Jim Flora’s Curiously Sinister Mischief

by Irwin Chusid
Juxtapoz Magazine (August 2007)

Elvis Presley and Jim Flora never met, but when their artistic paths briefly crossed in the mid-1950s, the former changed the career of the latter. Presley’s arrival on the RCA Victor label caused the iconic LP cover illustrations for which Flora was then chiefly known to become instantly passe. To survive and feed his growing family, Flora was forced to reinvent himself. In the process, his career blossomed and he gained even greater fame.

This story isn’t about Flora’s iconic album covers, nor about his artistic reincarnation. It’s not about Elvis. It’s about the art for which Flora is least known.

Flora had been employed in the 1940s by Columbia Records, for whom he began designing 78 rpm album covers in 1945 or ’46. In the 1950s, after a 15-month family hiatus in Mexico, he went freelance and designed RCA Victor LP covers jobbed out by his longtime friend, Robert M. Jones. Flora lavished record sleeves with outrageous caricatures of jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Shorty Rogers, and dozens of their swing- and bop-era brethren. Flora reduced these immortals to farcical creatures, with Picasso-skewed eyes, bedspread-pattern skin tints, and bonus legs. When you hired Flora, you got Flora. “I had no idea of likeness at all,” he later told interviewer Martina Schmitz. “I always thought that the musicians did their thing, and it was my turn to do my thing.” His creations offered a visual counterpoint to the genius embedded in the grooves.

Then Elvis ruined everything.

“In 1956, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, the RCA Victor policy changed, and everything went photographic,” Flora recalled. “Within six months I lost that account. As a matter of fact, Bob Jones told me that every time he came in with a new cover of mine, they’d say, ‘I thought we weren’t going to have any more Floras?’ Bob protected me for a while. But after 1956, I did very little in the record business. I was out of it.”

That forced Flora to seek new clients. He’d done sporadic magazine work since the mid-1940s, and in the ’50s he continued beefing up his resume, which included FortuneMademoiselleLifeLookParadeCollier’s, and countless others. By 1955 Flora had become a father five times, so he considered designing covers for kiddie books. After reviewing his illustration portfolio, renowned Harcourt-Brace children’s editor Margaret McElderry said, “I need a Latin American-type book. Can you write one?” Flora demurred, “I’m not a writer, I’m an illustrator.” McElderry persisted, and Flora returned to his studio to mull it over.

“A few days later,” he recounted, “I sent her a script for The Fabulous Firework Family, based on a family I knew in Mexico. From Grampa on down to the kids, they all worked on fireworks. Margaret accepted it immediately, and I was launched into the children’s book business.” The success of Firework Familyoffered Flora an alternative to the waning LP game. Over the next 27 years he wrote and illustrated 16 more books for young readers. By the time he retired in the early 1980s, he had enchanted several generations of moppets with his whimsical storytelling.

But when he wasn’t churning out tot-boilers or drafting spot illos for The New York Times Magazine, Flora was stirring up trouble. He wreaked havoc on canvases, on poster board, and in sketchbooks, building a heretofore unseen legacy that has only recently been “declassified” in a book which I co-authored with Barbara Economon, The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora (2007, Fantagraphics). It’s a departure from our first collection, The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora (2004, Fantagraphics), the prime focus of which was Flora’s record covers and music-related artifacts. Curiously Sinister contains no album covers, and neither anthology devotes space to his tot-lit.

The two collections unapologetically establish an alternative Flora chronicle. His kiddie fables and magazine illos were always credited to “James Flora,” but his friends and professional colleagues called him “Jim.” Barbara and I used the nickname in our book titles because: 1) we wanted to draw a distinction between the well-known commercial illustrator/author and the lesser-known artistic rascal whose work sends us into a swoon; and 2) “Jim” is a more youthful name, reflecting the playfulness and irreverence so characteristic of Flora’s best, but least-known art.

Flora’s commercial work was necessarily G-rated to accommodate clients. His private art, however, displays a more diabolic bent. Although he never drew comics, his style was cartoonish, evoking childhood nostalgia and dereliction of adult responsibility. There are clowns and kitty cats, grinning faces and beaming suns. But Flora’s fine art montages are danger-laden with bullets, knives and junkyard dogs. Muggers lurk, demons frolic with rouged harlots, and Flora’s characters suffer — that is, are afflicted by the artist with — severe disfigurement. Flora didn’t simply paint the human face; he admitted to “tearing it apart, making it into something grotesque, or something sweet.” He dismembered bodies, then rewired them like Calder mobiles.

