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The saga of how one of the most famous paintings of a forest fire was created and what happened to it resembles at times an international spy thriller. An article in Forest History Today (“Untamed Art,” Fall 2008) by historian Stephen J. Pyne tracked that mystery but had no ending because no one could say where the original painting then was. Nearly a decade later, he picked up the trail.

It’s the archetype globally for most prints, and probably most paintings, of a forest fire. But the reproductions come themselves from earlier reproductions. The original, Lesnoi pozhar, is a mammoth painting created by the Russian artist, A. K. Denisov-Uralsky, around 1900.

The story, briefly, is this. Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky was born in 1864 in Yekaterinburg, grew up in the family trade crafting displays of semi-precious stones, then moved into painting, particularly scenes from the Urals; for years he was the very epitome of a starving artist. He obsessed about painting fires on the landscape, from grass fires to crown fires. His breakthrough came in 1900 with an exhibit, “The Urals in Art,” in which he displayed his climactic effort, Lesnoi pozhar, or “The Forest Fire.” More triumphs followed. He agreed to contribute the massive painting  (198 by 270 cm; 78 by 106 in.) to the Russian exhibit headed to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

The Russian pavilion, however, was dismantled shortly before the fair opened out of pique over American support for Japan in the Russo-Japanese War. Instead, the 600-piece exhibit was displayed on consignment to a Russian entrepreneur named Edward Grunwaldt.  Denisov-Uralsky’s masterpiece won a silver medal and was reproduced in color by several newspapers under the title The Untamed Element. The reproductions were themselves reproduced, copy after copy, for advertising, fire prevention posters, calendars, and simply as prints. Reproductions appeared in silk tapestry and on porcelain teacups. (Today you can find reproductions on eBay or printed on items for sale on Etsy.)

Through various frauds and incompetence, virtually every piece of Russian art entrusted to Grunwaldt disappeared. The artists got nothing and heard nothing. Somehow Lesnoi pozhar ended up in the hands of Adolphus Busch, the beer magnate, who in 1926 hung it in the foyer of a hotel, The Adolphus, he was refurbishing in Dallas. In 1950 it was relocated to the hospitality room of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis. Then, in 1979, for reasons that are still murky, August Busch decided to donate the painting to the U.S. government, which, through the vehicle of the National Endowment for the Humanities, repatriated it to the Soviet Union. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin alluded to plans to send it to a museum in the Urals. In fact, it had again vanished.

The original during the repatriation ceremony in 1979. From left to right: James Symington, a former congressman from Missouri, who assisted in arranging the hand-over; Joseph Duffy, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who acted as an intermediary agent between the Busch family and the government of the USSR; and Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador. (Courtesy Robert Williams)

In 2014 the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts hosted a major exhibition on Alexei Kuz’mich Denisov-Uralsky, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth. It tracked down many of his fire paintings, but was unable to locate Lesnoi pozhar. The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., refused to comment. No art or political authority in Russia knew where it had gone. Months after the exhibit had ended, however, word came that the fugitive painting may have been located in the basement of a museum in Tomsk. A photograph and measured dimensions suggest that it is in fact the elusive original. As yet no one has positively identified it nor restored it, but the curator of the Yekaterinburg exhibit, Ludmila Budrina, is confident this is the original.[1] It seems Lesnoi pozhar has passed yet another way station on its long odyssey homeward.

Stephen J. Pyne is the author of numerous books on the history of wildfire around the world. His most recent publications are Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and its accompanying series “To The Last Smoke.” An excerpt from Between Two Fires is available in FHS’s magazine Spring 2017 edition of Forest History Today.

NOTES

[1] Ludmila Budrina wrote an update on Denisov-Uralsky’s fire paintings: “Wildfire in A. K. Denisov-Uralsky’s Canvases: Destinies of the Paintings,” Quaestio Rossica No. 2 (2015): 41-51.

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Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 18, in which we examine Rusty Scrapiron.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Keep Oregon Green, a statewide fire prevention program formed in May 1941 by Oregon Governor Charles Sprague and 250 state leaders who sought to replicate a similar program started in Washington the previous year. The purpose of Keep Oregon Green was to get the general public to embrace forest fire prevention, and in the decades that followed a massive publicity effort blanketed the state. One key component of the Keep Green campaign was the artwork found on posters, illustrations in various publications, and other promotional items. In Oregon, the artist behind much of this was Hugh Hayes.

Keep Oregon Green cartoon by Hugh Hayes

A 1949 Keep Oregon Green cartoon by Hugh Hayes.

