Jim Flora  

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Jim Flora (January 25, 1914-July 9, 1998), best known for his distinctive and idiosyncratic album cover art for RCA Victor and Columbia Records during the 1940s and 1950s, was also a prolific commercial illustrator from the 1940s to the 1970s and the author/illustrator of 17 popular children's books. Less well-known is that he was a fine artist with a diabolical bent, who created hundreds of paintings, drawings, etchings and sketches over his 84-year lifespan.


Evolving styles

Flora had a cartoonish style that, in its earliest (1940s and 1950s) incarnations, betrayed a diabolic humor and uninhibited sense of outrageousness. Despite a later reputation for "cuddly" kiddie lit and family-friendly illustrations for mainstream magazines, Flora's fine art—both early and late—was by turns bizarre, playful, comic, erotic and/or macabre. It could, on occasion, shock or offend.

His style evolved radically over the decades; comparing his sharp, edgy commercial work of the 1940s to his middlebrow buffoonery of the 1970s sometimes leaves the impression they were done by two different artists who happened to share the same name (he was always credited as James Flora). It seems that the more popular Flora became, the less "threatening" his art appeared. This is certainly true of his commercial work, which softened and became more generic in the 1960s and 1970s.

His private fine art, however, often served as an outlet for the artist's inner demons, as Flora dotted many works with images of violence and sexual excess. (The cover of The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora is adorned with figures from his 1940s absurdist burlesque painting, The Rape of the Stationmaster's Daughter.) Many of his smaller temperas and pen and ink sketches, particularly from the 1940s through the 1960s, featured clusters of unrelated images interlocking like rune-shaped brickwork, every square inch of surface crammed with bizarre figures, some disturbing, some nonsensical, all intriguing. As Flora once explained, "I could never stand a static space." Music was one of Flora's muses, and his montages radiate overtones of improvisation—a one-man band jamming on a canvas. His biographer, Irwin Chusid, said that Flora "crafted rhythmic design in unfathomable meters."

He also established a reputation in the 1980s for large canvases with nautical themes, particularly ocean liners and cruise ships—the decks sometimes populated with tiny figures engaged in pornographic behavior. "When he was in his ship period," said his daughter Roussie, "he painted lots of naughty little scenes going on inside. He would have exhibitions, and the galleries would set out a basket of magnifying glasses. You would see all these old ladies clustered around the paintings trying to see what was going on in the portholes."

His early illustration style has influenced many contemporary artists, including Shag (Josh Agle), Tim Biskup, children's book author Lane Smith ("I was always inspired by the spontaneity and animation in Flora's work"), and Pixar animator Pete Docter, along with such illustrators as J.D. King, Michael Bartalos, J. Otto Seibold, Phillip Anderson and Terry Allen.

Despite his reputation for humorous themes and penchant for caricature, and the undeniable influence of cartoon art on his work, Flora never created comics. He was, primarily, an artist, and incidentally, a humorist. J.D. King observed, "Even in Flora's fine art, there's a feel of the Sunday funnies, the Great American Comic Strip when it was actually great. And comical."

Life and early career

Born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, Flora attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati from 1935 to 1939. In 1938, he met writer Robert Lowry, then a student at the University of Cincinnati, and the two launched The Little Man Press, a letterpress series of limited edition publications, for which Flora supplied illustrations, design, and layout. They collaborated on Little Man Press until 1942. (Lowry, a volatile and self-destructive literary turbine, later self-published many works under a revived Little Man imprint without Flora's involvement.)

In 1941, he married his college sweetheart, artist Jane Sinnicksen. Following a brief, struggling period as a commercial artist in Cincinnati, Flora was hired at $55 a week by Columbia Records in 1942, at which time the Floras moved to Westport, Connecticut, since Columbia was then based in Bridgeport. (In 1945, the couple relocated to Rowayton, Connecticut, where they lived the remainder of their lives. They had five children.)

Beginning work in the art department under Alex Steinweiss, inventor of the illustrated album cover, Flora illustrated ads, new release bulletins, and retail and trade literature. In 1943, when Steinweiss entered the navy, Flora was promoted to Art Director. That year, he launched Columbia's monthly new release booklet, Coda, which he continued illustrating and designing through 1945, when he was promoted to advertising manager. His replacement as art director was Robert. M. Jones, who later became art director for RCA Victor (where he twice won the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover - Classical; Flora and Jones remained lifelong friends, their careers sporadically interwining). Flora's artwork began appearing on Columbia 78 rpm album covers in 1947 (not earlier, as some accounts allege).

