February 2008 Issue
Draw Me a Story
Wadsworth illustrator Robert Tubbesing pays homage to hometown idiosyncrasies.
From Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker Tales through Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, small-town America has long been grist for the artistic mill.
Painters, too, have found inspiration in the towns and villages that dot the American landscape. Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell have celebrated the small town as the mythic source for good and ill of all things quintessentially American.
For Robert Tubbesing, it’s the Wadsworth, Ohio, of the 1930s that continues to be a source of inspiration well into the artist and illustrator’s eighth decade. From his Parma studio, Tubbesing remakes the town he knew as a boy into the stuff of timeless mythology. The results are showcased at Lakewood’s Wobblefoot Gallery.
“If you want to understand the Wadsworth of my youth, read Sinclair Lewis,” says Tubbesing. “He scathingly ripped open the heart and soul of Midwestern small-town life in his writing. Its expansiveness and its small-mindedness. Its love-hate relationship with nature.
“And I do the same in my art.”
Born in 1921 to a prominent businessman and a mother whose earnest faith was tempered by a keen skepticism, Tubbesing rejected both business and Methodism early in life to embrace the freedom of artistic expression.
In the Wadsworth public-school system, Tubbesing admits, “I was an impossible student. An insane free-spirit. And I took plenty of thumps –– all of which I deserved. It was education by rough osmosis.”
Never one to accept arbitrary authority or unreasonable restrictions, he found escape in his art.
“I never wanted to be anything other than an artist,” Tubbesing says, “They couldn’t pound it out of me.”
The youth wandered the streets, fields, woods and back roads of then-still-rural Wadsworth with his artist’s eye, absorbing the beauty of nature as well as the follies and foibles of fellow residents.
Upon graduating from high school, Tubbesing worked at a series of local factory jobs until December 7, 1941, when he walked off his shift at the Goodrich rubber plant to join the Army Air Corps. His sudden departure without notice prompted his boss to threaten, “Son, you’ll never work in the rubber business again.” He was right.
Attending art school on the G.I. Bill, Tubbesing graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a degree in landscape and figure painting and set his sights on becoming a starving artist. His wife, the family breadwinner, had other ideas. “She told me to get off my can and get a real job,” he says.
From department store window dresser to editorial cartoonist, high school art teacher to corporate art director, college professor to art school dean, his has been a life immersed in art.
Humanity’s relationship to nature remains the central theme in Tubbesing’s idiosyncratic artwork of exquisitely detailed animals and plants whose natural environment is invaded by that most unnatural of interlopers: man.
Although Tubbesing’s drawings and paintings can be admired for being well-crafted, real appreciation lies in understanding its combination of artistic skill and masterful storytelling.
He readily shares the stories behind several of his drawings – tales that brought to life a wide assortment of the denizens who made up the distinct population of his hometown.
Fred Danced for Edna
“This is Edna. She believed that if she only would go down to the local lumberyard clutching a bouquet of flowers, then Fred Astaire would come out of the darkness and dance – just for her – on a pile of lumber.
“She and her bouquet could be found after hours, teetering atop stacks of boards, searching the shadows for the top-hatted, tuxedo-clad Astaire – just the two of them ‘out together dancing cheek to cheek.’
“Small towns had many more eccentrics in those days than they do now. Wadsworth had the better part of seven or eight. We were quite proud of them and we even encouraged their eccentricities – up to a point.
“But Edna’s delusion caused consternation among the yard owners who feared her quixotic quest would cause her serious physical injury, so they banned her from ever entering the premises. But to no avail. Edna would not be deterred. And as only she knew all along, her pursuit was not in vain. I’ll never forget her delirious description of the night Fred Astaire did appear out of the darkness –– and danced just for her. ‘I never talked to him,’ she said. ‘And he never talked to me. I-just-watched-him-dance…’”
Moribund Mill Town
“An acquaintance of mine had been an executive in the Youngstown steel industry and he asked me to do a drawing for him on the occasion of his retirement from the business. I’m not sure I gave him what he wanted.
“By that time, the mills were not what they once were and were beginning the downward spiral that ultimately ended in their collapse. Here are the silent mills, starting to decay. No smoke from the chimneys. No fires in the furnaces.
“The well-dressed woman who has obviously profited by the noise, pollution and environmental degradation that were the by-products of the mills’ operations is no longer parading her fashionable clothing along Main Street, but is hiding, fearful of the mountain lion who waits with that wonderful patience that all cats have for the inevitable opportunity to reclaim territory that was once theirs before humankind arrived on the scene.
“I’m fascinated by cats of all kinds. I love to draw them. Cats can land on their feet wherever they are. I’m firmly convinced that the day mankind disappears from the face of the earth, the dogs will mourn him, but the cats will just shrug their shoulders and go about their business.”
“There was a widow who lived near us who used to go around town carrying a sign that said, ‘Take Heed, America.’
“I won’t mention her name – let’s just call her Cassandra – anyhow, she devised a costume for herself that looked vaguely military – sort of a civil-defense-type outfit. And she was firmly convinced that the French Canadians –– she thought all Canadians were French and, of course, Catholic –– were plotting to come over the lake and destroy Protestant America. Those are the sneaky Papist squadrons behind her.
“She was around town for years and years and years –– until I went into the service and lost track of her. If you got too close to her, she would hit you with the sign. Oh, she could get pretty militant about the whole thing.
“You know, actually in a way I guess she predicted Pearl Harbor. She just had the wrong folks, the wrong religion and the wrong direction.”