THE ART OF JOE BOWLER
Illustration|Illustration No. 70
American painter and illustrator Joe Bowler and his creations
Leif Peng
If some people seem to have had the good luck to be natural born artists, Joe Bowler would have certainly qualified as one of them. But there’s an old saying: “Fortune favors the bold.” In other words, yes, some guys seem to have all the luck—but chances are they also aren’t afraid to make their own. As Joe recalled, “I was drawing at three... for some reason I drew bicycles... with all the wheels and the spokes and pedals. I was always the ‘artist’ in the school. My ability wasn’t really creative; rather, I had the ability to copy something—anything. My teacher in 2nd or 3rd grade would put a picture of a dog or something on the wall and say ‘draw the dog.’ Well, I drew THAT particular dog! I don’t know if it was eye-hand coordination or what.”

Luckily for Joe, his parents, if not a little concerned about his future career prospects, were very supportive and encouraging of their son’s artistic abilities. Happily, he managed to assuage those concerns. “I guess it was in junior year,” he recalled, “we had a kind of ‘Career Day’ thing and they had printed up a list of all these professions and their annual salaries. And at the top of the list, above lawyer and doctor and businessman... was illustrator! ‘One hundred thousand dollars’ it said. Of course this was 1943–’44 or so and they were talking about a handful of the best illustrators in the business making that kind of money. Rockwell and a few others. Well, I ran all the way home and showed my parents the list and said, ‘See? I told you.’ And they sort of sighed a great sigh of relief. Because we didn’t have any money at all—especially for college.”

Joe Bowler at age, circa 1967

Joseph Bowler, Jr. was born in September 1928 in Forest Hills, New York. Later on he would study (briefly) at the Art Students League, but first came high school, which presented it’s own artistic challenges. “In my sophomore or junior year in high school, I was taking all the art I could get, including mechanical drawing. I had an assignment which was a freehand drawing of a very complicated gear mechanism. When I brought that drawing in the teacher said, ‘You didn’t draw that.’ And he failed me! I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You didn’t draw this!’ I said, ‘I’ll see you after basketball practice... give me any kind of assignment and I’ll draw it for you.’ So we did that. I sat down and he gave me this much more complicated gear thing. I took about and hour and a half or so, and I drew it perfectly. You know that sonofabitch would only give me a B on it? It was exact, but he just couldn’t take it that he was wrong about me.”

Joe’s father was in real estate and had a client by the name of Barry Stephens, who was an art rep with offices on Park Avenue in New York City. Stephens agreed to give Joe a job as an errand boy at his studio. “My introduction to the illustration business was through picking up and delivering drawings and paintings for all of his artists. So some very exciting things happened to me at that time,” Joe recalled enthusiastically.

“This was long before I really knew too much about art history, but one of the places I used to pick up art was at 51 West 10th St., which happened to be the building where William Merrit Chase had his big studio, and which John Singer Sargent borrowed and painted in. A fellow named John Allen Maxwell, who painted pocketbook covers, was there, and so was Mortimer Wilson Jr. So here I was delivering paintings and picking them up in these incredible places.”

Editorial illustration for Good Housekeeping, July 1952

Joe recounted one of the formative moments from those early days of his career: “I’ll never forget; one of Barry’s big illustrators was a fellow by the name of Frederic Varady, a Hungarian artist who was very popular at that time.”

He continued, “Varady would come into town and Barry would put him up at the St. Regis Hotel, in the penthouse suite. Barry would give me a little envelope to give to the concierge every time I went over to pick up a painting from Varady. One time the envelope wasn’t sealed so I peeked inside... it was a $100 bill!” (“Barry didn’t pay me anything,” Joe chuckled, “but he used to be very generous with the tips and so on.”) “So I gave the envelope to the concierge and went up and knocked on the door. Varady opened it, and here he was in this beautiful velvet smoking jacket. And over his shoulder I see this beautiful blonde festooned on the couch. Right there I said to myself, ‘I wanna be an illustrator!’”

Unlike some other art reps of the day, Barry Stephens didn’t have any staff artists working at his offices. The space was for Stephens and his salesmen, with room for Joe to flap and matte artwork that he would then deliver to clients. “One night, everyone was going home,” Joe recalled, “and there was one piece by Varady left out, and one of the salesmen said to me, ‘Don’t forget to put that away.’ I said, ‘Ok.’ I was the last one there... I was gonna lock up, and I very carefully wrapped it up and took it home with me. I was staying with my grandmother in Port Washington and I had my paints there.”

