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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Jim Flora’s Online Life

Irwin Chusid has made a mission out of ensuring that the illustrator, painter and designer Jim Flora is not forgotten. He has recently had his Flora website redesigned so that Floraphiles know the curatorial process is ongoing, bringing Flora’s genius to life and getting his art into circulation. I asked him about this work and here’s what he told me.

Let’s start by telling me how and why Jim Flora became such a large part of your own life? Before 1997, I had no idea Jim Flora existed, even though I owned a few album covers he illustrated for RCA Victor in the 1950s. I was a vinyl collector, and found those at tag sales. Didn’t even care about the music on the discs. Those covers deserved wall space. I don’t have a background in art studies, and I’m not a visual artist. I grew up reading comics and watching cartoons, and something about Flora’s art has a similar visual appeal. In fall 1997, during a visit to my buddy, illustrator J.D. King, I noticed several vintage LP covers framed under glass. I recognized the style immediately—they were obviously designed by the same guy: James Flora, it turned out, who was one of J.D.’s biggest influences.

J.D. facilitated an intro to Flora, who was retired and living on a residential island off Norwalk, Connecticut. Jim and I talked on the phone a few times, and I offered to set up a starter website for his album art. I didn’t even know about his fine art legacy or career in commercial art—the LP covers were my obsession. I visited him once, in May 1998, shortly after he was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. I compiled the first Flora anthology for Fantagraphics in 2004, and in 2005 began officially representing the Flora art estate on behalf of his heirs. Three more anthologies followed, in 2007, 2009, and 2012. My co-archivist Barbara Economon has been a partner in all these books. She was, in fact, pivotal in encouraging me to get Jim’s work between book covers.

In 2005 the Flora family showed me their father’s original works in storage. From then on, I undertook a mission to preserve, present, circulate, merchandise and administer the collection. Flora spread paint on a canvas. I’m trying to spread Flora all over the world. It’s largely a break-even proposition, considering the amount of time and work I devote to Flora’s legacy. We just don’t sell much merch. But it doesn’t feel like work, nor do I ever find it unrewarding. Because in the course of dealing with the business, I get to look at Flora’s art!

What do you want to achieve with your new Flora website? Websites are jobs, and on any job, you have to stay current with technology. When we launched in 2002, web pages were designed for desktop computers and laptops. Your granddad used something called “dial-up.” Today, with phones and tablets, websites must be responsive to a variety of devices. So Otis Fodder of Example7 and I spent six months upgrading the site architecture in WordPress to make it mobile-friendly. In the process, we added lots of new Flora images, improved navigation, and streamlined the checkout process for purchasing Flora fine art prints. The WordPress templates and tools make it easy to add and manage content. We’re confident that in three years, all the work we did will be out of date again. So enjoy that new website smell while it lasts.

One section that surprised me is “New” album covers. Is this a frequent phenom? We’re carrying the Flora album cover tradition into the 21st century. We started getting inquiries early on, and began to license images for music releases. Most requests are not for music-specific works—the labels just want the impact of Flora’s off-the-charts artistic vision. Many covers have been printed, others are digital-only. Since I also rep the Sun Ra estate and have been digitally remastering Ra’s enormous catalog—including unreleased titles which had no original cover art—I’ve had the opportunity to adapt Flora works for Sun Ra digital covers. One made it into print—the cover of Sun Ra at Inter-Media Arts 1991, on the Modern Harmonic label. I also rep the Raymond Scott estate, and Flora’s work has been adapted for a number of Scott packages as well, most on the Basta label. If anyone wants to use Flora on an album or single, just drop us a line. Flora was a commercial artist; that’s how he paid the bills. We’re carrying on that tradition too.

The new website is a deep dive. I love that you have a section on NOT Flora covers. Have you been plagued by phonies? I wouldn’t say “plagued”—it’s more amusing than annoying. There’s a handful that I wish had been illustrated by Flora because they’re so good. Every so often someone sends us a vintage cover and asks if it’s an undiscovered Flora. Usually it’s a copycat, or another midcentury illustrator with similar influences. Occasionally someone discovers an actual lost Flora. In rare instances, it’s a judgment call. But generally there are telltale clues that indicate it is or isn’t Flora. The eyes, the noses, the contours, the shadings—my Flora co-archivist Barbara Economon and I can spot the nuances.

When Flora was art director at Columbia Records from 1943 to 1945, he illustrated countless new release brochures, ads, trade publications, and record store circulars. After he was promoted to advertising manager in 1945, other artists took over these assignments. Almost without exception, their work looked like they were trying to imitate Flora. But there was something inherently mischievous about Jim’s work they could never quite capture.

Tell me about the Little Man Press. I did not know about this aspect of Flora’s work. While at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in the late 1930s, Flora was accosted by a young literary turbine named Robert Lowry (1919-1994), a now-forgotten figure in American letters. Lowry planned to launch a small publishing imprint and wanted Flora as art director. There’s a quote from Flora: “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.”

They sold subscriptions in advance of the first issue. With those funds, they bought an old 8″ x 10″ Chandler & Price platen treadle press for a hundred bucks, acquired a few fonts of Baskerville type, and began to publish. From 1939 to 1942 they produced a dozen or so slim literary chapbooks in their basement “office.” Each was a different size and format, in small runs of 125 to 400 copies—some signed, some not. Today they’re highly collectible. Flora said he “carved wood engravings, woodcuts, and linocuts because we couldn’t afford photoengraving.” His images veered from childish whimsy to disturbing freakishness. This work was foundational in terms of Flora’s style, and the images are extraordinary.

Flora was mad about art and Lowry was crazy about words, but Lowry was also just plain crazy. He had dark impulses, which were amplified by alcohol, and he was volatile. His writing style reflected a pre-Beat topsy-turvy luridness. In 1942, Flora left Cincinnati to take a job with Columbia Records in Connecticut, marking the end of his association with Little Man. Lowry served in World War II and returned in devastated condition. He later wrote sensational novels and short stories—one was made into a movie starring Sophia Loren. He also worked for the publisher New Directions and designed dozens of elegant book jackets. As a freelancer Flora illustrated a couple of Lowry’s short stories for Mademoiselle magazine. But in the early 1950s, Lowry was diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalized, and underwent electroshock therapy. In the 1960s he joined the American Nazi Party, alienated his friends, and became destitute, but he continued self-publishing in his final decades, many under a revived Little Man Press imprint.

Is there more about Flora left to discover? Yes, quite a bit. The works packed into the four Fantagraphics books, published from 2004 to 2013, reflect maybe 75% of the best of Flora. (There are also countless lesser and later works that don’t meet our aesthetic standards. They’re not bad—just different.) Over the years we’ve discovered additional paintings, illustrations, artifacts, sketches, and personal memorabilia. We’ve been contacted by Flora relatives, former neighbors, fans, dealers, and Jim’s friends who own original works. With the exception of one obstinate, unpleasant collector, they’ve all provided scans or photographs of these artistic marvels. So our image archive has grown. But book publishing isn’t as economically viable as in the past. It takes a year to compile, annotate, and design a Flora anthology, and sales of each successive volume have decreased—despite my biased insistence that the books have gotten progressively better.

Ideally we would love to issue a large-format hardcover edition of the best of Flora’s fine art, and individual editions of his sketchbooks, woodcuts, commercial illustrations, Little Man Press, and children’s book art (including drafts, alternate illustrations, and rejected projects). In the absence of any such offers, we continue to post previously uncirculated works on our website and Facebook page. But there are a number of eye-popping, top-tier works we’ve never circulated anywhere. If we ever produce that deluxe edition, we want it to contain some surprises.

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