January 4, 2016

Issue 101: Nelson Dewey

NELSON DEWEY Interview: Greg Escalante

Nelson Dewey is the story of a talented young artist with a great sense of humor coming of age at the right moment in history to capture the Innocence and zeitgeist of the times. It is so wonderful to catch up with him after all these years and find him still flourishing and finding out what has taken place since first making his mark in surf and car culture.

How did it begin, what are your earliest memories and accomplishments related to art?
My earliest artistic memory is of getting into trouble (I did that a lot) in grade one when we were learning to write sentences. I thought it’d be interesting to illuminate the initial letter in each sentence. The teacher didn’t. In grade two, I saw that some of my classmates’ drawings on the blackboard weren’t accurate, so I erased and redrew the offending parts. The teacher wasn’t too happy about my initiative. In spite of these kinds of setbacks, I kept my interest in drawing. My art classes were my favorites. I was lucky to have parents (and some teachers) who encouraged my interests. I was allowed to take extra art classes instead of woodshop and metal shop.

Thinking back, this maybe wasn’t completely beneficial for me, since it was only a few years later that I wished I knew more about wood and metalworking. It also developed in me a kind of know-it-all attitude when it came to art (and life, I think) – something I’d come to regret at times in my later life. I’ve passed on some opportunities to learn really useful stuff because I thought I already knew enough.

But in grade school, I was always trying new mediums and techniques I’d see or hear about. I spent countless hours copying the work of my favorite comic strip artists: Walt Kelly (POGO), Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) and Carl Barks (Scrooge McDuck). I had developed a love for reading, and it was around grade six when I discovered MAD – not the magazine, but the original comic books. I was hooked! I’d discovered Jack Davis and Wally Wood!

What geographic area did you grow up in?
Well, I was born in Puerto Rico. My Dad was a civil engineer, working to build military airfields in the Caribbean during the war. He then returned to the States and got a job with the Department of Highways in Arizona. We lived in a trailer and moved around the state until it was time for me to start school. My parents bought a house in Phoenix, where my brother and I were raised. I went to Longview Elementary through eighth grade, then to North Phoenix High School.

I continued my art at North High, cartooning for the school paper and airbrushing stuff I’d try to sell to friends. Some weird creatures on cards for car windows, a few T-shirts, handkerchiefs, whatever I thought might make a few dollars. It was in my senior year that I wrote a story about an imaginary car club, drew a cartoon illustration, and mailed it off to Hot Rod Magazine in LA. A couple weeks later, I opened my mail and there was a check from them, 50 dollars! I had become a professional cartoonist!

I’d been thinking of studying to become an electrical engineer… but getting paid for a cartoon was enough to change my life! I started submitting cartoons to other magazines. I even tried MAD… but the rejection note I got back was quite sarcastic (rather cruel, in fact) and anything but funny. After I got over the hurt, I started submitting more, mostly to car magazines, and began making sales.

Then did you study art in college?
In a way I did. A salesman from Woodbury College (in LA) came to my high school art class, and I got signed up for their commercial art course. I spent a year there and learned a reasonable amount. But that know-it-all attitude I mentioned earlier, I kinda let it keep me from fully participating in some classes, like life drawing, that I now wish I’d put some real effort into! I felt like I was learning more on my own. I thought I was ahead of what they were teaching.

But being in LA gave me the chance to meet some editors at the car magazines in person. I got helpful feedback and was able to sell cartoons more regularly. After that first year, I went back to Phoenix and got a job on a survey crew for the Highways Department. I used a lot of my spare time to cartoon. I also worked on some writing and photography. On a visit to the local drag strip, I saw a very unusual car: an experimental dragster that was powered by compressed air! It used three turbochargers, basically small turbines that were connected to the drive wheels. I wrote a story about the car, non-fiction for a change, and sold it to Hot Rod.

So I was developing three skills – cartooning (and illustration), writing (fiction and non-fiction) and photography. Yeah, I was a know-it-all, but I was also impatient and eager to improve my skills. I read voraciously and indiscriminately. I experimented with various art techniques and media. I even bought the “Famous Cartoonists” correspondence course. Guess what, I didn’t complete the course, but I did read the texts thoroughly and learned a lot! After a year at home, I returned to art school in LA. Through the school, I got a part-time job with The New York Times (their short-lived West Coast edition) as a copyboy and then persuaded them to make me a full-time staff artist. Goodbye art school!

I had my first experience with surfing then. My girlfriend at the time persuaded me to try mat-surfing at Manhattan Beach. She was enthusiastic but her control wasn’t so good. Her mat went onto me, knocking me off mine. My next memory is of crawling ashore, coughing up seawater, and finding the lifeguard studying me, wondering if a rescue was needed. Not a good start. Around that time, one of the car magazine editors told me about a new magazine the company was publishing Cartoons! I met with the editor, Carl Kohler – a cartoonist-writer whose work I had long read and admired – and I was soon selling my stories and art there regularly. This was a major life-changer for me. First, there was CARtoons. Then along came HOTROD Cartoons, then CYCLEtoons… and SURFtoons!

