Flora in Twilight

by Irwin Chusid
[slightly revised and expanded version of story which appeared in New York Press, July 15-21, 1998]

“Don’t get old,” Jim Flora advised his departing guest. He’d reached his extended twilight years (84), and it was no fun. A medical supply technician had just arrived, delivering a wheeled oxygen-pump the size of a rented rug shampooer, and almost as noisy. The earnest, peach-faced tech demonstrated the unit, which was destined to be Flora’s near-constant companion for the rest of his life (which ended July 10). A few weeks earlier, in April, Flora had been diagnosed with a malignant stomach tumor. Now, he was exhausted after a 45-minute interview.

Less than a year ago, I had no idea Jim Flora existed, even though I owned a few samples of his art. Flora painted some of the most distinctive, surrealistic record album jackets of the 1940s and ’50s, and a few had wandered into my collection. But it wasn’t until fall ’97, during a visit to the upstate cottage of illustrator J.D. King, that I noticed several strikingly-drawn, vintage album jackets framed under glass. I recognized the style immediately, mine were obviously designed by the same artist: James Flora, who it turned out, was one of J.D.’s biggest influences.

Flora’s manic illustrations featured bug-eyed jazz gremlins, totem-pole figureheads, geometric cityscapes, and Moebius strip trumpets. Their two-dimensionality made them appear childlike, yet a sinister edge lent a tinge of sophistication. His overall perspective seemed filtered through Lucifer’s looking glass. Robert Leslie, a New York gallery director and Floraphile, once observed that Flora “succeeds in making you laugh, as every good cartoonist should. [But] while you’re busy laughing, he’s planning to murder you.”

Flora (despite this author’s admitted ignorance) has long been a legend in graphic-design circles. “He was ground zero for an illustration style that took the modernism of painters such as Miro, Klee and Picasso, blended it with a jazz sensibility, and added a dollop of the Sunday funny pages,” King emailed me recently. “He created an urbane and wiggy graphic beast that was ubiquitous in the postwar years. Cartoonist Kim Deitch once told me that his father, the great illustrator and UPA animator, Gene Deitch, worshipped Flora. Gene wasn’t alone in that assessment. Flora continues to exert a strong influence today. Echoes are apparent in the work of Michael Bartalos, J. Otto Seibold, Phillip Anderson, Terry Allen, and others. He’s a monster.”

Through Bartalos, King contacted Flora, who resides on Bell Island, off Rowayton (Norwalk), CT, in the same house he’d lived for 45 years. Flora and King developed a natural artists’ rapport, and became friends. After I tracked down several other Flora covers and realized that the work of this “monster” was largely unrecognized by the public, my impulse was to share this discovery.

A website seemed the ideal gallery. King put me in touch with Flora. When I explained my intentions, Flora was flattered, and offered his cooperation. He didn’t own a computer, didn’t know much about the web.

He mailed proof sheets and album jackets of his work–30 covers in all (seven for Columbia Records in the late 1940s; the rest for RCA Victor, in the 1950s). They were an astonishing array of fun-house images emanating from a rascal mind.

Flora hadn’t spent years waiting to be acknowledged or rediscovered for his album art. In fact, that stage of his career had long ago been filed and forgotten; he designed his last record jacket in 1956. Since that time, he’d enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a children’s book author and illustrator for Harcourt and Atheneum. Among his 17 titles are The Day the Cow Sneezed (1957), Kangaroo for Christmas (1962), The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster (1976), and Grandpa’s Ghost Stories (1978). He painted, and had had numerous exhibits. His life had been rich–if not necessarily in a monetary sense, then certainly abundant with joie de vivre. He’d been married twice, to two wonderful women (his first wife, Jane, died in 1985 after almost 45 years of marriage; he married Patricia Larsen in 1988); raised five kids; and spent hours sketching and painting on his porch overlooking a boat basin on Long Island Sound. On the day of my visit, a cat snoozed nearby in a cardboard box, and another poked his head in briefly, sniffed my shoes, and sauntered off.

Like many artists whose styles could be described as otherworldly, as if rendered in an altered state of consciousness, Flora seemed perfectly down-to-earth, with no outrageous peccadilloes. He was soft-spoken, self-effacing, modest. He was born in Ohio and–except for a brief spell in Mexico–lived most of his adult life in the Connecticut suburbs. Though his clients (book and magazine publishers, record labels, corporate advertisers) were based in New York, he’d never lived in the City, which he mildly regretted. Flora did not call attention to himself, except through his work. Whatever demons lurked within were exorcised through his art. In other words: he was normal; his drawings were psychotic.

Unfortunately, Flora seemed to have outlived a good portion of his legacy. He’d been in great demand for newspaper and magazine sketches. “I did a lot of stuff for the New York Times,” he said. “They’d call and ask, ‘We got about six months of your artwork here. Do you want it, or shall we throw it away?’ And I’d say, ‘Throw it away.’ I got rid of maybe 500 pounds of it. Just little drawings. I didn’t think of them as masterpieces. They were illustrations for one-time only articles. I still left quite a few for my kids. They’ll have to fight over them, I guess.”

The same fate befell his classic album jackets. “That cover art has long been destroyed,” he shrugged. “The record companies would’ve given it back to the artist in those days, if the artist wanted it. But most artists didn’t even think of getting it back. I didn’t.”

