Kate Stanley of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has written, “His visits have marked the human story since its earliest chapters. He stands beyond the circle of civilization in gentle judgment, taking note of youthful struggle and triumph. He looks on as children strive to do right, to heed their elders, to earn a miracle. When the darkest moments loom and hopes are high, this visitor crosses the threshold before the dawn to leave a message. He brings possibility, astonishment and delight.” Kate is talking about Santa.
In 1931, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus. Sundblom turned to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, The Night Before Christmas. Moore’s description of the man as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” led to an image of Santa that was warm and friendly, his face aglow with his sunny disposition. In the beginning, Sundblom painted the image using his neighbor, retired salesman Lou Prentiss as his model. Later, he looked in a mirror. For 35 years, Sundblom painted Coke-swigging portraits that defined the modern image of Santa. The buckled boots, baggy red trousers, big red coat trimmed at top and bottom in white fur, wide belt, white bushy beard and matching hat — all came out of Sundblom’s studio on the eighth floor of Chicago’s Wrigley Building. Today, when New York City interviews aspiring Santas, it goes by Sundblom’s standardized template. The story is beautifully told and illustrated in the out-of-print 1992 book by Barbara Charles and J. R. Taylor: Dream of Santa: Haddon Sundblom’s Advertising Paintings for Christmas.
Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976) was Coke’s most prolific artist, painting subjects that ranged from bathing beauties to soda-fountain scenes. They are actively collected today. During his peak period in the 1940s, he produced half of all Coke’s advertising art — billboards, point-of-sale, the back cover of every December issue of The National Geographic. Partners in his studio reported that he worked quickly and often completed more than one painting in a sitting. Like many “deadline artists,” (and the “big guy” he was often painting) “Sunny” Sundblom could work all night.
PS: “It was an unusual studio, where its members without conscious effort or charitable impulse — but rather with a spontaneous spirit of good will — inspired each other. It was where we learned that the best returns came from the mutual sharing of our various abilities.” (Haddon Sundblom)
Esoterica: In Myanmar he’s known as Generous Pho Pho. In Moldavia he’s called Mos Craciun. In Suriname, Goedoe-Pa. In China they have a character called Shengdan Laoren. The idea of a wise old man who gives gifts to children comes from antiquity. Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, the visualization of our myths is the work of artists. The building of our myths is the work of artists.
“During the thirty-five years Sundblom painted him, the Coca-Cola Santa always offered a theme each Christmas season. During World War II Santa carried war bonds in his sack and, as he surveyed the troubled globe, drank a toast to all Gis. In 1951 Santa sat in his office, pausing for a Coke as he studied his records of good children. Two years later a brother and sister left their beloved Christmas visitor his favorite soft drink for his midnight snack instead of cookies and milk.” (Val R. Berryman)
“When the name Santa Claus is mentioned anywhere in America today, the image that invariably comes to mind is the one created by Muskegon native Haddon H. Sundblom. Almost every year from 1931 to 1964 he painted new illustrations for the Coca-Cola Company to use in its Christmas advertising. Sundblom’s Coca-Cola Santa appeared on billboards, point-of-purchase store displays and the back covers of such magazines as National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post and Life. The Coca-Cola Company’s large advertising budget ensured that Sundblom’s distinctive vision of Santa received massive exposure across the country and around the world.” (Val R. Berryman)
by Corrie Scott, Hastings, Christ Church, Barbados
In the midst of the madness of everyday living, and especially at this time of the year, your letters are precious to me. “The building of our myths is the work of artists” in the last esoterica hit me. It made me realize that not only are we recorders of history in our art but we bring vast imagination and fantasy to people as well, which in turn can produce delight. This is a reminder and a nudge to keep going, even when people around me tell me I live in another world, or that my feet are not on the ground. This used to bother me, but now my response is “Well, my world is rather nice — why don’t you visit it sometime?” Part of my creativity is being able to ‘disappear’ to my world, to be able to see what is around me in the minutest detail, and then to see these details become abstractions. I sometimes think that my feet are on the ground and others who cannot ‘see’ are somewhere up there. We can usually see both worlds. Aren’t we lucky?