Other life-changers: I got married, the NY Times folded the LA edition and I took a job at a boating magazine in Santa Monica! A few months later, with my wife Charlotte’s encouragement, I quit the boating mags and became a full-time freelance cartoonist. Since I was now a freelancer, I could work from almost anywhere. After a brief vacation visit to Canada (Victoria, British Columbia) we decided to see more of the world. After some minor preparations, we returned to Victoria for a year, we planned. The first stop before trying Japan or Australia or… wherever. That was in 1967. But we liked Victoria so much we started raising our family here and never left. The work from the ‘Toons magazines was enough to provide a decent living, and I contributed to them for over 20 years.

So you did a lot of cool cartoons for SURFtoons Magazine and other publications? Can you tell us about your background surfing? We also noticed that Rick Griffin had cartoons published in the same magazines as you. Do you have any thoughts on him or did you ever meet with him back in the day?
Ha! The secret comes out! My “surfing background” amounts to what I mentioned before – wiping out on a surf mat! I did do a little skim boarding and a very little bodysurfing. Nearly drowning at Manhattan Beach kinda scared me off the top of the ocean, but I did do a number of SCUBA dives after that, mostly at Catalina and Santa Barbara Islands. Looking up and watching the seals bodysurfing was definitely cool! However, getting older (well… old) has inspired me to create a bucket list. Getting back into wilderness backpacking, I’ve done recently. Also went spelunking! Actual surfing is near the top of my list now. I’m going to Hawaii in May, so… sink or swim… or surf.

All the “cool cartoons” you mention (thanks, by the way) come from reading lots of surfing magazines, watching the films, and just being at the beach and observing. Well, also the ideas come from my twisted imagination! My unconscious mind has an ability to take factoids and memories and other unrelated crap and jumble them together to create cartoon ideas! Living 1300 miles away in Canada has had at least one big disadvantage – I never got to meet and hangout with most of the other cartoonists that appeared in the magazines, much to my regrets. I didn’t meet Rick – I really wish I had! Some other “name” cartoonists who appeared in the ‘Toons magazines include Robert Williams, Alex Toth, Bill Stout, Gilbert Shelton, Terry Gilliam… and dozens more amazing artists. I missed so much! While I’m on the subject, there was maybe another disadvantage to being so far away and I don’t think I was the only one who was affected. And that was about contributors getting our original art returned to us. I estimate I did well over a thousand pages of cartoons for SURFtoons and CARtoons and the others – and of those, I had maybe five returned. I had an agreement with the publisher to get my art back, but there was always a reason it wasn’t convenient for them.

Then several years ago, I started getting calls from people wanting to sell my originals back to me! Apparently much of the art, mine and others, had been dumpstered when their building was demolished. Someone found it and sold it to a used bookstore or something. I’d like to think if I’d lived closer I could’ve gotten some back. Talk about pissed off! I know I was naive to think I’d eventually get my art back, and I think I learned my lesson about retaining original art, but it still annoys me to think about how much of my stuff is out there… art that means a lot to me.

What other significant projects came up after the SURFtoons and CARtoons period?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had several distinct careers in my life, all related to cartooning. And all fun! After the ‘Toons comics folded, I found other comic book work, or I should say, most of it found me. I had a couple pages in the Wham-O Giant Comic – it lasted one issue. I illustrated for Harvey Comics: New Kids on the Block, Monster in My Pocket, Stunt Dawgs… Best of all, I got to draw most of the Back To The Future comics for them – did I mention I love science fiction?

My editorial cartoons in a Victoria weekly newspaper attracted the attention of Charlie White, a local entrepreneur who wanted to write some books about fishing, and thought I should illustrate them. We eventually produced around 20 such “How-To” books, some of which sold quite well. Other authors saw the books and contacted me to illustrate their own. So over time, I’ve illustrated something like 45 books. A couple have sold nearly 250,000 copies – not bad for basically specialty markets. And I still get calls from authors.

Charlie also produced a series of TV shows about fishing, leading me into doing animation for them. That led me into working for a couple video game companies. At one company, a fellow artist Sean Newton introduced me to storyboarding for animation studios. I “won” an Emmy one year for my work on a kids’ show, Arthur. (That was along with maybe a hundred other people who contributed to the show!)

These opportunities led to more. I got a call to storyboard a small movie being filmed in town. Through a couple lucky coincidences, I then spent five years storyboarding feature films, like Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4. Doing the movies and getting to work with directors like David Zucker (Airplane) and producers like Bob Weiss (Blues Brothers) was an incredibly rewarding experience! Not to mention FUN!

So what do you have going on now? And in the future?
A hot-rodder in eastern Canada managed to acquire the CARtoons trademark and is reviving the comic after almost 25 years! I’m a contributor and so are many of the surviving cartoonists. There’s one issue in print, and another due, I think, in January or February. You can find it at cartoonsmag.com. After those other “careers” I mentioned, I’m now feeling “rediscovered” in a way! There’s talk about me being a part of an exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art, and that excites me – I want to have some new material to show there – assuming it comes together.

Instead of working for someone else, as I have most of my life, I’m doing projects that I want to do! I’ve gotten back into comic books and I have a couple graphic novels in the works. And I’ve started painting again. I’m reprising some of the cartoon subjects from years ago as well as new stuff. I have some ideas for some sculpture, too. I’m 73 now, and somehow I’m still in excellent health. I feel very fortunate to have lasted this long as a cartoonist! I have lots of ideas I want to pursue and I want to use my time to enjoy myself and my family!

Excellent Nelson! Thanks for sharing the stories and experiences with our readers and we look forward to your future projects and exhibitions.