All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Every once in a while, or maybe only once in a lifetime, one will form a friendship that will alter the course of their life. John Fawcett was such a friend, a fellow traveler on a road, where few have tread, with an artist’s eye. Few, indeed, who could see what we were seeing! It’s not like John and I hung out together. We were, for the most part, pen pals, as we lived so far apart. Nor do we even cross each other’s minds, that much, these days. John and his wife Jacqui are now living way up in Waldoboro Maine, where he has opened the "Maine Antique Toy and Art Museum". But John is ever present in Mouse Heaven, in the person of his art.
John’s big colorful paintings color this environment. They are the perfect complement to the collection, and cast a glow that is ever-present. Like the perfect background music, or fantastic lighting, John’s paintings supply an element of Magic that prevents this conglomeration of ancient objects from appearing old and musty.
Upon entering the front door, one of the first sights that meets a visitor’s eyes is this painting by John Fawcett. It is from the era of his work that I like best. It was a fascinating ride, over the years, watching his art progress.
In the beginning, his work was not as colorful as the painting above, but it was always beautiful.
I still remember, vividly, how our friendship began: In September 1968 a photograph of my, then, embarrassingly meager Mickey Mouse collection appeared in Life Magazine. This event changed my life in three important ways. First, from that time forward, I would think of myself as a "Mickey Mouse Collector," officially, which was something that, up until that time, I had been a little bit embarrassed to admit. Secondly, I got a phone call from Maurice Sendak, who became a lifelong friend. And last, but not least, I received a post card from John Fawcett.
John was an art teacher at the University of Connecticut. He had formerly worked in advertising in NYC, and hated the rat race. Ironically, he ended up chasing mice, instead. John and I became traveling companions on the road to discovering the “Golden Days of Yesteryear.” Yesteryear, for him, had a lot to do with the imagery he loved as a kid. But, as an artist, his eye had drifted, from there, to include early Mickey. Yesteryear, for me, was all about a time before I was born, and wonders I was not around to see.
John and I were much alike, both, being only children, and, each, in our own way, enraptured with the World of Comic Characters. The roads we had been traveling were headed in the same direction, but on different paths. John, for years, had been gathering graphics and images of 1930s Mickey. He used them as a basis for his intricate drawings. He owned few, if any, comic toys. I, on the other hand, had several, but I didn’t have a clue as to the existence of the amazing Disney Graphics that flourished in the 1930s that John was recreating, and celebrating, in his art. So, john opened this world of imagery to me, and, at the same time, he began collecting toys.
It was John who alerted me to Brimfield, which was a few miles from his house, in Storrs, and shared it with me. We went there, together, from the beginning, and thus, saw each other, at least, three times a year, with occasional visits, in between. We were like two little boys on an Easter Egg hunt, each scurrying to find the most exciting eggs. Secure in the belief that there were plenty there, we also shared. So, our mutual collections, and our friendship, grew.
One Christmas, the year was 1970, when my family and I had just moved to the country, and HATED it, John who, by the way, was one of the few people on Earth, who could read my handwriting, translated one of my letters, into this drawing, a combination Christmas card and Christmas present. The text, which was copied verbatim, and is, unfortunately, all true, weaves its way, throughout the art, in John's incredibly tiny lettering. Some of the lighter colored ink has faded and disappeared, over the years. Mercifully, the memories of the terrible times that it describes have faded, too.
John's drawings were always inhumanly complex, like tapestries woven with the pen. His penmanship was awesome, and, to this, he added an assortment of images from a huge array of artfully articulated rubber stamps, actual bits of printed matter, and photographs, all incorporated into a final drawing that, technically, might be considered a collage. His drawings were full to overflowing with content, both visual and verbal, the reflections of a mind chockfull of mental memorabilia. They were, in some respects, essays, as much as art. One could read them, like a book. There were frequent flashes of humor, both verbal and visual, ample evidence of John’s ever present wit. And the art was always self-aware, it often commented on itself. And in the tradition of the crazy pictures on the wall, in comic strips, like Smokey Stover and Bringing Up Father, there was stuff happening everywhere. Little characters, running around, and “kibitzing.” Of course, they all spoke for John, himself.
The average drawing began with some piece of preexisting imagery John liked, much of which was early Disney. This he would transfer to the paper, in light pencil. And, from there, he would build upon it, in India ink, layer upon layer, of complicated content, until a theme appeared. Often, it became a mixture of many messages, all woven together by John's incredible penmanship.