Hugh John Hayes Jr. dedicated his life’s work to Oregon’s forests. He worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps in eastern Oregon after high school, and then as a draftsman with the Oregon State Board of Forestry in Salem. Following service with the U.S. Army during World War II he worked for the Oregon State Department of Forestry from 1945 until his retirement in 1976. Throughout his long career Hayes drew countless illustrations, cartoons, maps, posters, architectural plans, field guides, and much more.

Hugh Hayes cartoon 1948

Hugh Hayes cartoon for The Forest Log from January 1948.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Hayes provided regular illustrations for The Forest Log, a monthly publication of the Oregon State Board of Forestry. Most of his illustrations for The Forest Log had a Keep Oregon Green tie-in or other general fire prevention message. In the May 1950 issue he debuted a new character: “Rusty Scrapiron.” Rusty made his entrance to the world in the final panel of Hayes’s May 1950 strip, literally being pulled into the frame by a reckless smoker who had unknowingly started a forest fire.

Rusty Scrapiron May 1950

Final panel of Rusty Scrapiron debut comic, May 1950 (click image to view full strip).

Rusty Scrapiron was a ranger and fire warden who battled careless hunters and other nuisances in defense of Oregon’s woods. Rusty’s adventures and humorous hijinks usually carried some sort of fire prevention message (even in a strip where he becomes a substitute baseball announcer, he is seen putting up a Keep Oregon Green sign in the first frame). Often he would be seen heroically battling wildfires, though with a touch of humor. At least one strip, however, dispensed with jokes altogether just to carry a fire warning about power saws.

Rusty’s character traits also seemed to deviate from strip to strip. While he usually outsmarted troublemakers, occasionally he was portrayed as dimwitted (like once mistaking his own pipe smoke for a fire). He also seemed to be somewhat short-tempered: strips sometimes ended in violence with Rusty knocking out careless smokers or pummeling men who dare denigrate his profession. Through it all though, Rusty’s heart was always in the right place as he adamantly and unapologetically defended Oregon’s forests.

Rusty Scrapiron

The strip appeared monthly for nearly two years in The Forest Log, ending its run in March 1952 for unknown reasons. But Hayes’s work continued. He still provided periodic illustrations for The Forest Log and his influence over fire prevention efforts in the state endured for decades. Hayes is probably best known for the Keep Oregon Green place mat he created in 1959. This detailed, illustrated map documenting the history and culture of Oregon was widely distributed for use in restaurants throughout the state. Following his initial “retirement” in 1976, Hayes continued to do contract work for the Department of Forestry through 1993, including an illustration for the department’s 75th anniversary featured on the cover of Forest Log in 1986 (the inside cover included a photo of Hayes at work and a brief look back at his career).

Hayes passed away in 2013 at the age of 98, but his legacy lives on with the still active Keep Oregon Green organization. His Rusty Scrapiron creation – like other forgotten forestry characters – lives on here at the Forest History Society. Below are some of our favorite Rusty Scrapiron classic comic strips.

Rusty Scrapiron September 1950

Rusty Scrapiron strip, September 1950 (click image to enlarge)

Rusty Scrapiron Nov 1950

Rusty Scrapiron strip, November 1950 (click image to enlarge)

Rusty Scrapiron Jan 1951

Rusty Scrapiron strip, January 1951 (click image to enlarge)

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Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 16, in which we examine Tim Burr.

Tim BurrIn July 1949 the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company debuted the first issue of its new company-wide magazine. Weyerhaeuser Magazine was targeted to company employees and featured company news across the various branches, as well as features on Weyerhaeuser employees both on the job and away from work. The inaugural issue of the magazine also introduced to the world a brilliantly-named character: Mr. Tim Burr.

Tim’s purpose was to promote workplace safety, similar to previously profiled characters like Herman I. Cautious and Paula Bunyan. But unlike Herman and Paula, who were committed examples of proper workplace behavior, Tim was a bit more of a daydreaming klutz. While a good-natured worker, Tim continually ran into trouble while on the job.

The brief item announcing his introduction in Weyerhaeuser Magazine describes him as follows: “It’s not that he isn’t a good worker—he is. The unfortunate thing about Tim is that he’s a dope when it comes to safety.”

In his first appearance, Tim falls down the stairs at work while dreaming of an upcoming vacation. In subsequent appearances he gets stuck in sawmill machinery, runs into trouble while self-administering first aid, forgets to wear a gas mask at an inopportune moment, and gets hit by a falling tree. The five-panel Tim Burr comic strips always ended with Tim either in the infirmary or covered in bandages (usually both).

Tim Burr comic #1

First two panels of first-ever Tim Burr comic (July 1949). Click to view full strip.

