Migration of an artist
A painting in a downstairs Jacksonville bedroom tells the rich story of retired illustrator and artist John Lichtenwalner's childhood and everything he seems to value: family, work, country, nature, art and details.
It's a small painting, gloriously busy, in Lichtenwalner's signature Americana style that he says strives "to put some order to the chaos of country living."
The waterfront scene is set in his Puget Sound hometown of Tracyton, Wash. His family is visible — from grandfather working in a shore-hugging barn to his red-haired mother playing piano through a window to Lichtenwalner himself, manning a skiff.
This style is what caught the eyes of art instructors in the 1940s, advertisers in San Francisco during the 1950s and '60s and Harry & David's nascent marketing team in the '70s.
Lichtenwalner's distinct illustrations have been a valuable commercial commodity for more than 30 years.
Now a self-described "landscape guy" (meaning he spends more time working in the yard than drawing), this 86-year-old artist has painted and drawn a life that encompasses the West Coast and numerous media.
"When I look back on it now, it started early," he says from his home studio, where cans of pencils and brushes litter a drafting board and stark white walls are enlivened with his very first professional drawings — commercial depictions of 1940s domestic life — along with a collection of paintings.
"I lived in the country, drew a lot, took an architecture class in high school and was a drama major until my sophomore year at University of Washington," says Lichtenwalner. "Then I switched to art and went from a C student to an A student. I found my expression."
Before graduating, however, Lichtenwalner enlisted in the Air Force. As a pilot for photo reconnaissance missions during World War II, he was able to indulge a lifelong interest in aircraft while helping his country create a better world. After the war, Lichtenwalner took part in the GI Bill and was accepted into the prestigious Art Center School in Los Angeles.
While studying there, Lichtenwalner met the woman to whom he's been married for 59 years — a TWA air hostess who'd flown away from a tiny town outside Hutchinson, Kan.
"We met in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in 1947," says Francie Lichtenwalner, a pretty, petite lady with laughing eyes and a sharp wit. "We met at a party. Then we met the next day on the beach. It went on for five days and he wouldn't go back to school — he'd come back down to the beach again and again. It was really a strange thing that happened and it was very nice, very romantic."
The couple married in 1949, sharing the post-war hope of an entire nation.
"Everybody was very up in those days," Francie remembers. "We were in our twenties, we were coming out of a horrible war, we were alive. We'd lost a lot of friends, but it was a joyous time. Men were out getting educations and doors were being opened for the survivors."
After a year, Francie became pregnant with the first of six children. She didn't want to raise kids in L.A. and John was ready to hit the big time.
Following his instructors' insistence that the Big Apple was where it was at for blooming illustrators, the Lichtenwalners packed up for a long drive east. When they stopped in San Francisco, however, their vision changed.
"We decided this was such a great place to stay and we looked around," Francie recalls. "Next thing we knew, John got a job, we found an apartment on Nob Hill then bought a little house in Mill Valley. We stayed there 20 years."
The year was 1951 and the culture was ripe for John's advertising talents. Armed with his portfolio of commercial drawings, he found quick work with an art service. A "stable" of eight diverse commercial artists represented by a receptionist and a few salesmen, the service brought him a salary, a variety of projects and an introduction to a group of artists he'd stay connected to for the rest of his life.
"I was pretty much an advertising guy," he says humbly. "We were all illustrators and designers, making our livings selling art to industry."
For the next 20 years, Lichtenwalner alternately worked for the art service, freelanced, became president of the Society of Illustrators and helped coordinate several significant art shows in San Francisco.
Work kept coming his way — from a cover for San Francisco Magazine (a glowing gold, lined watercolor-over-pencil sketch he created while in a fever-induced delirium) to a promotional brochure for Harrah's Resort to a lucrative re-working of the Sun Maid raisin girl to a great gig he kept going with Portal Publications in Sausalito, Calif.
"I'd stop by their office and ask what they needed," says Lichtenwalner of the publishing house.
By now the Flower Power generation was growing along with the psychedelic poster art that San Francisco has become famous for. Thanks to commissions from Portal Publications, Lichtenwalner was at the ground floor of the artistic movement. He illustrated two swirly, colorful posters promoting the cities of San Francisco and New Orleans as well as a number of concert posters featuring Sixties rock 'n' roll bands like Moby Grape and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Three of the concert posters now hang in the Lichtenwalner's upstairs bedroom.
"I wasn't one of the hippie guys," he says with a chuckle. "I was as square as they come."
Lichtenwalner also had gotten regular work with a team from Harry & David, then a young mail-order company based in Newport Beach, Calif.
"They'd come down with their catalog ideas, tear a page out, hand each page to an artist and say, 'Here, you do that one,' " says Lichtenwalner. The money was pretty good and when Harry & David offered the illustrator a full-time position in their Medford facility in 1971, the Lichtenwalners decided to go for it.
"The idea of working for them was pretty weird," admits the self-directed Lichtenwalner, who wasn't naturally inclined to a corporate environment. "And it was kind of a scary time for me, moving my family to the country."
The couple wasn't alone. Several of Lichtenwalner's San Francisco-based colleagues had become close friends, including now-famous Oregon watercolorist Frank Rinna and painters Bruce Butte and Geoff Lewis. They all moved to the Rogue Valley in the early 1970s, when Rinna became Harry & David's artistic director.
"Life was just getting too crowded and the future seemed grim to us for the children where we were," says Francie Lichtenwalner. "That's the big reason we came up here and moved them to the country. It was just healthy for them — they learned to become responsible people, raised animals, rode horses."
By day, Lichtenwalner was a prolific illustrator of Harry & David's mail-order catalogs; by night, he drew and painted tirelessly, influenced greatly by Americana artist Charles Wysocki. A common theme in Lichtenwalner's personal art was rural commerce. Now living in the country outside Phoenix and driving into Medford every morning, he was always intrigued by how traffic would come to a standstill whenever a school bus stopped to pick up children. The daily scene inspired several paintings, in which he always included a yellow school bus.
"See how commercial I am?" he says while explaining the finer details of a wall-sized painting called "Jack and Sue Catching the Bus" that hangs over the Lichtenwalner's bed. "The bus is really a gimmick."
One look at the painting discloses much more than a gimmick. It's the "attention to ordinary detail" that speaks to Lichtenwalner. "You reinvent the whole scene," he says, pointing to the intricately repeated, circular trees in the distance and the line-up of slightly animated log and hay trucks. "I try to improve it as far as I'm capable, to organize it, usually into a rectangle or a square."
The artist also created a dramatically oversized, slightly Cubist painting called "P38 Tight Formation," which echoes his own experience as a WWII Air Force pilot. Formed from dozens of panels in different shades of blue, the painting is a graphic representation of the "tangle of metal that's up in the air," says Lichtenwalner.
"It was pretty exciting and very intense to be that fast and that close to one another but still under control," he says.
"Some of his art, well, all of it, was done at home," says Francie, who helped market her husband's hobby from day one, creating a buzz and generating some extra cash. "In those days, we all smoked. He'd sit at his drawing board after dinner smoking this big cigar with all these kids all over. That was the scene around the house."
The Lichtenwalners have no idea how many of John's paintings hang in homes around the Rogue Valley and beyond — they've never kept track. Now comfortable in the house they built following John's 1987 retirement from Harry & David, the couple is surrounded by artwork that illustrates their exciting life.
And it's not close to over, insists Lichtenwalner. "I still want to put another 20 hours into this," he says of the mural-sized school bus painting. "There are so many details to commerce and activity."
Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Central Point. Reach her at email@example.com.