The banal and the violent often coexist within inches of each other on Flora’s mini-murals. Figures from his burlesque 1940s tempera The Rape of the Stationmaster’s Daughter grace the Curiously Sinister Art cover. The cast includes a mutant predator in a bandit mask assaulting — and clearly terrifying — a helpless, diminutive woman. She’s wearing high heels and a garter. Her breasts are bare, her midriff exposed, her legs spread. It’s hard to tell if the menacing malefactor has three arms, or two and an erect phallus with a French tickler and a pair of detached white testicles floating from his vest. Did I mention the hooligan has four legs? A hapless Keystone Kop, oblivious to the felony in progress, loiters nearby projecting an air of witless authority. The stationmaster, meanwhile, straddles the last two cars of a jumbled train barreling down broken tracks, one stretch of which appears to have been removed by a porky quadruped with a fish stuck in its back. A scenario not suitable for the pages of Life, much less for third-graders. Why simply delight — when you can disturb as well?

Flora’s exotic fauna defy logic and physics. He copped from Klee and Miro, and admired the Mexican muralists. He crammed his canvases with bizarre figures and geometric doodads wedged together like rune-shaped brickwork. No square inch of visual real estate went undeveloped; the only thing that stopped him was the edge of the paper. “I could never stand a static space,” he confessed. His absurdist romps echoed, and in many cases foreshadowed, the 1950s Harvey Kurtzman-era MAD, as well as the underground comix that mushroomed in the late 1960s. This is not to say that Flora influenced such descendents. They just seemed to be thinking along the same lines. Flora’s commercial art — his public face — was necessarily milder, less wicked. The more freakish works remained largely unknown.

Flora was born in the village of Bellefontaine, Ohio, on January 25, 1914. He told interviewer Angelynn Grant in 1990 that in the eighth grade, “they used to lend me to the high school to draw pictures for the high school paper. I guess the principal really thought I was going to do something someday, because I was a pretty bright kid. As soon as I met girls, my grades went to pieces. A phrenologist came to town and the principal took me there. I remember being in a hotel room and this phrenologist feeling my head! He said, ‘This boy’s gonna be a commercial artist.’ I didn’t know what a commercial artist was. Never heard the term before.”

In 1933, Flora received a scholarship to attend the Boston Architectural League. However, in the wake of the Great Depression, after working long hours as a busboy to make ends meet, he missed classes. Finally he relinquished the scholarship and returned dejectedly to Ohio. He subsequently enrolled at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where his outlandish visual style began to evolve. From 1939 to 1942 he collaborated with nutjob literary phenom Robert Lowry on a series of letterpress booklets under the Little Man Press imprint, for which Flora created drawings, woodcuts, and linocuts. The limited editions were produced on a vintage Chandler and Price platen treadle press purchased for $300 and installed in Lowry’s parents’ basement on Hutton Street.

Flora considered a fine art career. However, he hinted that while courting his academy classmate and wife-to-be, Jane Sinnickson, he recognized that she was a better fine artist than he could ever be, so he opted to go lowbrow. Years later Flora confessed: “I’m essentially not a painter — never learned to paint, and couldn’t do it. I consider myself a draftsman who colors in drawings. And I get by.” He became a freelance commercial artist in Cincinnati for companies like Procter and Gamble, but had to grind out “dull, terrible point-of-sale things, like people washing diapers.” He struggled financially, the proverbial artist-in-a-garret.

In 1941, Flora, an ardent music buff, had a brainstorm: Columbia Records, he felt, wasn’t doing enough to publicize their new 78 rpm jazz releases. He mocked up a series of sample promo booklets and mailed them to the label. The demos landed on the desk of Art Director Alex Steinweiss (the man who had invented the illustrated album cover for the label in 1938). Steinweiss offered the untested Midwesterner a job in the art department at $55 a week. Early in 1942, Jim and Jane moved to Connecticut (Columbia was then based in Bridgeport). Within a year Flora was named art director, replacing Steinweiss, who had enlisted in the Navy.

Flora’s idiosyncratic mayhem adorned new release monthlies, magazine ads, and trade publications. His illos imbued Columbia paper ephemera with an identity then unmatched in the industry, elevating throwaway ad circulars to art. (Ironically, because of wartime paper shortages, many blank sides served as de facto canvases for Flora’s private paintings and sketches.) Record sales spiked, leading Columbia to promote Flora to advertising manager, then sales promotion manager. It was an unsatisfying upward mobility, as it deprived a creative soul of an artistic outlet. Flora’s successor as art director, the same Robert M. Jones who later assigned RCA Victor covers to Flora, farmed his unfulfilled bureaucrat-bud some choice illustrations for jazz reissues. The turn of events was bittersweet. Flora wanted to make art, not sales quotas.