The Tim Burr comics were drawn by artist Jack Keeler, who spent much of his early career in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to some information provided by Keeler’s grand-nephew we now know a lot more about the artist’s life and work.

Keeler was born in Wyoming in 1923 but moved with his family a few years later to Everett, Washington. In the early 1940s he attended the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Following service in World War II, Keeler went to work as a comic artist. His work appeared alongside icons such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in various 1940s comics (Keeler created characters such as Soapy Sam, Junior Genius, and the Rosebud Sisters).

During the time of Tim Burr, Keeler was working for an advertising agency in Tacoma, Washington. In 1950 he moved to Los Angeles and then later to New York where he achieved great success in the advertising industry. One of the original “Mad Men,” Keeler was the creative genius behind Folgers Coffee campaigns in the 1960s, and also did work for the 1967 Chevy Camaro, Western Airlines, Heinz Ketchup, and many other brands.

As for Tim Burr, his career proved to be much, much shorter. After taking a physical beating for a year, Tim made his final appearance in the May 1950 issue of Weyerhaeuser Magazine (we assume this coincides with Keeler’s departure from the Tacoma area). In the following issue (August 1950) a new safety character was introduced (stay tuned!), drawn by a new artist. A short item stated: “Tim Burr has retired to a well-deserved rest.”

Like all our Forgotten Characters, though, Tim continues to live on here in the Forest History Society Library and Archives. Continue below for more classic Tim Burr comics drawn by Jack Keeler.

Tim Burr #2

Tim Burr comic September 1949. Click to view full strip.

Tim Burr #3

Tim Burr comic November 1949. Click to view full strip.

Tim Burr #4

Tim Burr comic January 1950. Click to view full strip.

Tim Burr #5

Tim Burr comic March 1950. Click to view full strip.

Tim Burr #6

Tim Burr comic May 1950. Click to view full strip.

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Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 15, in which we examine Joe Beaver.

Joe BeaverBefore there was a Smokey Bear or a Woodsy Owl, the U.S. Forest Service had another animal preaching the messages of forest conservation and fire prevention: Joe Beaver. Joe (an actual beaver, not the 8-time world champion cowboy) was the creation of legendary cartoonist Ed Nofziger, who worked for the Forest Service during World War II before moving on to the large animation studios of his day. The story of Joe Beaver’s creation is intertwined with Nofziger’s divergent career path into the world of forestry.

Ed Nofziger was born in 1913 and raised in California, graduating with an art degree from UCLA in 1936. His work as a cartoonist soon took him to New York, where he became a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. The outbreak of World War II altered his career path, though, bringing him renown he might otherwise have never attained.

As a member of the pacifist Church of the Brethren, Nofziger was a conscientious objector during the war. When conscripted in 1943 he was assigned to the Forest Service as an alternative to military duty. Nofziger was first sent to a Forest Service station in Cooperstown, New York. Despite having no previous forestry experience (other than being the son of a West Coast lumberman), he took to the work and soon put his own unique skills to good use. Nofziger came up with the idea for Joe Beaver as a way to combine humor with a message of forest conservation.

The Joe Beaver cartoon first appeared in The Otsego Forest Cooperator, a publication of the Otsego Forest Products Cooperative Association in Cooperstown. The character was successfully received, and the Forest Service decided to promote the cartoon on a national level. In 1945 Nofziger was transferred to the USFS office in Philadelphia as Joe Beaver’s audience continued to grow. The Forest Service distributed the comic to lumber and trade journals and other publications throughout the country.

Joe Beaver cartoon

Dr. Hardy L. Shirley, the director of the Northeastern Forest Experiment Station for whom Nofziger worked in Philadelphia, described Joe Beaver as “a practical woodsman who is part philosopher, part forester and part hard-headed business man.”

Besides speaking, though, Joe Beaver didn’t take on other human characteristics like similar animal characters. Joe never wore clothes or a hard hat, for example (a la Benny Beaver and others). He was presented as a regular beaver living in the forest, dedicated to spreading the message of conservation.

Nofziger and the Joe Beaver character continued to get more publicity as the cartoon spread nationwide. The overseas service edition of Life magazine in August 1945 featured Joe Beaver cartoons in the “Speaking of Pictures” section. Life had this to say about Joe: “His toothy grin is not that of a clown; it comes, rather, from the bustling good spirits of someone trying to get a job done and done well. Joe is smart, practical and has the native pride of a skilled craftsman. Despite the sarcastic spoofing of his slow-witted beaver pals, Lumberman Joe feels a deep sense of responsibility and concern for their welfare, their sometimes crude work methods and, above all, for America’s forests.”

