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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta, Illustrator, Dies at 82-- A remembrance of a man I didn't know

I never met Frank Frazetta.

I always wanted to, and came close a few times. First while working as an agent for one of my painters that knew Frank, we always talked of visiting the museum in Pennsylvania, but it never materialized...everyday life got in the way, I guess. But it was always in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do. Then, the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan, of which I am a member, planned a field trip to the museum as well, but I was out attending a convention or some such...

Still, I felt as if I sort of knew him already. My friend often enthusiastically regaled me with wonderful stories about lunches with Frank, visits to Frank's beloved museum, and contests to see who could eat the most wasabi and not wimp out. Oh man... Or accounts of his advice to upcoming artists, and brutal honesty with others...

Frazetta was indeed one of those bigger than life alpha male personalities, I think, that infused his work with part of his own being, as surely as someone like a Buster Keaton was able to infuse his in the characters he created on celluloid.

What Frank gave to his work was indefinable. But it didn't stop people from trying to define.

There was just something about Frazetta's paintings. A power, a savagery, a beauty, a rawness, a subtly, all mixed together, that many have oft tried to copy, without success. Sure, they sometimes get close to mimicking by recreating in measured brush strokes what Frank did with a mad-genius staccato, but what can never be mimicked or recreated, or copied is a soul. And that's something Frank's work had in spades.

People that know me have heard this rant before, but I lament the advent of the digital age of painting. Yes, many of my friends are making a good living doing digital pieces. I for one think it's a dangerous and slippery slope... probably just because I love originals. I'm biased. I admit.

I love walking into a museum and seeing the actual painting on the wall, noticing the little cracks in the aging canvas, realizing that that mark is most likely the artist own thumb print, or that painted over hair could be his own, or perhaps a sable strand out of his or her own brush.

That is exciting to me!

Perhaps I am old fashioned. It wouldn't be the first time I've been called that. I am an old soul, I think, and have always thought--The kid sneaking out of my room late at night to watch the old black and white movies on TV, keeping the volume really, really low, my head pressed against the screen almost, so that my parents wouldn't hear and tell me to go to bed. (Not that my Dad would have. :-) More often than not, he found me asleep on the floor or couch getting up at 4:30 am to head off to his postal route. He'd cover me with a blanket, but he never told me I couldn't watch the Midnight Movie. )

I'm glad he didn't. My dreams and my imagination would be alot less populated.

My point being that the romance of a certain age, a certain style-- that never really goes out of style--the power of a well-written tangible bound book, or the beauty of a fierce and masterful oil painting, has a life of it's own that transcends the ages.

That is how I have always felt about Frank Frazetta's work.

His Conan pieces, his King Kong cover, his voluptuous women, down to the way the moss grows out of rotting tree stump in his worlds-- unmistakable Frank.

When I joined the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan some years ago now, what drew me in was the sense of history of the place. Walking in and having a glass of wine or lunch, surrounded by the originals of Montgomery Flagg, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish... it's mind blowing for someone who loves art...and above the bar there once was a drum (originally owned by Al Parker, now sadly moved to a corner under the clubs new directorship), on which many of these heroes of my illustrated world signed their names-- Rockwell, Jon Whitcomb, C. Peter Helk, Ben Stahl, John Atherton, Tom Lovell, Harold Von Schmidt, Steven Dohanos, Coby Whitmore... and the signature that stood out the most to me, unmistakable-- Frank Frazetta.

His passing on Sunday, as much as anything, makes me wonder with the advent of digital books and digital painting and digital pictures, and digital this and digital that.... what originals will we have to hang on the walls 50 years from now? What will survive. What will be thrown away. What will have the time to germinate and become classic?

What will define our collective experiences?

I really didn't think Frank would last long after Ellie-- his wife and life-partner of many years who passed recently. They seemed so connected. A yin/yang relationship. His weaknesses her strengths perhaps. An understanding that comes with a good match. The kind we all hope our relationships will be.. at least us romantics...

As said, I never met Frank or Ellie, but I did negotiate one contract with her years ago. I always attribute to Ellie-- who seemed to be a tuff-as-nails kinda business women-- for helping Frank create his lasting persona in later years. The Alpha Male side of him, mixed with his genius and body of work, certainly provided the clay for the production.

Of course, he gave her alot to work with.

Having been associated with the art world for some time now, there are some things for sure: There are many talented people. Many people that have potential and ability. A much smaller percentage of those people have the stamina or drive to be successful, and even a smaller percentage take their art to that undefinable level, where no matter what they are drawing or painting, the stamp of their individuality is unmistakable. Sure Frank had his own influences, which I'm sure have been catalogued ad nauseum, just as he has influenced countless others. But, whatever he got from his influences, was distilled into something quiet singular.

Now that's a Wyeth! Now that's a Parrish! Now that's a Frazetta!

