The Fabulous Floras

Joel Flora grew up surrounded by art. His father, Jim, earned his living as an illustrator and painted as well. His mother, Jane, who was trained as a classical painter, also worked at her craft every day. Husband and wife shared a studio, in fact, and devoted countless hours to their respective projects. So much so that Joel and his siblings sometimes felt ignored and their Bell Island home was often in need of a good tidying up.

“I never understood why they spent so much time down in the studio until a few years ago,” Joel says, sitting on the couch of his Rowayton cottage. “When my father passed away, my brother and I put on this exhibit and I finally realized that he had to do this stuff because that was part of him living. And my mother as well. If you’re an artist and you’re truly devoted to it, it’s almost like the act of breathing. You’re seeing and you’re feeling, and you have to keep feeding that. I found that out myself when I really got into doing sculpture.”

Still, it would be difficult to confuse the father and son, either personally or artistically. Jim, who died in 1998 at age eighty-four, was flamboyant, with a bigger-than-life persona, a “real hip cat,” in the words of one admirer. Joel is more subdued, a thoughtful man who at age fifty-nine is still finding his way as an artist.

The elder Flora made his mark in the heyday of illustration, during the 1940s and 1950s. He produced jazz album covers, among other genres, for Columbia Records and RCA Victor that were so overboard and frenetic in their abstract, cartoon-style depiction of characters that in later years he would attract a cult following. (A book of Jim’s work published two years ago promptly sold out. A second collection is in the works.) He also turned out illustrations for publications like Fortune, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and the now defunct Park East.

When publishing trends changed, he wrote and illustrated children’s books. Along the way Jim produced an illustrated map of Rowayton that was popular with local denizens. In contrast to his fevered early work, he spent his senior years painting ocean liners, which seem sedate at first glance but upon closer inspection reveal plenty of activity. (Jane died during this period, in 1985, and Jim married his second wife, Patricia, three years later.)

Once, Jim donned a pink suit for an interview that aired on PBS. Joel, on the other hand, leans toward sweater vests. The second eldest of five children, he works as a graphic specialist for UBS Bank in Manhattan, fitting in his personal artwork when he can. His wife, Victoria, is a graphic artist for Reed Exhibitions in Stamford.

Joel’s oil and watercolor paintings, mostly portraits, are realistic. Long intrigued by sculpture, he began to produce reliefs of human faces, cast in concrete, as lawn ornaments. In the baroque tradition, they call to mind the sculpted countenances and figures that gaze down on the bustling masses from buildings in New York and other cities.

Of his parents, Joel’s mother probably had a greater influence on his art. Her paintings, many of them surreal, were done on driftwood, stones and various objects she came across, and they sold briskly at local shows. Jane, like Joel, liked to depict people and faces, the main difference being that her subjects sprang from her imagination while her son works from photographs. Says Joel: “I adore my mother’s artwork and always did.”

As much as having parents who are successful artists can foster creativity, it can also spawn self-doubt. As an adult Joel compared himself to his father and mother, and to his way of thinking, he came up lacking. “For years, I had a problem with calling myself an artist, because my parents worked every day in the studio,” he explains. “And I would just draw every once in a while. I had a lot of trouble with my self-identity because I thought, ‘If I’m not doing it every day, I must not be an artist. So what am I?’ I finally grew out of that.”

Jim and Jane Flora met when they were students at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in the late 1930s. Jim, originally from Bellefontaine, Ohio, was still in school when he teamed with Robert Lowry, an aspiring young writer, to publish a small literary magazine called Little Man Press. Flora’s woodcuts were his first commercial efforts. And though they were simple, almost childlike, they had a devious humor, foreshadowing his future offerings.

Jim spent a few years in Cincinnati after graduation, working as assistant to a muralist and as a freelance illustrator. The Floras came east in 1942, when Jim — disqualified from military service because of a lung condition — accepted a job with Columbia, then based in Bridgeport. He was the creative force behind Coda, the company’s promotional magazine. And though Jim had no inkling of it at the time, his album cover designs, ecstatic in their celebration of the music — much of it his beloved jazz — would win him fans and a belated renown.

A pioneer in the field, Jim Flora began illustrating covers after the war, turning out dazzlingly colorful, nearly electric images for albums by Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Kid Ory and His Creole Jazz Band. And though he eventually left Columbia, packed up his family and spent fifteen months painting in Mexico, Flora returned, as a freelancer, to produce covers for Columbia and RCA Victor that were even more unhinged. Among those were albums for the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Count Basie, Pete Jolly and Benny Goodman.

Flora, working for the most part in tempera, fed off the styles of artists like Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Joan Miró, complete with figures with distorted features, detached body parts and multiple limbs. Mexican strains also seeped in. “I was influenced by almost everybody,” Flora told one interviewer, designer Angelynn Grant.
Yet Jim also brought a cartoon sensibility to his work, not only in how his characters looked, but with elements like hats flying off and bow ties unable to keep pace with the necks of their jitterbugging owners.

Irwin Chusid, who runs jimflora.com and wrote The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora, interviewed his subject a few months before he died in 1998. Like others, Chusid had long admired Flora’s work, collecting album sleeves he had illustrated but never actually listening to the records. “Jim said he could not do likenesses and that’s obvious,” Chusid says. “So he did caricatures. He made them fly. He gave them six arms. He changed their pigmentation to resemble bedspread patterns. He really messed around with the laws of physics.”