Feature articles on Nofziger and Joe also appeared in the New York Herald Tribune (September 9, 1945) and the Long Island Star-Journal (January 10, 1946), the latter of which declared: “A man who never studied a stump of forestry in his life, Nofziger is making the experts in timber conservation all over the country sit up and take notice–and all with the air of one who feels he hasn’t done enough.”

Despite this success, Nofziger never received any extra income for the Joe Beaver character, who was officially owned by the Forest Service. This didn’t bother him. “Joe is trying to do a service for the people of this country and better forestry,” Nofziger stated in an interview. “He does not contribute to my family income. He is a public service. He is given away free.”

While with the Forest Service, Nofziger also completed the short book Two Trees, created from hand-carved linoleum prints. This story of two trees named Ashton and Elmer provided a message to children of the importance of proper forest management.

Two Trees

Nofziger kept turning out Joe Beaver cartoons through the end of the 1940s. His career aspirations eventually led him back to California. He moved on from the Forest Service and into full time animation, working for UPA studios drawing “Mister Magoo” cartoons and later for Hanna-Barbera where he drew “Ruff and Ready” and other characters. (While at Hanna-Barbera he may have been involved with the Sniff and Snuff characters, but we don’t have confirmation of that.)

Nofziger passed away on October 16, 2000. In his obituary published in the Los Angeles Times, fellow artist Roger Armstrong praised him as one of “the finest cartoonist of animals in the last half-century.”

Joe Beaver comic

Continue after the jump below for a small selection of classic Joe Beaver cartoons. (more…)

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Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 14, in which we examine Abel Woodman.

“A Character is Coming to Crossett.”

This was the headline on a small announcement item greeting scrupulous readers of the December 1947 issue of Forest Echoes. As our faithful Peeling Back the Barkers know, Forest Echoes was the popular local monthly magazine published by the Crossett Lumber Company of Crossett, Arkansas, between 1939 and 1962. But who was this new character being teased in the magazine’s final issue of 1947? Curious readers were assured of an answer in the new year: “Don’t miss next month’s Forest Echoes, you owe it to yourself to meet this character.”

As promised, the mysterious new character made his debut in the January 1948 issue. Found in a one-panel comic in the back of the magazine was a well-built man with beady eyes, smoking a pipe and holding a large axe. The man was dressed in traditional lumberjack garb (boots, suspenders, flannel shirt) and there was no doubt about his location—a large Crossett smokestack was visible in the background.

Abel Woodman, January 1948

First-ever appearance of the man who would become Abel Woodman, January 1948 (click to enlarge).

The only problem was he had no name. To rectify this, the Forest Echoes editorial staff created a contest, inviting readers to submit their name ideas for the new character. As seen under the cartoon above, the best entry would win a $25 U.S. Savings Bond (side note: The “I ain’t Mr. Hush…” comment references a famed 1946 contest on the Truth or Consequences radio game show, where host Ralph Edwards phoned random people and asked them to identify a mystery voice known only as “Mr. Hush”).

The following month a winner was announced. Thanks to the entry of William “Bill” Preston Haisty, the new character was officially christened “Abel Woodman.”

Winner William "Bill" Preston Haisty, February 1948

Click to view the full February 1948 Abel Woodman cartoon.

Abel Woodman immediately became a regular monthly feature of the magazine. At the back of every issue readers would find Abel delivering a message on forest conservation, job safety, or some other local topic, always in his own humorous way. Like the Forest Echoes publication itself, the Abel Woodman cartoon was a reflection of life in Crossett and Crossett’s view of the world (in this case through the eyes of artist Lee Davis). Abel Woodman cartoons provided a unique commentary on issues specific to Crossett (a new town jail, Crossett High football, a redesigned company logo, the joys of Crossett bleached food board!) as well as more general concerns (taxes, the dangers of drinking and hunting, anxiety over the atomic bomb).

Abel remained a permanent fixture on the inside back cover until the final issue of Forest Echoes in June 1962 (the year Georgia-Pacific purchased the Crossett Lumber Company). For this fourteen-year run, the Abel comic was drawn by artist Lee Davis. In his final year Davis found a way to put himself in the action alongside Abel.

Abel Woodman by Lee Davis, March 1962

Davis did get help from the public along the way. In 1958 Forest Echoes held a “Cartoon Editor” contest, inviting the public to submit “a situation and appropriate remark for an Abel Woodman cartoon.” Ten winners won $10 each and had their cartoon ideas drawn by Davis and printed. The first winning entry (from Lloyd Gardner) was published in March 1958, and is notable in that it foresaw “Moon Trees” a good thirteen years ahead of Stuart Roosa’s journey into space.