Editorial illustration for Redbook, October 1952

Joe took the Varady illustration home and stayed up all night copying it. “I don’t think I slept a wink,” he remembered. “The next morning I went in to the office and I put my copy up on the table. Then I sort of ho-hummed around until one of the salesmen came in. He looked over and said, ‘Joe! I told you to put this Varady away!’ That really made my day. The salesmen weren’t the brightest art people in the world... I looked at it years later and I could have told it wasn’t a Varady. But I wanted to test myself... see if I could fool them... and I felt like I’d won that day.” Chuckling he said, “You know, thinking back on it I can’t believe the balls that I had for a 17-year-old kid!”

Illustration Art January 2021

Joe’s next career move came when he asked Barry Stephens for a raise. “I was making $18 a week... I was living at home, and the Pennsylvania Railroad raised the fares. So I went in one day and asked for a $2 raise to cover the cost. Barry put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Joe, I think you’ve learned enough here. I think it’s time for you to move on.’ He wouldn’t give me a two-dollar raise! But talk about a guy with luck: unbelievably, a friend of our family had a friend who was an art director for Kling Studios—the New York office!”

There were four or five artists at Kling and Joe was given a drawing board in the studio so he could sit and watch how the other staff artists did their work. “I did some little samples and the salesmen started to take them around and I got my first professional work there,” Joe recounted. “It was for Redbook, it was a couple of little black & white medical spots for a feature they ran every month. Next I got a double-page spread in True Detective or something... that was my first big one.” For a young kid still just starting on the adventure of a lifetime, Joe said it felt fantastic to see his work—and his name—in print.

Joe was earning around $35 a week at Kling—a big step up from the $18 he had made at Barry Stephen’s place. But after less than a year the Kling shop closed. Joe remembered, “The salesmen would go to lunch around 10 o’clock and take a 3-hour lunch and get plastered. I never saw so much drinking in all my life! So they closed and I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’m outta luck.’ But as I said, I don’t know where I got the balls, but I figured, well, there’s the Cooper Studio, the biggest, most famous art studio in America... I’ll go try there first. So that’s were I went!”

Normally Chuck Cooper interviewed prospective artists, but he was in the hospital the day Joe came in with his portfolio, so Chuck’s brother Arthur saw the young artist instead. Joe described what happened:

Editorial illustration for Collier’s, January 22, 1954

“Art said, ‘Yeah, we need an apprentice here.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’s good! What’ll I do here?’ And he said, ‘Well, you wash brushes and clean palettes and run errands...’ and I said, ‘No, no, no... I’m an artist. I work at making art.’ And he said, ‘Oh really? Well that’s the job. That’s it.’ This was a Friday so he said, ‘You go home and think about it.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do that.’ and I walked out.”

“All the way home I was thinking, ‘I just... committed suicide. I had a chance to get in with the Cooper Studio and I blew it.’ I literally didn’t sleep that weekend. Monday morning I went into the city—caught the five o’clock train or something—and I was sitting on the 57th and Lex doorstep of the building when it opened for the day. I went up and said to Art Cooper, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Editorial illustration for Ladies’ Home Journal, 1953

At the Charles E. Cooper studio, all the artists had studios around the exterior of the 9th floor. The bullpen was in the center, which is where Joe worked. There was an equal amount of space in the middle of the room for the salesmen’s offices. Right outside the entrance to the bullpen was Coby Whitmore’s studio, so Joe was able to meet him almost immediately upon starting his job and began watching him work. Every time there was a lull in the bullpen, Joe was in Whitmore’s studio intently studying how Coby laid down the paint. “And,” said Joe, “he didn’t paint there a lot because he had a studio at home, but let’s just say I got to know him very well.”

Editorial illustration for Good Housekeeping, January 1954

Editorial illustration for Collier’s, February 5, 1954
Editorial illustration for Collier’s, July 20, 1954. Gouache on board At that time, a young illustrator could not have hoped to find a more impressive mentor than Coby Whitmore. Joe fondly recalled one typical day at the studio:

“Now this is a little later, but I remember going out to lunch with them, and everybody having two or three martinis (Coby was a great martini drinker) and he’d sit down in the middle of his studio with all the salesmen and everybody standing around talking, and in about three quarters of an hour he would paint a pretty girl with a cigarette—I think it was a 24-sheet billboard—and he would do that beginning to end in about 45-minutes, talking the whole time, Joe chuckled, “and I’d be watching every stroke, every mixture of paint.”

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