How many artists get to meet their aesthetic heroes? The ones who helped shape their art, inspired their awe, and brought countless hours of joy as well as education to their personal and professional lives? I hope it’s many but I’m guessing it’s few. Thankfully I was one of them, and this is my tale. If you have, I hope it brings back good memories. If not, I hope vicariously to help.
Much of this part is stream-of-memory; and obviously, the dialog recounted is paraphrased, as none of it was recorded and my memory may be cloudy, with or without meatballs. (Due to length, it’s split into two sections, A and B.) I’ll apologize now for the lousy quality of the photos, as these were taken long before the digital age, with cheap film in cheaper cameras.
I met Frank Frazetta just over half of my life ago. I’d been a fan for about eight years before. Though I’d seen his work in comic book history texts as a kid, I didn’t really become a major convert till I received THE FANTASTIC ART OF FRANK FRAZETTA volumes one and two for Christmas when I was barely in my teens. I still remember my Dad (also an artist) marvelling at the art as much as I did. He’d hold up page after page and say, “Will you look at this?” (I still do the same thing with Frank’s books, to my wife.) In later volumes I read about the new Frazetta Museum and decided I had to go there before I died. The earlier the better.
Finally after graduating college, I decided to go for it, with my pal and College for Creative Studies classmate, Dean Armstrong. (Dean, an art prodigy not unlike Frazetta, was a classmate of mine at what is now the College for Creative Studies. Poor guy was too good for the place and left after his sophomore year to become a premier illustrator and photo retoucher. I stayed an extra two years to get a degree so I could make less.) Plan was that we’d drive to New York to show off our “genius” portfolios and get a ton of work from publishers, and then stop at the museum on the way home. We didn’t bother to call the museum until we were in NYC, when we found out it was only open on weekends and that we wouldn’t have a chance to go! (As for the publishers, we saw exactly one, HEAVY METAL magazine. They of course loved Dean’s work and offered to publish his one-page strip upon completion. He never finished. So much for that trip!)
So we waited until the following spring. Setting off in my $1,500 1975 triple-black Dodge Fury, we drove nine hours to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to the mighty Museum! No parking in front so we pulled into a nearby lot.
Outside it looked like any other three-story red-brick building, full of windows, sandwiched among others on a city street. Except, of course for the too-cool sign that read, “Frazetta Art Museum” that was molded from Frank’s own signature! (See photos.) I think I took half a dozen pics of just the entrance. Next door was his son’s store, “Frazetta’s Fantasy Corner”, which dealt in “costume rentals, novelties, etc.” (Did that mean one could actually buy a Death Dealer outfit? I’ll never know as we didn’t have time to stop in. Sigh.)
The unassuming exterior belied the aesthetic awesomeness within. I’m the tiny guy pointing like a moron.
Once inside, we paid the admission (either $4 or $6–bargain either way) to whom I figured was one of Frank’s lovely daughters. Climbing stairs to the main gallery was kind of like walking to the Ark of the Covenant. Dean was thrilled, I was intimidated…What would we find? Would Conan himself usher us in, or would we have to fight some Frazetta-type beast to gain access? Would there be a life-size cut-out of the curvy heroine from FIRE AND ICE we could pose with? The mind boggled.
Actually, it was a very tasteful but rather unassuming set up. A cross between a collector’s home and antique museum, with wonderful old furniture and knick-knacks throughout. The decor was not pop culture or fantasy, but eclectic and antiquarian, full of everything from African drums and masks to animal carvings and goddess busts. All of this strangely complimented the paintings on the walls, framed in classically-styled, ornate, golden museum-quality frames. Unlike modern museums, however, there were no ropes or glass interfering with getting up close and personal.
Which brings me to The Artwork. On display was every major Frazetta painting from all his books, plus some we’d never seen before (published much later in tomes like ICON, LEGACY and TESTAMENT). Dean and I were whispering constantly, like gossiping church-goers. Hushed tones exclaimed things like” “Look! It’s the Death Dealer!” “Oh man, it’s Conan!” “Is that the Egyptian Queen?” “Remember that one?” “That’s from Book One!” Though I believe the most-used phrase was simply, “Oh my GOD!!!” followed by “This is SO cool!”