Flora’s entry into the album cover artworld was nearly dashed by World War II. Based in Cincinnati and being a jazz fan, he’d submitted a number of sketches to Columbia in 1940, and they offered him a job. “‘Fifty-five dollars a week’, they said; ‘I’ll take it,’ I replied.” Back then, he pointed out, “Columbia was in Bridgeport. They had executive offices and manufacturing there, everything in one neat little deal. The A&R department was in New York on 7th Avenue.” James and Jane boxed their belongings and moved to Westport–just before Pearl Harbor brought an industry slowdown. “They stopped reissuing, because the government needed the shellac. We went into winter all during the war. Then the labor union went on strike for a year and a half, and there were no musicians.

It wasn’t until after the war that Columbia really became active again, when [producers] George Avakian and John Hammond set up a little department and dug out all this stuff.”

Flora’s cartoonish designs began appearing on the covers of 78 rpm disc sets featuring Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington’s Liberian Suite.

Soon he was promoted to advertising manager. “I didn’t much care for it,” he attested, “because I wasn’t doing any art work. Then they made me sales promotion manager–which I liked better, but I still had to travel a lot–and I was doing no art. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. My wife, too, was having a hard time with me being away a lot.” So in June 1950, Flora did what any stressed-out, disgruntled corporate exec would do under similar circumstances: “I quit Columbia Records and moved to Mexico for 15 months.”

He’d never been south of the border. “Never been anyplace except Ohio and Westport,” he smiled. “We just picked up and moved, with two little kids–3 and 6 years old. I had a wonderful old Hudson sedan, so we drove down. Since I loved Mexican art and the whole damn movement, including the Revolution–my wife didn’t like it as much as I did, but she was patient–we went to Mexico City. Then we moved to Taxco, an absolutely magnificent old silver town, with great architecture. We found a castle–it was three stories high, with four bedrooms and a patio with a fountain on top of the second floor. We had a staff of three, and it cost about 11 dollars a week. The prices were ridiculous for all that luxury.”

Because of the kids, they returned to Connecticut in late 1951. “When I came back,” he recalled, “I had a house and a mortgage and two kids, and I had to start freelancing in a hurry.” He began illustrating for magazines like FortuneSports Illustrated, and Newsweek, and served as Art Director for a short-lived New Yorker-style monthly called Park East. Not everything was destined for posterity. “I had to do a lot of work when I was freelancing that I wish I didn’t have to do,” he mused.

Around this time, he hooked up with Bob Jones, his former colleague at Columbia, who had become Art Director at RCA Victor. Jones was only too delighted to resume feeding Flora album cover assignments. By this time, the 33-1/3 rpm 12″ LP dominated the market, and Flora’s fractured hooliganism began appearing on releases by Sauter-Finegan, Lord Buckley, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Ventura.

Although he knew each musician’s style, most of the time he’d design covers without hearing a new release beforehand. “If they had something to give me to listen to, they would,” he explained. “But mostly, I just did them from the top of my head, and they gave me a great deal of freedom.” His illustrations often evoke a peyote-soaked Dr. Seuss, with caricatures exploding from a paint-filled piñata. Byron Werner, the L.A. artist credited with coining the phrase “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,” proclaims that “Flora’s album covers have the vibrating joy of a beatnik on mescaline, awhirl with the throbbing energy of the modern world.” Cartoonist Mark Newgarden points out that “although the ‘modernist’ visual approach had long before infiltrated the world’s bargain basements simultaneously with its ateliers and galleries, still Flora must have seemed like a bit of a wildman when his classic album covers hit. This has less to do with his modernist tendencies than his cartoonist’s aggression. He beat the work of the typical Joe Cartoonist of his era by a country mile with his flawless composition and highly personal color sense. But it’s the grinning crazyman, leering through that elegant, virtuoso design, that keeps me coming back for another peek.”

Despite the testimonials, Flora remains obscure in the field of album art, primarily because that phase of his career didn’t last long. “In 1956,” he sighed, “with the advent of early rock’n’roll–the Elvis years–and changes in the RCA Victor policy, everything went photographic. They put in a photo studio in Rock Center. Within six months, I lost that account. It was gone. As a matter of fact, Bob Jones told me years afterward that every time he’d come in with a cover, they’d say, ‘I thought we said we weren’t going to have any more Flora covers?’ Bob protected me for quite a while. But after 1956, I was out of it completely.”

By that time, he was establishing himself with children’s books, beginning with The Fabulous Firework Family (1955), which he based on “a family I knew in Mexico. The whole family, Grampa on down to the kids, worked on fireworks. It was a family business.” Within a few years, one of his biggest fans, the aforementioned Gene Deitch, suggested making an animated cartoon of the book. “Gene was then head of the Terrytoon division of CBS-TV,” said Flora. “How could I refuse? A film of my book! I could see my future as a big-time movie mogul with limousines and swimming pools. I made a storyboard, and with a few changes, Gene made the most wonderful 12-minute animated film. I assume it’s still somewhere in the CBS archives. Wish I had a copy.”

Flora’s influence prevails with a younger generation of cartoonists who salvaged his record jackets from thrift shop bins. “About five years ago,” he chuckled, “Mike Bartalos called and said, ‘Are you the Jim Flora who used to do record album covers?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Thank God you’re alive! I’d like to come see you.’ I felt like a fossil that had just been dug up.”