Finally, having exhausted his patience with what he called “endless meetings, endless memos, and wrestling with budgets,” Flora resigned, and on June 1, 1950, “bitten by the bug of wanderlust,” drove to Mexico with his family in a Hudson sedan. They stayed for 15 glorious months, mostly in Taxco, which he reminisced about as “a magnificent old silver town, with great architecture. We found a castle, three stories high, with four bedrooms and a patio on the second floor with a fountain. We had a staff of three, and it cost about 11 dollars a week — a ridiculous price for all that luxury. We painted and drew and made lots of dear friends, and came back in 1951 with more money than we went down with.”

If surviving works are any indication, Flora created some of his most astonishing fine art (such as the woodcut Railroad Town) during his sojourn south of the border. But it wouldn’t be enough to pay the bills back home.

Flora returned to Connecticut with his family in late 1951 and began fishing for freelance gigs. In 1952, he scored a cover assignment for the prestigious Fortune. That same year he took what was probably his last salaried desk job, as art director for Park East, a short-lived monthly for the New York carriage trade. His first RCA Victor sleeve appeared in 1954, and his first kiddie title was published the following year. He also received occasional assignments from his former employer, Columbia Records. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s he was a highly sought artist-for-hire, adding Sports IllustratedComputer DesignNewsweek and Holiday to his portfolio.

Despite having to support a wife and five offspring while meeting deadlines for a growing clientele, Flora continued to paint, carve intricate woodcuts, etch plates, and occasionally issue prints. From the vantage point of a half-century later, the 1950s represent Flora’s pinnacle of audaciousness. His brash album covers pulsed with angular, two-dimensional hepcats flaunting fried-egg eyes and shark-fin chins, their bodies impossibly contorted as they finger cockeyed pianos and honk lollipop-hued horns. Gary Marmorstein, in his book The Label: The Story of Columbia Records, calls Flora “a post-nuclear Miro.” Flora’s commercial work boasted great public appeal, and his fine art projected a sophisticated edginess and enigmatic humor.

His images — both public and private — began to lose a measure of boisterousness around 1960. The mortgage was paid and he must have been comfortable in his role as a graphic arts elder statesman. But as he segued from hustling freelancer to celebrated children’s author, the avuncular felicity so integral to his books began to creep into his commercial and fine art. What was sharp became rounded and less threatening; what was lean grew chubby. He put the knives away and took out the teddy bears. It’s a familiar historical pattern: the rebel achieves tenure. There were attempts on the fine art front to counteract these trends. Flora continued to explore dark themes on canvases and in sketchbooks during the 1960s and ’70s, but many works from the period are marred by unseemly countercultural affectations. His colors and contours betray the influence of hippie chic, a quixotic turn for an artist born in 1914 who’d rather sip martinis than drop acid. What was intended to shock was more likely to embarrass. Liberated by the debauchery of Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson in a weird feedback loop, Flora painted gaudy, sex-drenched pageants. There had long been risque strains in his fine art, but Flora’s wanton tableaus of the ’70s unashamedly uncorked his libido in a way that looks grotesquely anti-erotic.

In the 1980s, his first decade of retirement, he again altered course by indulging his passion for things that float. He painted large, meticulously detailed acrylics of ocean liners and cruise ships, many in absurdly incongruous settings (e.g., lengthwise alongside the Empire State Building, or drifting past elements of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights). The decks were sometimes populated with tiny figures engaged in sexual capers. “When he was in his ship period,” said Flora’s daughter Roussie, “he painted lots of naughty little scenes going on inside. The galleries would set out a basket of magnifying glasses. You’d see all these old ladies clustered around the paintings trying to see what was going on in the portholes.” Despite the porn, these slick nautical canvases are barely recognizable as the work of the same trailblazer whose impertinent caricatures rocked the commercial art world decades before. However, these works were widely admired and exhibited often; at the time, along with his children’s books, they defined Flora’s artistic stature more so than his by-then out-of-print album jackets.

His beloved wife Jane died in 1985. Two years later, he remarried. In the 1990s, as mortality loomed, he grew nostalgic for his 1940s roots, rendering fragmented portraits of Dixieland jazz legends and beboppers. He retained his vitality, producing sketches, drawings, and paintings at an impressive rate. “I try to do one a day, if possible,” he told interviewer Steven Guarnaccia in 1998. “Every day I do something. I go to my downstairs studio and focus and forget every little ache and pain that I have.”

Flora passed away, of stomach cancer, on July 9, 1998. He bequeathed his artistic estate to his children. His house on Long Island Sound was sold, and the magnificent art collection was boxed away at a Connecticut storage facility. Only in the past few years has the world begun to glimpse these unseen masterworks. Flora once said that all he wanted to create was “a piece of excitement.” What we’re finding in the archives proves that he often overshot his goal.