In 1956 I was 20 years old and I went to work for a correspondence school called The Famous Artists Schools. They offered courses in illustration, painting, cartooning, writing and photography. They could never figure out how to do the sculpture thing through the mail so we didn’t have a sculpture course. Each course had 12 famous artists at its head (they wrote the material and held stock in the company). In the Cartoon Course our famous artists were the likes of Willard Mullins, Milton Caniff, Virgil Partch, Rube Goldberg etc..
I was as green as a cucumber and didn’t really know anything about cartooning but I was a fast learner and I possessed a great passion for the art. My boss was Bud Sagendorf who drew Popeye and he gave me week-end work sitting next to him on his porch at a drawing board helping him churn out the Popeye comic book. My second mentor was Pete Wells who had drawn the Katzenjammer Kids for King Features. My third and last mentor was Barney “Bud” Thompson who had drawn Capt. Marvel Jr. and girly cartoons for Life and Judge and Playboy.
They each taught me so much and I really owe my career to them. Pete especially was a role model. At his elbow I donned a green eye shade, rolled up my sleeves and laid in big pools of black with a #290 pen. He showed me how to dry up the puddles by puffing on my cigar and then holding it close to the drawing. Invaluable stuff.
I’d say Pete, “I just met this terrific guy!”Pete would say, “Can he draw cartoons?”I’d say, “No!”He’d say, “Then what good is he?”Pete would also take me to National Cartoonist Society meetings at the Lamb’s Club in New York where I met Otto Soglow, Bill Holman, Walt Kelly and many many others.
Back at the school we got visits from Partch and Norman Rockwell and Ben Shahn. I smoked cigars with Rube Goldberg. That was my beginnings.
I left the school in 1964 to pursue some animation and illustration work and it wasn’t until years and years later that I ran into Pete Wells again. They had decided to have a big reunion of FAS instructors. It must have been in the 1980’s. We had a big exhibit of everybody’s work. By then, I had long left the traditional cartoon styles I had worked in at the school and had forged on with lino-cuts and some pretty unique abstract cartooning. Pete was a complete traditionalist and had often kidded me about my “modern” tendencies. Barney and Bud were a little more approving of my early explorations.
So there we are at the big reunion art show and I was anxious to see my old mentors. I had sent in a couple of “abstract” big pieces I had done. One, I remember, was “King Pest”…an illustration for the Poe story of the same name. Suddenly Pete appeared out of nowhere…in front of me breathless. He didn’t say “How are you? Long time no see”. No…what he said was…”Randy, Randy quick follow me around this partition…someone has put up some God awful stuff and they put YOUR name on it!
Good ol’ Pete Wells…I miss him.