All must kneel before the great Frazetta!
No where else could I be surrounded by bloodthirsty barbarians, sword-welding hordes, sabre-toothed cats, leaping lions, giant apes, dinosaurs, Destroyers, Fire Demons, Frost Giants, Wolfmen, Sea Witches and other nasties while feeling warm and fuzzy–as well as awed and inspired. Some even had a three-dimensional quality where Frank had used a pallet knife to build up a layered element in the background. The reworked “Cat Girl” painting, especially, used the technique on a moss-covered branch to amazing effect, thanks to the glistening reflections of the light above the painting, which made the moss look wet. One of the things that struck me was the relative size of the pieces. So many of them were smaller than I’d expected (most were done for paperback covers), which made the detail within even more impressive.
The unifying element in all the work–other than the obvious passion and skill –as that it was truly “museum quality.” By that, I meant we could have just as easily been staring at work hanging in a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian. There really is no reason whatsoever for Frazetta’s work not to be in either of those and other similar institutions. As I mentioned in part two, the only knocks against the master’s work are that it’s “commercial” or “illustration” (as was Michelangelo’s, Leonardo’s, and most every artist of the Renaissance through the Baroque) and the subject matter, which has nothing to do with its quality. (And for the uninformed who think of Frank as a “genre painter”, that allegedly derogatory moniker also applies to nearly every great painter from the early Renaissance through modern day. EVERY artist has a “genre.”)
Back to the tour.
There were too many amazing things to take in. What I do recall most were the large personal paintings Frank had done for his wife Ellie. One was a nearly life-size oil of a proud African Masai warrior. This was rare not only for its size but composition and coloring. The figure was static, with no hint of battle, tension or anger seen in other (rare) standing works. The background was mostly sunny with bright colors throughout–though still very realistic. Like all of Frazetta’s work, I still felt immediately transported to the scene, even though this one was serene. I could almost feel the breeze blowing thru the tall grass.
The other was of a nude woman on a horse riding by a shoreline. All at once, my eyes met the dynamic running horse, the woman’s callipygian posterior, the thunderous sky and the gorgeous lighting in and around the waves.
What made it even cooler was when the amazing Ellie Frazetta walked in to say hello.
You could tell she was very proud to say she was “Mrs. Frazetta” and I can’t blame her. She was so nice and cordial, answering questions and regaling us with stories about her and Frank’s early years together and his career. We, of course, were so overwhelmed with the surroundings we were lucky we could cobble together enough syllables to make complete sentences. When she found out I was a paisan, she told us how much she admired the Italian people and why she married one. Yet she was very candid, also revealing that they were starving in the early years, especially when Frank couldn’t find steady work after leaving Al Capp (see Part 1).
She told us how she hunted down all the originals that Frank had generously given away or sold and boldly asked for them back. And later, of beginning the poster business, working out of her laundry room and expanding to other parts of the house once it grew. Ellie was an enigma of financial and business savvy coupled with girlish charm and attractiveness. She was without a doubt the great woman “behind” the great man, even though she was always looking forward.
We sadly learned that Frank had been sick for nearly a year. This was when his thyroid had started giving him issues (again, see Part 1) and he’d lost a lot of weight. (At one point he went from his aesthetic 180 pounds to 128.) The poor guy had been bounced from doctor to doctor and no one seemed to know what to do. So she apologized he wasn’t there. We understood, just happy to take in all the fantasy masterpieces around us. But when she found out we were both artists, she asked if we’d brought our work. We told her it was in the car. She asked us to bring it in and excused herself. We began wondering…would she look at it and make copies to show Frank later?
[Mike Pascale (Twitter: @MikePascale) is a freelance storyboardist, artist, writer, comic book/strip creator, graphic designer and award-winning former ad agency copywriter/senior art director. He’s the creative farce [sic] behind BRU-HED, NASTI: MONSTER HUNTER, the GAME BUZZ weekly online strip and more. Read his weekly blog (and order a commission) right here at WednesdaysHeroes.com.]