Saving Jim Flora’s Private Stash: An Interview with Irwin Chusid

Filed Under: Inspiration , Voice , interview

Irwin Chusid, the host of a free-form music and talk show on WFMU is also the author of The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora, the chronicle of a pioneer cover illustrator for jazz albums. Currently, Chusid is on a mission to archive Flora’s extensive collection of original artifacts. In this interview, he talks about the need to preserve original design in a safe, accessible venue and the difficulties encountered along the way.

Heller: Why should we be interested in the work of Jim Flora?

Chusid: He was a well-known record album designer and children's book illustrator from the 1940s through the 1980s, but little is known about these lost works—"lost" in the sense that those familiar with his LP art and kids’ books have never seen these bizarre creations.

Heller: What are these bizarre rarities?

Chusid: A lot of his work is cartoonish. [3] It's fun to look at, evocative of childhood nostalgia and dereliction of adult responsibility. There are clowns and kitty cats, grinning faces and beaming suns. But despite his later reputation for G-rated kid-lit, Flora, in many of these works, did not restrain himself from expressing darker impulses. There's no shortage of guns [5] and knives and fang-baring snakes. Muggers run amok, demons frolic with rouged harlots and Flora's characters suffer from severe disfigurement. These elements–the banal and the violent–often co-exist within inches of each other on the canvas.

One burlesque-tinged absurdity is entitled "The Rape of the Stationmaster's Daughter." [6] These humorous grotesqueries echoed, and in many cases foreshadowed, the 1950s Harvey Kurtzman-era MAD magazine, as well as the underground comix of the late 1960s. This is not to say that Flora influenced such descendents. His visible commercial art was necessarily milder, less beastly. The more macabre works remained largely out of the public eye.

Heller: Jim Flora was a unique image maker in his day, and certainly one who has influenced or stimulated a lot of the fantasy-art brut illustration of today. There must be a huge trove of his work; how is it being archived?

Chusid: We haven't counted the pieces in the collection, but it runs into the hundreds: paintings, watercolors, drawings, woodcuts and a lot of long-unseen early commercial work. There are six sketchbooks from the 1940s on. [10] We're developing a plan to have it photographically documented, and we're talking to Fantagraphics about three more books. We hope to mount a gallery or museum exhibit. This stuff needs to be admired, not stored in a meat locker.

Heller: Archiving is quite costly, and even some very important designers and illustrators are unable to find a proper home for their work. Are there any institutions or libraries that have expressed interest in obtaining the Flora works?

Chusid: We're not there yet. Nobody knows it exists. The Flora family had intended to sell the pieces, one by one. My sense is that they—and possibly even Flora himself—didn’t recognize the historic value, as well as the broad appeal, of these works. When you grow up with something in your household—particularly the way Flora did his "job"—you tend to take it for granted. But to those outside the domestic circle, your neighbor's unusual "job" becomes an object of fascination. [8]

I've persuaded the family to retain the collection. They've done a great job keeping it safe and well preserved. It's in a clean, climate-controlled storage facility in Connecticut. You couldn't drive a car bomb into that place.

Heller: With so many pieces (some of which we show here), how do you determine what is and is not important enough to retain and catalog?

Chusid: It's in the eye of the beholder. You measure the "WOW!" factor. [1]

Heller: What is Flora's ultimate value to history? Is it art? Is it design? Is it a legacy of how music has been interpreted through art and design?

Chusid: I'm not a visual artist, art authority or art historian. I don't claim to have a highly refined sense of visual aesthetics. But Jim Flora's edgier work resonates with me in a peculiar, unfathomable way. I could psychoanalyze the reasons—well, you could—but ultimately the effect is all that matters. I've noted this with countless others who see Flora's work.

The man had a way of shattering a certain aesthetic barrier, to make the blind see, a not unremarkable feat. He once said that all he wanted to do was "create a little piece of excitement." He overshot his goal with many of these works. He exemplifies the commercial artist who didn't have to compromise. When you hired Flora, you got Flora, and you hired Flora because you wanted Flora. He wasn't versatile. He wasn't a chameleon. His work looks like what Flora did best: be himself, as an artist.

Heller: He appears to be the quintessential interpreter of jazz. Is this accurate?

Chusid: His approach to music themes was to create what Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell termed "bebop for the eyes." [9] Gary Baseman calls it "visual jazz." Flora said he "hated a static space;" every square inch of his canvas is filled with activity. Bebop was many things, but it was never "static." The man knew his muse.

Heller: Would you say he was happy being an illustrator?

Chusid: Flora was married to an artist, Jane Sinnicksen, whom he considered a superior fine artist. The indications are that he decided to go in the opposite direction—lowbrow [2], and thus his style of fractured caricature evolved. But he wasn't a "starving artist." He made a good living as a commercial illustrator, raised five children, and paid his mortgage. He traveled, and exuded joie de vivre. What this collection reveals is what he did when he wasn't being paid to help hawk merchandise or entertain tots. It's as if he was exorcising his demons. Instead of being a serial killer [4], he painted and sketched. I suspect he often stepped back from the canvas, examined his work, and gave a sinister chuckle.

Heller: You produced a book on Flora's work, The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora (designed by Laura Lindgren for Fantagraphics). Did it increase his fan base? Do you see more people interested in or even copying Flora's method?

Chusid: His fan base has definitely increased, if Mischievous Art... book sales and eBay activity for his LP covers are indicators. As for people copying Flora's method, [7] that's been going on for years. Some of today's more successful commercial artists—Shag, Biskup, Baseman—were smart enough to steal from Flora when he was obscure. But each has taken Flora's ideas and created something that's uniquely their own.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com