(RG note) Thanks, Corrie. I chose your letter as representative of the many that have come in over the Holiday Season. It’s gratifying that this stuff gets through to artists and that we are connected. I feel blessed, twice a week, that I’m able to have the odd thing to talk about personally with 135,000 others. During the past year our subscription list has more than doubled. I can’t tell you how much I love trying to figure out how to be in some small way useful. Yes, we are folks who live in two worlds, and yes, the inner world is the tricky one and, yes, thank you for being one who helps me to try to understand this.
The choice of Haddon Sundblom as a subject for your otherwise excellent letters surprises and alarms me. He was a mere illustrator who catered to the needs of advertisers.
(RG note) I cherish what an artist might learn by looking at the work of painters like Haddon Sundblom. The subjects may have indeed been trite, cute and commercial, but there are some powerful artistic understandings in this work. Notice how warm and cool lights are played on the opposite sides of subjects, how strong colours are reflected onto other colours, how strong lights give focus and draw attention, how texture is achieved simply and broadly, how warm against cool gives drama and commands attention. There are many fine artists who would agree with me that some relatively unsung illustrators, particularly from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, deserve our attention. Some of their knowledge is in danger of becoming lost.
Haddon Sundblom Connections
by Jean W. Morey, Ocala, FL, USA
I was pleased to read your letter about “Sunny” Sundblom. My father was in the Bielfeld studios with Sunny and we as children enjoyed the company of the Sundbloms and their children as well as Andrew Loomis and his family. I lost my father when I was 9 and my mother went to work with the same group before becoming the Art Director for Children’s Activities Magazine (which by the way was owned by Hugh Heffner’s mother).
(RG note) The Hugh Heffner connection went deep with Haddon Sundblom. While Haddon’s work appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and other magazines, he lusted for the cover of Playboy Magazine. In December 1972 he got his wish. The model was reported to be Sunny’s daughter.
by Randy Crawford, Wheelwright, KY, USA
Haddon Sundblom’s Santa paintings were heavily influenced by Thomas Nast who created Santa’s boots, beard and much of the red suit and cap when he illustrated Clement Clark Moore’s poem in 1863. The 1863 illustrations became the definitive Santa Claus image still used today.
Energy in Studio
by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Haddon Sundblom is a great example of passion and inspiration. It doesn’t sound like he had time to question his ability or his concepts, he went with them.
There is something that happens when we are focused, we tap into a stream of ideas that attract that next idea and the next and so on. You touched on this recently. We call that feeling “being in the flow” and it is definitely worth striving for. I know when I’m there. I’m tapped into something that is far beyond my ability.
I feel an energy in my studio when I cross the threshold. It could be an energy of creativity, of spiritual attunement, of bliss, of all of those things. Sure, there are moments of frustration, yet those do not permeate the uplifting energy of my studio. And when I’m in my studio and tapped in, I’m on fire and creating something out of nothing, something that will live on long after I’ve dropped my physical body. I love being an artist!
by Lyn Lecuyer, Chilcotin, BC, Canada
This is one of the biggest differences between the Canadian and American cultures. Considering the fact we share the same continent, it’s amazing how different Canadians are from Americans. Many of the things Americans hold so dearly are repercussions of the stranglehold of the ‘American Dream,’ including the Santa Claus image. I think the fact that Santa Claus, as our culture has come to know him, was created by a Cola company is an unfortunate detail that relates directly to the consumerism culture. I fail to see the romanticism you eject in your letter regarding the development of that character. Corporatism and consumerism are so prevalent in our cultures that we often fail to see the irony or the sadness in our ‘social comforts.’ The American culture is far too bought and sold. And it is for this reason that Canadians try so diligently to separate ourselves from our southern neighbours. We don’t want to become like that.