By 1956, Jim told Chusid, his run was over. With the growing popularity of rock ’n’ roll and the rise of photography, illustrated album covers in large part fell by the wayside. Jim produced about fifty, the author says. The original art was considered of no value and was discarded. Not a single piece, apparently, remains.

Jim went on to make children’s books. He wrote and illustrated seventeen in all, with titles like The Fabulous Fireworks Family, Charlie Yup and His Snip-Snap Boys and the Day the Cow Sneezed.

Jane, for her part, illustrated some book covers (The Fine Art of Spying, for instance, and The Fine Art of Murder) and did some work for Time-Life Books. She showed her paintings locally and at a gallery in Florida. “She painted in the surreal style,” says Roussie Woodruff, the eldest of the Flora children. “But she had a lot of phases. She tried a lot of different things. My father said she was really the better artist of the two of them.”

Jane’s paintings offered subtle humor and social commentary. “One of her paintings that we have hanging on the wall, for example, is of a medieval priest with a price-tag hanging from a crown of thorns,” notes Roussie.

Inspired by a world cruise that he and Jane took, Jim spent his later years painting ocean liners in acrylics, a stark contrast to his spasmodic characters from his younger days. “It’s as if there were two artists who had the same name, Jim Flora,” says Chusid, who, though wild about the early work, is unmoved by the later projects.

Still, Jim’s paintings have the trademark Flora whimsy. He’d set the ships in strange settings. One of the boats, for instance, was depicted on its stern, alongside the Empire State Building. Another floated among the planets. And if viewers looked closely into the portholes, they discovered happenings involving the passengers, some of them unmentionable.

“I remember when he was in his ship period,” says Roussie. “He painted lots of naughty little scenes going on inside. He would have exhibitions, and the galleries would set out a basket of magnifying glasses. You would see all these old ladies clustered around the paintings trying to see what was going on in the portholes.”

For Joel and his siblings, life with father wasn’t always easy. Jim could be an imposing figure for the kids, especially when he got angry. “I think we were afraid of him,” Joel says. “He would work throughout the night many times. And we would go down to the studio once in a while to borrow a pencil or something and he would get mad — ‘Who stole my pencil!’ I remember one of us — it was me probably — drew on one of his illustrations that had a tight deadline. But we’re all surviving.”

While the parents painted, sibling rivalries and other free-for-alls boiled over elsewhere in the house. “I hated Joel when he was born,” says Roussie, chuckling over hard feelings that have since dissipated. “He’s four years younger than I am. He just ruined the good thing that I had going. He and I tried to kill each other a number of times. There really wasn’t enough attention to go around, so we battled for what there was.”

Of the children, only Joel and his late brother Robert, a photographer, got involved in art. Joel, who graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, was unsure of his talents, which Roussie says came with the turf at home. “Seeing all the good artwork that my father and mother did was intimidating,” she says, “because any efforts you made were so pathetic compared to what we had hanging on the walls.”

Jim wanted Joel to focus on an area in which he could earn a living. And though Joel obeyed his dad and majored in industrial design, his heart eventually led him back to painting and sculpture. For fifteen years the son lived in Toronto, where he did design and pasteup for typesetters. He also studied painting and taught a bit. After returning to the United States, Joel worked for a printer in Norwalk. He has been with UBS Bank, producing graphic material for presentations and events, for six years.

Joel loved painting. But two to three years ago, he took an interest in nineteenth-century sculpture, then studied that art back through the Renaissance. He eventually tried sculpting small reliefs of faces, feeling his way through the process until he was comfortable with it. Then he made bigger ones.

Typically, Joel’s sculptures start with an interesting face that he comes across in a magazine or newspaper. After making some sketches, adding elements like leaves or other forms of plant life to fit its destined garden or lawn setting, Joel then shapes a clay version, working hours on end in the converted one-car garage behind his house that serves as his studio. The resulting face, in turn, is encased in a silicon mold and a plaster shell. Joel then uses everyday concrete, purchased at Home Depot, to cast the final product — from porcine garden imps to Mother Nature plant holders. Some, when placed on the ground in front of a home’s gutters, spout water from their mouths. Most are reliefs, though Joel occasionally sculpts a complete head. From beginning to end, each can take several months.

Most of Joel’s thirty or so sculptures can be found outside his home. Against the bark of a tree, the stones of a wall or shadows on the lawn, they blend with the landscape. A customer’s children scoured the property hunting for them, counting how many they could find. One neighbor periodically brings guests by to admire them.

Neither Joel nor Roussie sees much connection between Jim Flora’s art and that of his son. Yet there is humor to both the father’s work and the son’s sculptures. One can hardly look at either without grinning. “There’s a lot of whimsy in his work and some in mine,” Joel admits. “My mother’s work has whimsical qualities as well.”

Although he has been gone eight years, Jim Flora is experiencing something of an artistic revival. Irwin Chusid’s second collection of his work, the Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora, is scheduled to be published in January by Fantagraphics Books. Recently Chusid and the Flora family sold T-shirts with Jim’s rare Mambo for Cats cover, and they plan more with other examples of his work. Dark Horse Comics, of Milwaukie, Oregon, meanwhile, sells stationery and journals bearing Jim’s art.

Joel Flora, for his part, is enjoying something of a personal revival. His sculptures, which he sells through his website (florahillstudios.com) and local crafts fairs, seem to be catching on. And like his parents before him, Joel has found his artistic passion. “Every single sculpture is a discovery for me,” he says. “I really love doing it.”

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