illustrations “that widen rather than narrow the associative richness the children give to the words,” and concluded that the work of artists like Geisel and Walt Disney would be more appropriate (Morgan, pp.153-54).
So in an unusual act of “sharing” an author, Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked Ted to write a children’s primer using 220 new-reader vocabulary words; the end result was The Cat in the Hat. Houghton Mifflin reserved textbook rights and Random House reserved retail/trade rights. While schools were hesitant to adopt it as an “official” primer, children and parents swarmed for copies.
Though Ted’s road to children’s books had many twists and turns, The Cat in the Hat catapulted him from pioneer in children’s literature to definitive children’s book author/illustrator, a position he has held unofficially for many decades since.
A doodler at heart, Ted often remarked—with a twinkle in his eye—that he never really learned to draw. His school notebooks often included bizarre creatures that framed sporadic notes he had taken in class.
For over 60 years, Dr. Seuss’s illustrations brought a visual realization to his fantastic and imaginary worlds. However, his artistic talent went far beyond the printed page, as in his Secret Art works – the paintings and sculptures he did at night for himself that he rarely exhibited during his lifetime. Seuss always dreamed of sharing these works with his fans and had entrusted his wife, Audrey, to carry out his wishes once he was gone. Audrey, too, believed the work deserved further recognition and that Ted himself would one day be evaluated not only as an author, but also as an artist in his own right.
In 1997, this dream was realized when The Art of Dr. Seuss project was launched. For the first time in history, collectors were able to see and acquire lithographs, serigraphs and sculptures reproduced from Geisel’s original drawings and paintings. In her introduction to the collection Audrey Geisel wrote, “I remember telling Ted that there would come a day when many of his paintings would be seen and he would thus share with his fans another facet of himself – his private self. That day has come. I am glad.”
This historic project has opened the world’s eyes to the unique artistic talent of Dr. Seuss and, as such, galleries, museums and collectors have helped make Audrey Geisel’s promise, and Dr. Seuss’s dream, a reality.
Now, just 15 years after Ted passed away, these artworks have toured to leading galleries and museums across the world, establishing Seuss as a significant artist of the 20th century. Today limited edition prints and sculptures of Dr. Seuss artworks can now be found at galleries along side the works of Rembrandt, Picasso and Miro.
When Ted needed to clear his thoughts or relieve creative block, he often took an afternoon walk through his garden. Ted considered gardening and tending to his trees other art forms altogether, and his work in this “media” created a soft, pastoral setting.
According to Ted, however, his greatest work wasn’t a particular book or lavish gardens. Ted considered his greatest contribution to be the Lion Wading Pool at Wild Animal Park in San Diego, which he donated around 1973 (Dr. Seuss from Then to Now, p. 80).
Click the link here to read the rest of the biography: Dr. Seuss Biography
Images are copyright Dr. Seuss Properties, Photography by Phillip Ritterman.