Added Value for All time
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
Yesterday a customer of ours bought a current tapestry and demanded that we attach a legend in short form to the back and to print out a special sheet additionally to contract documents. That was young man (of course, tapestry name was Sweet Love) and evidently our tapestry will be living with that legend in the next decades and possibly next hundreds of years. In your last letter I found: “The building of our myths is the work of artists”. Really, if artist attaches/glues art tapestry/painting legend at back of the piece or attaches CD envelope with own music to this art work (or order melody to this picture from familiar musician) – then his art will be more full and rich for the customer, giving him further idea why he exceedingly needs this art work. There might also be attached the work of a group: poet, musician and artist. They can create simultaneously one art work in 3 forms: imaginative, instrumental, vocal or written, and these other forms might give effect of synesthesia not only for chosen persons, but for many people for all time and might be also good for his co-artmen.
All Can Learn
by Donna Brower Watts, Bend, OR, USA
Regarding Jim Rowe’s remarks about Susan Burns paying her art dealer in the last clickback, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we put other artists down by calling them stupid, etc. We all have to learn and some of us have already learned the hard way. I think being positive and reaching out to help other artists who may not have learned whatever the lesson is does something good for me personally and helps me to grow.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
Five mornings in a row, I painted a fast 2′ x 2′ first thing. Set the paints up at the foot of the bed, and stacked the canvases against the wall. Day One, I looked at the plant on my desk, and struggled with too many details. Day Two, I sat in the hallway and painted the window sill over the kitchen sink. Day Three, painted the holly tree out front. Day Four, Kim’s dog Elliot sleeping on the living room floor. Day Five, me. All pretty awful, and yet my reaction to this exercise has been thrilling. I have been catapulted, emotionally, back thirty years. Back before babies and family responsibilities and classes and committee meetings, back when I lived in my studio and could pretty much do whatever I pleased. Back to a time when I really didn’t know how to paint very well, but did it anyway. What worked this magic? Paint fumes in the bedroom? Intentional confusion? Life has a way of getting complicated, but this exercise reminded me of what an uncomplicated life feels like, and that there aren’t so many obstacles between me and the paint brushes as I imagined.
by Scott Harris
Thank you for the reminder that we alone are responsible for our feelings and behavior. I have lately faced many trials and have had many things and situations come against me, and all this as the sounds of Christmas music and joy should abound.
At the point that you are facing some of your greatest trials it becomes easy to deflect, or place outright, the blame on the shoulders of others, sometimes the ones that you love the most. Especially in reading your post-script, it is a beautiful reminder that your behavior and your response are solely on your shoulders. I thank you for the reminder, especially at a time in society where we try very hard to put the responsibility of our own actions on others. I would like to offer a quote from James Allen in his bestseller, As a Man Thinketh: “A man cannot directly choose his circumstances, but can choose his thoughts, and so indirectly, yet surely, shape his circumstances.”
(RG note) See also the clickback: As a man thinketh
Getting Paid for Mastery
by Angela Treat Lyon
I’m still thinking about the person who wrote that we shouldn’t even expect to sell our work, and that if we do, we’re setting up for a letdown. This tells us much more about the writer than it does about reality. I wonder why it is that some of us artists buy into such a belief system. Please tell me why we should be expected to train until a level of mastery, and then, over a lifetime, refine that mastery, without expecting to get appropriate financial recompense for the value to the community at large that we have provided through the exercise of that mastery?
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes John Slorp who wrote, “Your letters have been a provocation of thought and motivation throughout this year.”
And also Sybil Blazej-Yee who wrote, “I am a firm believer in being positive and letting go of old ideas, old behaviors that don’t work and negative thought patterns that keep my head spinning instead of being productive. Since I started purchasing other people’s art, my own art has sold three times as well.”
And also Suzanne Geller who wrote, “I was the pudgy 11-year-old model sitting on a crate of Coca-Cola — hair in pigtails. That was me and I was paid with a carton of Coca-Cola and I thought it was great.”
And also Jennifer Hagedorn of Manila, Philippines who wrote, “I received The Painter’s Keys book yesterday. It made me cry. It was like a hug or a pat on the shoulder. What a gift!”