The Christmas card, above, of course, was just a lark. Are you ready for the “serious” stuff, yet? If you have not seen John’s drawings before, you will be amazed. But first, let me show you one more example of both his Generosity, and his Compulsion to Create, nonstop! When a series of Comic Character stamps appeared, in 1996, John sat down and produced twenty inspired works of art, on envelopes, and sent them to his closest friends. I was honored to be included on that list. Would you believe that only four responded with words of thanks? And those, myself included, received a special Thank You envelope, thanking them for thanking him! So, here they both are, together, in a frame.
John had a fabulous collection of early publications, books and comic books, and these he adapted and used as a jumping off place for his art. This imagery was all new to me. And I embraced it, enthusiastically. And the early Disney imagery, as it appeared in John’s drawings, drove me crazy. I never could decide if it was early Disney, or Johns treatment that I liked best. Was I reading through his deft and masterly penmanship and focusing on the underlying imagery? I had to admit that the more I liked the original Disney drawing John was using, the more I liked the piece of art he did.
Whatever might be the case, I simply loved his art. And, in spite of the fact that I was spending every cent I made on collecting, I managed to find some money to also purchase some of John’s drawings.
John has an attribute, as an artist, that I greatly admire, and, alas, never possessed. Charles Ponstingl has it too. That is a driving need to create. Both of them do artwork, every day... for its own sake, for the love of doing it. The envelopes, above, are evidence of that constant outpouring. Throughout the years that John was teaching, he was still pumping out art, daily, and showing it at one of New York’s most prestigious and influential galleries, "The OK Harris Gallery."
The gallery's dynamic owner, Ivan Karp, loved John’s art, and purchased several of his works for his own collection. Karp gave John a show, whenever he was ready with a new offering of art. And the shows were successful, some, more so, than others. John, in a sense, was not a gallery owner’s dream. The trouble with the art game, at least back then, was that when something you were doing sold, the gallery wanted you to do more of the same.
John, on the other hand, kept growing and exploring, and with each successive show, a different aspect of his art appeared.
Then, suddenly, John’s work went through a transformation. The bookworm that once fed on literary connotation, suddenly, emerged as a Glorious Butterfly! But, before you see the effects of that transformation, you first must see John’s drawings, the kind he did “seriously”, and profusely, in the heyday of his draftsmanship.
The OK Harris Gallery, took a 100% mark up, so the artwork got expensive. But John would gladly sell me anything, at half price, which was full price, as far as his cut was concerned. This would be, after the show was over, so what was left, was leftovers. Then, one day, I was visiting, just before a show, and John had just completed four drawings that constituted a sort of set. They all had black borders in common. I fell in love with these, and john agreed to let me walk away with them, before they ever made it to the show, where, inevitably, they would have sold. Here are two of them below. The others are out of reach, but you have glimpsed one of them already, trapped between a showcase and the wall, behind the Lars Mickey and Minnie dolls.
There is another aspect to John’s art that you have to visit his house/museum to see. He makes extremely clever sculptures out of found objects, usually wood turnings, and turns them into comic characters. I managed to pry one of these away from him, this stunning selection of lumber yard remnants, magically transformed into an awesome incarnation of KoKo the Clown. Only KoKo’s face was actually carved by John. The rest is made of wood findings, pieces that he found, and brilliantly recycled.
Another example of both John's wit, and his ability to adapt found objects into his own unique creations, is “The Fuller Family”, a sculpture he assembled from a selection of very fancy brushes. Even the brushes, themselves, are unique! Where does one see images, or brushes, like these?
Now for the Transformation! Looking at John’s drawings, one could believe that he might be equally adept at teaching literature. They are so full of literary content, there is nearly as much to read, as there is to see. And, yet, this man taught art! He taught about form, and color, and all the stuff that belongs in art’s domain. And, suddenly, John began to do paintings that were only about the visual, paintings that displayed his ability as a master of playing color games! All quips and quotes and verbal jokes were set aside, and John’s humor and wit were transformed to visual jibes, playing with shapes, and distortion, and chromatic colors that made the eye go crazy with delight!
His first attempts were mild. He would choose a section of existing art and photograph it on an angle, then paint it on a canvas flat. Each canvas was three by four feet. He had a show of these at OK Harris, and it was very successful. He even rendered a section of a toy I made called, "Tricky Mickey". It looked exactly like the toy to me. John told me he was about to make me famous! Actually, Ivan Carp bought that painting, himself, for his own collection, and it, also, became the image he chose to advertise the show. Nonetheless, my promised fame failed to show up.
