Spoiled Tomatoes

Published on 30 November 2023 at 22:18

Medium: Watercolor in Paper

Date: 1970

The Commission

This picture is the frontispiece for the book "Spoiled Tomatoes" with 32 pictures by Jay Ells, published by Bomar in 1970. This was one of twelve FREEDOM BOOKS written by Bill Martin, Jr., about the United States. This collection of books appeared in most schools and libraries throughout the U.S. A librarian in South Carolina said that just the "Spoiled Tomatoes" book itself was so popular in their library, they had to order four more copies.

I received the commission Friday evening on the way to Mancy’s, where I worked from 6 PM to 9 PM selling pictures. I had just come from the Bronx, where I worked with children and parents in the Bureau of Child Welfare from 9 AM to 5 PM. I was late to Mancy’s and resigned that evening. I left the social work job, which I had loved, the next day.

Eleven FREEDOM BOOKS were already completed. I was given only 3 weeks until the publishing date for their twelfth book. I needed 300 hours. I am usually exceptionally good at planning time.


The Pictures

I had worked in color separation at Hallmark Cards, so I had an idea of what to do for publishing. I began drawing my ideas for pictures that first day.

I drew all the pages in pencil. In 1970, printing was different compared to now. Black was printed alone. Bill wanted the black separated from the color. I drew the black with pen and India ink on clear acetate. Half of my time was spent cleaning out the pen points or starting new ones. I used about a hundred pen points. Then I put this acetate over a lightbox. I covered the acetate with watercolor paper. I used Arches 140 lb. cold press. I painted the watercolor with light coming through. I planned all the pages in advance for the colors. I was in a hurry. I mixed each color used for the whole book only once. I used the same orange for every page. I did only one coat. I did all the oranges, then all the yellows, all the blues, etc.

As I began, I received a legal notice for jury duty to begin in two weeks. I was told I could not postpone the duty and that it was for the full two weeks. This was 1970. I began working at night. I needed 100 hours each week. The jury timing could not have been worse. I worked all night during these first weeks. But this was exhilarating. This was my first commission in New York.

Bill checked the drawings after 10 days and approved them. His only comment on one drawing of a spaceship was, “That looks like a penis!” I did not see it, but I changed that part of the image to please my client!

After working the last week, I finished at 8:30 AM as planned and went to Bill’s office to turn in the pictures. I worked 300 hours and finished on time. Bill said I was one of only three artists who finished when they said they would. I arrived at jury duty at 9:30 not having slept for three days. Well, maybe I did relax a bit during jury duty! For the text, I added very elegant and simple lettering, but Bill had hired another letterer for all 12 of the books, so my lettering was not used. My pictures did not always accommodate the new lettering, but I was paid very well. I was exhilarated. Bill said he would buy more from me. Boy, was I happy. I was a ‘commercial’ artist, not some namby-pamby, peculiar fine artist.


The Penis

I grew up in very rural Minnesota and absorbed the values of the area. In my senior year at the University of Minnesota, the Methodist church, where I lived and worked, said, “No kissing before marriage.” The biggest university in the U.S. in the 1950s did not allow beer to be sold within a mile and a half from the campus. In high school, my brother had a date with a very upstanding Catholic girl, but our minister said, “Your brother’s life is now over. He dated a Catholic.” My brother was a teenage church state officer, and the Catholic girl was the smartest in the school. This brings me up to date with the sale of these pictures and my wanting to be in business, not art. Graduating from the School of Business, I did study a lot of history of art, but no art classes. I did not want to be peculiar, as I thought all artists had to be, even when I did not know what “peculiar” meant.

Now, after I agreed to this commission, I had mixed feelings as well. Bill and Peggy, his business manager, and I went to a very fine small bar near their offices to celebrate with a drink. I had never had a drink in a bar, so I did not know the names of any. I had beer, which I knew from my life in the Army. I was on Red Alert! Does selling a book make me gay? When we sat down at one of the 3 small tables by the short bar, two very well-dressed young men came in, greeted Bill and Peggy, and sat down at the bar. At our table, I was the one facing the bar. The two guys began to fondle each other. Then they kissed. Yes, I went into semi-shock. Was this the life I was accepting by accepting a commission? Even to stay in New York and be happy with the fun of my imagination, what could I accept? In my life until then, I had never had the free time I wanted. This commission was a great opportunity for free time. This was the dream of my lifetime to be published and make money. So, yes. Whatever. Let me see what happens. (Well, nothing did happen.) In my loft, I already was putting up with my NY ‘Neighbor from Hell’ who poured water through the gnarled ceiling, had dropped on my face through this ceiling in the night every kind of wine, beer, and whisky, and played all through the night ear-splitting music so one neighbor dreamed the Concord was taking off. One night he played all night “I can’t get no satisfaction” so loudly my heavy drawing table was shaking. We were all living there illegally, so no legal complaints. Maybe I was paying my dues, and this was just another due.


The Mom

I phoned my parents on the farm. My stepdad was extremely angry and did not believe me. He said I was crazy. Mom held back any excitement because she did not believe one so young should be able to make so much money. She tried for 40 years to sell her writing and was unsuccessful. When she was 90, she said, “I always thought there was something wrong with you. I see there wasn’t. You are an artist. That is who you are!”

Holy Cow! I’m not a spoiled tomato, after all!


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