It all started with Willie Evans...

Willie Evans was an old-school poster painter and advertising-design man who worked at my dad's office from around the time I was born until his retirement close to 30 years later.  His work was the face of Lender’s Bagels, and his visual style was an essential part of the success of the company--perfectly complementing the corporate style of the then 40-year-old family-run business: funny, warm, never slick, ultra personal--from the neighborhood. When people saw a Lender's bag or magazine ad or coupon circular, Willie's work instantly let them know that they would be buying--not from a faceless corporation--but from people like themselves.

I got my start in art, learning at Willie's feet, when I was just 4 or 5 years old.  When Dad brought me to the factory on a Sunday to get me out of Mom's hair, I'd always work my way to Willie's "office"--a storage room on the second floor.  You had to walk sideways to skirt past the boxes of corporate files and other junk just to find his desk.  Once there, I could watch him for hours, dipping his series 7 Windsor Newton sable brush into his beloved Higgins Black Magic, rolling out the tip on a small white pad taped to the desk, doing his signature serif lettering... cutting, feeding the work through the waxer, laying out a page, making tracing paper overlays for the 1 or 2 colors his printing budget would allow... making art happen before my eyes; art for a purpose, but art just the same.  And there was more:

Willie didn’t just do advertising art, he did bagel art that was meant for the wall.  Willie had boxes of stale bagels, little bagels, on which he’d paint cartoon faces.  Hair in 4 colors: red, black brown and yellow--styles for boys and girls.  But how do you make them keep?  Willie found the solution: he nailed a dozen tennis ball cans to a 2x4, then filled the cans with shellac. Next, a dowel was rigged with wire hooks; a bagel went on each hook, and the whole shebang was lowered over the cans.  Three dips, then the whole dowel and its dozen glistening bagels went on a drying rack.  He’d have ten or twelve dowels full of bagels drying at a time.  Willie operated a bagel-head assembly line on the factory roof, amongst the vents and ducts, accessed through an open window. When the bagel heads were dry they were drilled, strung with boot laces, and dubbed “Bagelhead Necklaces”. He made hundreds of thousands of them, eventually hiring a staff to duplicate his painting style and handle the dipping and drilling for him.

Willie often complained: "I can't draw like <insert name of supposedly better cartoonist>"--but Willie didn't need to draw like the master draftsmen because he was a master of cartoon appeal. His simple drawings, with their dot eyes and half-moon cheeks, had the power to make a viewer instantly comfortable. Everyone became a kid when they looked at Willie's work--it put you instantly at ease, communicated the message, and left a smile behind.  He never failed. Mort Drucker and Jack Davis--Willie’s heroes--were showy glory-hounds by comparison. He had them beat and he never knew it.

Some of his best pieces at Lender's were complicated panoramas of the old neighborhood--loose, accessible, filled with incredible detail; buildings, cars, horse-drawn carts, a living breathing city street with dozens of characters hanging out windows, selling their wares, playing stickball in the streets.  Every one a character with a story.  Drawings like that don't come from the hand of an amateur.

Willie was a master of hand drawn display-face lettering. He could splash around in Higgins Black Magic ink all day long without getting a smudge on his tailored shirts. On a dare he once painted a ceiling in a tuxedo without spilling a drop or getting a single speckle on his lapel. He had skills.

And Willie liked to work BIG. He was a genius with foam-core, cardboard and egg tempera, and he often made large, standing pieces for trade shows, birthdays and other events. Every jew within 20 miles of New Haven had one nailed to the studs in his garage; too big to be on display inside, but never to be thrown away.  When people got a piece by Willie Evans they never let go of it. I have a few myself.

What a treat it was to know and study under that great man! I owe him my art and my career.

Thanks, Willie!