When an artist or writer or creative does reach that level, they are golden! They have transcended this earthly plane, beyond the scope of a time measured in the tiny number of years we are allowed. They become part of each person who experiences, and "gets it." Part of our collective experiences, as I said. Part of something that lives longer than any of use reading these words now.

Frank Frazetta will be one of those artists for many.

Including me.

The New York Times Obituary on Frank Frazetta reads "Frank Frazetta, Illustrator, Dies at 82; Helped Define Comic Book Heroes." Hum.... I think he defined much more than that. He defined dozens of worlds, he was catalyst and inspiration for countless paintings and prose and movies, of which we'll probably never fully realize. Perhaps some may not even be aware of his influence ON them.

Something in the collective ether that touched a lever in so many people's creativity.

And it can also be much more simple than all of that.

For me, I do know, that every time my dreams take me to Cimmeria , it will be Frank Frazetta who is my prop master, the costumer head, the set designer in that particular dream scape.... and so many others.

And for that, and his individuality, I thank him.



Frank Frazetta, Illustrator, Dies at 82; Helped Define Comic Book Heroes

Frank Frazetta, an illustrator of comic books, movie posters and paperback book covers whose visions of musclebound men fighting with swords and axes to defend scantily dressed women helped define fantasy heroes like Conan, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, died on Monday in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 82.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said Rob Pistella and Stephen Ferzoco, Mr. Frazetta’s business managers.

Mr. Frazetta was a versatile and prolific comic book artist who, in the 1940s and ’50s, drew for comic strips like Al Capp’s “Lil’ Abner” and comic books like “Famous Funnies,” for which he contributed a series of covers depicting the futuristic adventurer Buck Rogers.

A satirical advertisement Mr. Frazetta drew for Mad earned him his first Hollywood job, the movie poster for “What’s New Pussycat?” (1965), a sex farce written by Woody Allen that starred Peter Sellers. In 1983 he collaborated with the director Ralph Bakshi to produce the animated film “Fire and Ice.”

His most prominent work, however, was on the cover of book jackets, where his signature images were of strikingly fierce, hard-bodied heroes and bosomy, callipygian damsels in distress. In 1966, his cover of “Conan the Adventurer,” a collection of four fantasy short stories written by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp, depicted a brawny long-haired warrior standing in repose on top of a pile of skeletons and other detritus, his sword thrust downward into the mound, an apparently naked young woman lying at his feet, hugging his ankle.

The cover created a new look for fantasy adventure novels and established Mr. Frazetta as an artist who could sell books. He illustrated many more Conan books (including “Conan the Conqueror,” “Conan the Usurper” and “Conan the Avenger”) and works by Edgar Rice Burroughs (including “John Carter and the Savage Apes of Mars” and “Tarzan and the Antmen”).

“Paperback publishers have been known to buy one of his paintings for use as a cover, then commission a writer to turn out a novel to go with it,” The New York Times reported in 1977, the same year that a collection of his drawings, “The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta,” sold more than 300,000 copies.

Frank Frazzetta was born in Brooklyn on Feb. 9, 1928, and as a boy studied painting at a local art school. (Early in his career, he excised one z from his last name because “with one z it just looked better,” Mr. Pistella said. “He said the two z’s and two t’s was too clumsy.”)

Mr. Frazetta began drawing for comic books of all stripes — westerns, mysteries, fantasies — when he was still a teenager. He was also a good enough baseball player to try out for the New York Giants.

The popularity of Mr. Frazetta’s work coincided with the rise of heavy metal in the early 1970s, and his otherworldly imagery showed up on a number of album covers, including Molly Hatchet’s “Flirtin’ With Disaster” and Nazareth’s “Expect No Mercy.” Last year, Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist for Metallica, bought Mr. Frazetta’s cover artwork for the paperback reissue of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan the Conqueror” for $1 million.

Mr. Frazetta married Eleanor Kelly, known as Ellie, in 1956. She served as his occasional model and as his business partner; in 2000 she started a small museum of her husband’s work on their property in East Stroudsburg, Pa. She died last year.

Mr. Frazetta is survived by three sisters, Carol, Adel and Jeanie; two sons, Alfonso Frank Frazetta, known as Frank Jr., and William Frazetta, both of East Stroudsburg; two daughters, Heidi Grabin, of Englewood, Fla., and Holly Frazetta, of Boca Grande, Fla.; and 11 grandchildren.

After Ellie Frazetta’s death, her children became embroiled in a custodial dispute over their father’s work, and in December, Frank Jr. was arrested on charges of breaking into the family museum and attempting to remove 90 paintings that had been insured for $20 million. In April, the family said the dispute over the paintings had been resolved, and the Monroe County, Pa., district attorney said he would drop the charges.

As reported in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/arts/artsspecial/11frazetta.html?ref=obituaries

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