Flora worked as advertising manager and sales promotion manager at Columbia, but felt ill-suited for bureaucracy and grew frustrated because he was working a desk job while doing little art. Finally reaching his endurance of what he called "endless meetings, endless memos, and wrestling with budgets," Flora resigned in 1950. "Bitten by the bug of wanderlust," he drove to Mexico with his family in a Hudson sedan. They remained south of the border for 15 months, during which time Jim and Jane painted, created woodcuts and lived as bohemian gringos in Taxco.

Commercial art and books

The couple returned to Connecticut in 1951, and Flora then embarked on a freelance commercial art career in which he would thrive for decades. He illustrated covers and interior articles for dozens of mainstream magazines, Fortune, Holiday, Life, Look, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Mademoiselle, Charm, Research and Engineering, Computer Design, Sports Illustrated, Collier's and Pic.

From January to December, 1952, in what was probably his last salaried staff position, he was Art Director at Park East magazine, for which he published the first commercial illustrations by R.O. Blechman, as well as spot illustrations by the young Andy Warhol. Flora resigned at the end of 1952, and was replaced as Art Director by Robert M. Jones, who in 1945 had replaced him as Art Director at Columbia Records.

As fate would have it, in March 1953 Jones became Art Director at RCA Victor Records, where he soon began jobbing out album cover assignments to his friend Flora. This resulted in a veritable Golden Age of Flora LP covers, including such celebrated designs as Mambo For Cats, Inside Sauter-Finegan, Lord Buckley's Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin' Daddies, Knock Me Your Lobes, and Shorty Rogers Courts the Count. Around this time, Flora also did spot jobs for Columbia as a freelancer, illustrating album covers and reviving Coda during 1952 and 1953.

Among his other varied assignments in the 1950s, Flora drew a number of commercial storyboards for the pioneering animation studio, United Productions of America (UPA), on assignment from UPA Creative Director Gene Deitch, another lifelong friend.

Between 1955 and 1969, working with renowned children's book editor Margaret McElderry at Harcourt Brace, Flora wrote and illustrated 11 books for young readers, including The Fabulous Firework Family (1955), The Day the Cow Sneezed (1957), Charlie Yup and His Snip-Snap Boys (1959) and Leopold, the See-Through Crumbpicker (1961).

In 1971, HB asked McElderry to take "early retirement"[1] ("it was a real slap in the face," she later admitted). McElderry immediately received twelve job offers, and accepted a position at Atheneum Books, who gave the editor her own imprint. She quickly reconnected with and signed Flora, who between 1972 and 1982 created six more children's books for her, including Pishtosh, Bullwash, and Wimple (1972) and Stewed Goose (1973).

Later life

After he retired from commercial work in the late 1970s, Flora devoted the remainder of his artistic life to painting and sketching. His nautical canvases were occasionally exhibited, and he marketed posters of some of his large-scale ship-related works.

His wife, Jane, died in 1985. In 1987, he married Patricia Larsen.

In 1994, Flora produced a revised (redrawn and rewritten) edition of his first children's book, The Fabulous Firework Family. However, it was a pale shadow of the 1955 edition, containing none of the artistic edge and little of the rich ethnic atmosphere. Flora-seekers should not confuse the two versions, of which the original is vastly superior.

In the final years of his life, mindful of mortality, Flora continued painting and sketching at an almost frenzied rate. "Every day I do something," he told interviewer Steven Guarnaccia in 1998. "I can get here [his downstairs studio] and focus and forget every little ache and pain that I have." A few months later, Flora died in Rowayton, Connecticut from stomach cancer.

A few years after his death, his long-neglected paintings and private fine artworks began achieving notoriety, thanks to the research and cataloging of Irwin Chusid and Barbara Economon, who have compiled two anthologies of Flora's rarely seen works, both published by Fantagraphics Books. The team plans to compile at least two more such books, as the Flora family archive contains hundreds of fascinating paintings, sketches and long-unseen commercial assignments.

Vintage Flora images have appeared on new CD covers: Reptet's release Do This! (2006, Monktail Records) used an early 1950s Flora "triclops" figure; Whirled Chamber Music (2007, ViolinJazz Recordings) by the twice Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco features a detail from a 1960s Flora painting entitled Barberinni; and the album Ectoplasm (2008, Basta Audio-Visuals), a collection of late 1940s recordings by the Raymond Scott Quintet, features a 1951 Flora illustration.

Many artists have been influenced by Flora's work, others have parodied his style. One of Flora's album covers, the RCA Victor release This is Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, was parodied twice: once on a 1998 Pearl Jam tour poster, and again on the cover art for the 2000 CD Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas by the theremin band The Lothars.


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