Not many know the name of the illustrator who painted all those Coke Santa’s.
His name was Haddon Sundblom and one artist I consider among the most talented of the 20th century. Mr. Sundblom was in the same class as Norman Rockwell but not as well known due to the fact that Sunny painted most of his work for commercial purposes that did not bear his signature.
A Sundblom illustration for a beer company, I just love English Setter pups.
When I attended a Chicago art school in 1971 at the age of eighteen we went on field trips to The Chicago Art Institute, The Museum of Contemporary Art and at times to luncheons sponsored by local organizations related to art, design and advertising.
I fondly remember one such event. It was the 50th Anniversary of The Chicago Artists Guild in 1971. At this luncheon local Chicago commercial artists of note sat on the dais. They all were members of The Guild which was not a union, just a group of professionals.
This event featured a buffet of food I had never experienced such as green noodles al forno. Green noodles? WTF? But they were really good.
After lunch the lead speaker was Earl Gross. Earl owned an old school Chicago art studio where many talented painters and photo retouchers had space.
Earl was, as were the other speakers, a very old man. He almost resembled the Sundblom Santa but with a white goatee.
Earl told what seemed to be tall tales of past Artist’s Guild events such as their infamous Christmas parties. Then he clicked on the projector and showed film as proof. The film he showed was from the late 30’s.
The Guild party was held at a large hotel ballroom and was packed with black tie attendees. At times he paused the film to make comments. One comment was that these parties could last 48 hours.
When one of the speakers appeared in the film, Earl would point it out. They would all laugh. One more thing, the attendees were all men, the women were all topless. The women would carouse from table to table similar to a modern titty bar doing lapdances. The liquor flowed and all appeared as if they were having the time of their lives.
One speaker that all made reference to at one time or another was Haddon Sundblom, who was seated at on dais. I had no idea who he was.
Another beer company illustration by Haddon Sundblom
Earl Gross then turned the event into a tribute to Sundblom. He showed slides of much of Haddon Sundblom’s work. He was always referred to as ‘Sunny”.
Sunny got up and spoke after accepting his lifetime award and entry into the Artist’s Guild Hall-of-Fame.
After the presentation many began filing out of the room. My instructor, John Goelich, encouraged us to stay and meet the speakers. We did. I was in awe of Sunny. We spoke. He told more stories. When I left I felt as if I had met the most famous unfamous person in America, at least in my mind.
You see, there are artists, and there are artists.
Fine artists are interpretive and look down on artists such as Sunny and Rockwell as ‘illustrators’, not true ‘artists’, Sunny explained to our small group of art students.
He went on telling us that fine artists are always starving while illustrators just pocket the money. Fine artists don’t make any money until after they are dead.
Back then, there were times I questioned my choice in schools. On that day Sunny personally confirmed my choice. All I wanted to do was draw pictures to make a living and that is exactly what I would do for over thirty years.
Sunny taught me a very important lesson. I would focus only on creating work that would make money commercially. The fine artist wannabee’s attended The School of the Chicago Art Institute. I attended a very small commercial art and design school called RayVogue at the southwest corner of Michigan and Chicago Avenues, which is now a Ralph Lauren Restaurant and retail outlet. No regrets, none.
A year or so later Sunny painted his last work. It was for a Playboy magazine cover. He died shortly after.
I am sure Sunny painted many more pin-ups that never were printed and distributed. The film Earl Gross showed that day leaves no doubt in my mind.
Whenever I see one of those old Coke Santa paintings I always remember that day I when met and spoke with the painter, a painter that shaped history by creating an image of Santa Claus that lives in the minds of all Americans to this day. It was a brief encounter but one I will never forget.
To each and every one of you reading this, a very Merry Christmas.