Abel Woodman March 1958

The final Abel Woodman cartoon ran in the last issue of Forest Echoes in June of 1962. His glory years seemingly already behind him, Abel had been reduced to company shill—touting the benefits of charcoal made by the Crossett Chemical Company. Despite this inauspicious end, Abel Woodman lives on in Crossett. In 2002 an “Abel Woodman” statue was erected in a small park in the middle of town. The original Abel Woodman also lives on here at FHS in our collection of Forest Echoes magazines, and our other materials documenting the history of the company town of Crossett, Arkansas.

Continue below to view a few more Abel cartoon classics. (more…)

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Eighty years ago, Rudy Wendelin was a young artist fresh out of the University of Kansas School of Architecture struggling like many others to find work during the Great Depression. Relief came in 1933 when he applied for a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, under the new Civilian Conservation program launched that same year. Wendelin got the job, a position as a draftsman with Region 9 of the U.S. Forest Service, and immediately began turning out various artwork, signs, displays, publications, architectural drawings, and much more for the agency. By 1936 the local newspapers were referring to him as “the Ding Darling of the United States [Forest] Service” after the famed cartoonist Jay Darling. Within four years Wendelin would be promoted to the Forest Service’s national office in Washington, DC, and go on to become well known as the primary artist and “caretaker” of Smokey Bear. His time in Milwaukee working on CCC projects, though, was a crucial step towards this future career success.

During his final year working for Region 9, Wendelin drew a series of sketches depicting the forestry work of the CCC that were used in an instructional pamphlet given to enrollees. Woodsmanship for the Civilian Conservation Corps, published annually from 1937 to 1941, served as a guide to using various tools, basic first-aid, poisonous plants and insects, and an introduction to conservation and forestry. Some of the artwork was also used in other CCC materials, like recruitment flyers. The cover image captures the spirit of the CCC then and the perception of it today—the strapping young man made strong from the work and smiling with gratitude for the opportunity.

“The mountains and forests of this country may seem a wilderness to those of the Civilian Conservation Corps who come from the cities and farms,” read the pamphlet’s text. “Experience in the C.C.C. . . . will, however, call for what is known as ‘Woodsmanship’ – the ability to live and work safely, conduct yourself in accordance with your surroundings, and adapt yourself to your environment. No one can be taught woodsmanship out of a book, but here are a few traits of a good woodsman.”

View selections of Wendelin’s CCC art from Woodsmanship below, and consult the Rudolph Wendelin Papers in the FHS archives for further information.

CCC artUsing the Shovel, CCC artwork.
Fighting Fires, CCC artwork. lookout tower art.
Carrying the Crosscut, CCC artwork.
Carrying the D.B. Ax
Felling Trees, CCC artwork.Drill Ye Tarriers
Holding the Ax
Planting Trees, CCC artwork.
Always Break your Matches
Dragon art.

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This holiday season we turn to the U.S. Forest Service History Collection for a little fun artwork. The “Service Bulletin” was the newsletter, initially issued weekly and then later monthly, published by the Washington Office (WO) to keep employees abreast of the latest information from DC and around the nation. They typically were 6 or 8 pages in length, and included submitted news pieces, announcements, and even reminiscences from retiring employees. They are a treasure trove of insight and information about the agency during the period from 1920 to 1942. The Service Bulletin was different from the Information Bulletin, also issued from the WO. That came out every few days and typically was the front-and-back of one page. Items were just a couple of sentences in length, sometimes delivered in list form. We have a run of those from its launch in 1936 through 1956, with a break between 1951 and 1954.

Eleven months out of the year, the WO was all business—only the December issue of the Service Bulletin had cover art, and naturally its theme was tied to the holiday season. The artists who designed the December covers vary, as does the featured subject matter. Some are lighthearted, like the one from 1940 by Rudy Wendelin, whose holiday art we’ve featured before. Others reflect the accomplishments of the past year, such as the one from 1932, when the Copeland Report was issued. We’ve opted to share just a sampler of the covers. And instead of interpreting them for you, we’ll instead let these act as a holiday history exam. Do you know what happened and why it was deemed important enough to document in the artwork? We’ve given you the link to find the answer to “What was the Copeland Report?” Answer correctly to avoid getting a lump of coal in your stocking!

1922 Forest Service Bulletin

Service Bulletin – 1922 (William Greeley was chief for this one and the next one)

1926 Service Bulletin

Service Bulletin – 1926

1932 Forest Service Bulletin

Service Bulletin – 1932 (Robert Stuart was chief)

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