For his next act, John made a breakthrough, one that I thought was brilliant, and accounts for the fact that I now have a house full of these paintings. John discovered that a modern laser copying machine will create amazing, but natural, distortions if the original material is moved, while the copying is taking place. And if the subject matter is moved fast, the image will flip back upon itself. He would, then, study the distorted print, and extract from it an interesting area. And, this he rendered in acrylics, in wild and crazy chromatic colors, on canvases that again measured 3’ by 4’. And so it was, these paintings became exercises in pure form and color, and John drew upon his knowledge, as a teacher of both design and color, to create paintings that were only about visual things, which in my opinion was, always, what painting ought to be. And the wilder the distortions, and more surprising the colors, the more exciting the work was to me.
The year that John’s Most Amazing Show took place, my own doll, “Baby Face” was also being introduced. In fact, John's opening, and the first day of Toy Fair were on the exact same day, and only a few blocks away. John and Jacqui stayed at our house, and we all drove down together. Here we are at the opening, just before the crowds poured in.
That was a terrible year for art. Karp complained that his gallery hadn’t sold a single work all year. Ivan bought one of Johns paintings, for himself. But, afterwards, half the show came home to me. So, when my first Baby Face royalty check arrived, all of it went right to John. And I found myself with the largest single collection of John Fawcett’s artwork in the USA. And I have never tired of looking at it, every day.
I find John’s art to be a perfect complement to the collection. It interjects a look that is bright and contemporary in character, that brightens the environment, without demanding ones undivided attention. The old and the new coexist harmoniously, and enhance each other.
Here is an example, with which I can demonstrate the effects of Chromatic Color, for those of you, to whom, the term is not familiar. Chromatic Colors are two radically different hues of the same value, which causes them to vibrate in the eye of the beholder.
This painting, I hate to admit, hangs in the bathroom. But, it happens to be a very large and modern bathroom, and that, not just the fact that we are out of space, might argue for its presence, there. Actually, I love where it is placed. I get to stand before it, and admire it, every few hours, every day, and, sometimes, even in the middle of the night. And one of the things that I enjoy is the way it changes, throughout the day, depending on the light, outside. And it, also, alters instantly, with the turning on and off of various lights, inside.
On a summers day, when the lights are off, the green illumination of the forest seeps through the milk glass window, to bring out the shades of green, in the painting, dimly glowing, in the semi darkened room. When the florescent lights, above the sink, are on, as well as the incandescent spotlights, in the high ceiling, the painting is seen in its full color. But with just the florescent lights, alone, all the blues jump forth, and glow. On the other hand, with just the incandescent spotlights on, the painting comes vibrantly to life, with the red elements, emphasized, and giving off a fiery glow.
I never tire of seeing this phenomenon, and you can see it, too, in the slide show, below. Notice, also, the extreme, but natural, distortion. Very little of Mickey Mouse remains, and, yet, his image is still recognizable, mostly from the single pie cut eye!
So, here they are, in no particular order, some of the many paintings that hang around the house. They are all form a series of an intended fifty canvasses. I don’t know how many John, eventually, completed, but, there were many more than those I own. All of them are based on a single piece of art that, ironically, belongs to me. It is this box cover from the rare, and only known example of the Blue Ribbon “Mickey Mouse Midget Library”. John is fascinated by images of Comic Characters making art. And thus, every painting in the series of fifty is a variation on this single image.
This first painting is the only one in the series that represents the traditional Mickey Colors. All the rest Go Wild!
The last of these, is a most interesting piece. Here, John took the actual distorted copier sheets, and adhered them to the canvas, then, painted over each. This is most fascinating! Notice the way each panel seems to join with the ones adjacent to it, to create an overall flow. Oh, and I just made a wild discovery! I own more of the series of 50 than I ever realized! Looking at the back of this, just now, I see that John has written on it “MOUSE ART 18 - 33”. Yeah! I wouldn’t want to have to do 50 of these, either! The 60 pages of this web site were difficult enough! Way to go John! So here are 16 of the series, all on one canvas! I am posting this a little larger, so you can better see them all!
Below, is an odd painting that appealed to me. This is John in his more traditional mode, a painting he did between shows. It pays homage to the "KIX Atomic Bomb Ring," the Ultimate Radio Premium! I sat in the hall closet, for hours, in vain, many many years ago. My Atomic Bomb Ring, simply didn’t glow! I guess I got this painting, as a kind of belated compensation.
And last of all, we come to the wall of the Great Hall. This group of six canvases form three complete paintings. Each set of two was intended to go together. And, all six, in their entirety, recreate the main wall of the OK Harris Gallery in 1990. This is, exactly, the way that they were shown, twenty-three years ago. Twenty-three years, that flew by, oh, so quickly. Over that time, both John and I grew old, but the paintings never did.