Robert Lowry, James Flora, and The Little Man Press
Nowadays, Robert Lowry (1919-1994) is a forgotten figure in American literature. But this hellcat wordsmith, a gatestorming enfante terrible in the 1940s, was a pivotal figure in Flora's professional development. Their Little Man Press publications, printed at home in Cincinnati, from 1939 to 1942, in small runs of 125 to 400 copies, served as artistic rites of exorcism for the budding illustrator. Flora's images veered from childish whimsy to disturbing freakishness.
Lowry was a literary turbine — his commitment to generating words on paper was relentless. His work was raucous and profane, brimming with life and bleeding passion. Flora recalled their first encounter:
"During the spring of 1938 I happened upon Bob Lowry, or rather, I should say, he happened on me. He came to the [Art] academy [of Cincinnati] looking for an artist to help him establish the Little Man Press. I was intrigued by his verve and the wild look in his eyes. Lowry had been a child prodigy and was enormously talented. We found an immediate rapport, and I became co-founder of The Little Man Press.
We had no money so we decided to sell subscriptions to our nonexistent magazine. We tackled and browbeat everyone we knew and then sold subscriptions on the campus of the University of Cincinnati.
I think $100 is what we paid for an old 8" x 10" Chandler and Price platen treadle press. It was a vintage piece of machinery but capable of excellent work. We also invested in a few fonts of Baskerville type, some ink and paper, and began to publish. We had only enough type to set two pages at a time. It was thus necessary to learn to calculate space very accurately. We were forced to set and print the first and last pages of our booklets, then break up the type and set the second and the next to last page and so on, until we met in the middle."
Lowry wrote many of our items in the basement we called our pressroom and immediately set them in type. I carved wood engravings, woodcuts, and linocuts because we couldn't afford photoengraving.
The LMP publications helped Flora land a job at Columbia Records. As Alex Steinweiss, his first boss at the label, recalled, "Pat [Dolan] called me in one day and said he received a little booklet of poetry with illustrations by this guy Jim Flora. He says, 'Maybe you wanna interview him.' I looked at the little booklet, I was very impressed, and I got ahold of Jim and we had an interview." Flora was hired in early 1942.
Lowry was crazy about words, and Flora was mad about art. Trouble is, Lowry was also crazy-mad in a clinical sense. During the Little Man Press years, his pathologies were nascent and relatively benign, and arguably fueled his creativity. He had dark impulses, which were exacerbated by alcohol. Flora said, "He would take one drink and go berserk, throwing himself on the floor, saying, 'I'm a rug! I'm a rug! Step on me!'" Lowry tragically spiraled into crash 'n' burn mode in the early 1950s — he was institutionalized and subjected to electroshock therapy — and his life thereafter was a four-decade hell ride.
Flora last saw his old friend in 1987. "We sat around at his mother's house, and he spoke about the mistakes he had made. Eventually I had to leave. He followed me to the door, and as I stepped out he said, 'I guess I really blew it, Jim.' This was a terrible tragedy for a man of that quality and drive. It was very sad to see him go downhill. It was one of the most grievous things in my life."
This gallery presents a small sampling of Flora's Little Man Press illustrations. Dozens more, along with some remarkable LMP artifacts, are included in The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora and The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora.
Little Man Press exhibit at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
In May 2008, the Walker Art Center mounted the first-ever exhibit of Little Man Press memorabilia. The collection (click photo to enlarge) features rare chapbooks with Flora woodcuts, a narrative chronicle (with Flora illo enlargements), original pencil sketches, and vintage Little Man ephemera.
Designed by Flora archivist Barbara Economon with assistance from Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak, the exhibit also includes a replica (fabricated by Daniel Smith) of an original Little Man storage case (visible at lower left of 2nd rear wall panel). These cardboard boxes, which are now extremely rare, were provided to eight-issue subscribers in 1939.