How Dave Brubeck and Vernon Johnson “Met” in a Watercolor

During this month of jazz artist Dave Brubeck’s passing just before his 92th birthday, I remember fondly our family’s distant connections and how they influenced my musical and artistic tastes. Brubeck and my father, the watercolor artist Vernon Johnson, who was of the same era, “met” in the 1950s through a contest sponsored by Brubeck’s record label. Calcutta BazaarHere’s the painting that linked them and that remarkable decades-long story. 

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Talking 1950s on the Radio – The Lucky Strike Papers

“Radio Once More” and Andrew Fielding are stalwarts of journalism that serves history – longtime pros using modern-day capacities through print and multi-media to capture the vivid realities and contexts of our past and to bring them alive in new ways for new generations.

Andrew and I, as journalists at the core, share an appreciation of our Baby Boom upbringing and the value of preserving this history for today and tomorrow. Listen to his latest interview with me about The Artist’s Eye – my father’s watercolors of small town America in the 1950s and how I came to write this book. He asks provocative questions that bring this history truly alive.

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On Lincoln, Ohio and other election post-mortems

It appears that Daniel Day-Lewis’ stirring portrayal Lincoln is going to be sold out in my neighborhood movie theater for the foreseeable future, a reality that along with other post-election reflections, takes me once again back to Ohio while I wait my turn for the movie. With my roots twining through that Union state, yet having lived much of my later years in the old Confederacy, Lincoln for me has been an endless source of curiosity and continuity, both historical and modern. He was a luminous figure in my elementary school classes and a powerful storyline in the civil rights upheavals I experienced in the ’60s and ’70s in the South.

What’s more,
in my central Ohio hometown of Mount Vernon, where my father painted watercolors of timeless buildings in the 1950s, a stately dwelling was said to be a location along the Underground Railroad tunnel, although this status has been questioned in latter days.

Nonetheless, Lincoln embodied today’s classic Red State-Blue State tensions – a principled Republican whose party later promoted the Reconstruction excesses that drove many who shared his equal rights principles to become Democrats. As these political and social battles continue,  Lincoln’s story remains ours.

And Ohio clearly has been a perennial seat of the action, and I think Ohio understands that part of its role is to embrace the messiness of this ongoing intellectual, political and economic soul-searching in the context of the times. Heartland America, where else should this most logically be happening, where tradition and the future constantly trip over each other?

For Ohio is a largely Red State that swung to a Blue State victory for Obama for multi-faceted reasons. My father, the artist Vernon Johnson, fit comfortably and without apology within Red State values and painted its pillars as an extension of himself – the small towns, Main Streets, grocery stores, manicured homes and Rotary Clubs. These unvarnished and familiar scenes of daily life are templates that could overlay the small towns all around me in northern California, even though lattes have replaced milk bottles. Yet Vernon Johnson’s children  at their core chose Blue. All that is possible in a state like Ohio, where being authentic means standing tall for what you believe, and we take that charge with us, wherever we live.

Which brings me again to Lincoln and how what he confronted and the tensions within him remain both relevant and instructive today, more than 150 years after the Civil War.

Though many of us have left, the seeds of Ohio are everywhere. It takes only a little digging to uncover them. Recently I was meeting with a new client in San Francisco and we started talking about our backgrounds. It turns out that not long ago she not only lived for a few years on the street where I was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, but her house was one I knew well as a child. It was just three blocks away and I walked there often to water my mother’s friend’s African violets. It was either one of my first paying or volunteer jobs. Thank you, small town Ohio, for preserving these connections, often surprising, and reminding us of “what’s real.”

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Election 2012 – Ohio and Virginia Core Values Rule

Here’s an alternative theory on why Ohio and Virginia were so important to the 2012 presidential election. Core values rule – but they are played out differently in each generation. Central Ohio in the 1950s was a heavy contributor to a “Red State” positioning, while Virginia was historically deeply committed to preserving a different past. Both states today, where Vernon Johnson lived and expressed his core values, are now harbingers of the future — places where waves of change or pockets of more modern thinking can stand side by side what’s been historically valued — and create something new. This is the new America, and what Vernon Johnson knew all along was that family and hometown are values that fundamentally connect us in perpetuity. Those of us who have moved away from our hometowns still hold these values dear – and are forever linked – from Florida to Arizona, California, New York and North Carolina — because they anchor us and the way we have influenced the next generations.

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Preserving Rural Life: The Summer Ritual of the Midwestern County Fair

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s county fair time! Whether in Ohio or California, the celebration of agriculture, farming and rural life — augmented by rock bands and fireworks –are celebrated in the county fair which, from coast to coast, is synonymous with “summer.”

My father Vernon P. Johnson painted a suite of watercolors of the Knox County (Ohio) Fair, a continuing source of memory and nostalgia for us Boomers now living all over the world, and I’ve devoted an entire chapter to that iconic experience, where we dressed up in our finery, paraded our cars and congregated in the Grandstand for the horse races in the annual ritual matching agriculture and entertainment.

Now, living next door to a suburban fairgrounds in the San Francisco area, I watch fireworks for five consecutive nights around July 4 and remember the pigs, corn, fruit pies and harness races of those mid-century summers of my youth.

Today’s displays might include “agricultural science” or “organic farming” and the music ranges from Reggae to Motown to Rock, but wherever we live, we are reconnecting to the land, whether we recognize it or not. On the same landscape where the next-door fair is held each year, the Sunday organic farmers market congregates weekly year-round. When I purchase my olive tapenade and artisan cheeses, I see in my mind’s eye the agricultural purveyors of my youth who brought fresh brown eggs to market and displayed their 4-H projects, homespun crafts and, according to a news clip, “the most and finest exhibits of horses, cattle, mules, ponies, swine, sheep and poultry, in addition to numerous other exhibits.”

After the July 4 fireworks finished and the crowds hit the freeways from the fairgrounds next door this year, I was awakened at 2 am as the workers dismantled the equipment and moved on to the next venue. The noise was annoying but the spectacle disappeared in almost an instant. I already miss the presence of that annual mid-summer ritual.

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A 1950s Don Draper (but with values)

The return of the “Mad Men” series on March 25 once again takes me back to the 1950s, the post-war era that fueled 180-degree changes in America’s buying habits, from frugal wartime savings to the latest crazes of the consumer buying culture. Vernon P. Johnson was one of the “Mad Men” of the 1950s, an innovator in graphic design for the new wave of flexible packaging, like potato chips, cookie bags and T-shirt packages. While he wasn’t a household name like the iconic Madison Avenue ad men, he worked in small town America and studied the buying habits of everyday people. Using psychology and art, Vernon Johnson became an expert practitioner of the new world of marketing in the 1950s — focusing on the burgeoning consumer packaging industry. He observed consumer habits at ground level — and often did his own “market research” using his wife and her friends. I know, because he was my father, and there was asleek new car every couple of years, a giant chest freezer in our garage stocked with frozen vegetables and TV dinners and, finally, a color television. On evenings down on Main Street, our fashionable mothers with cinched waists and full skirts, spectator heels and white gloves joined our fathers for martini dinners in the local restaurant. And, for Dad’s company, since almost everyone smoked, cigarette packaging was a major source of business.

And, oh, the shopping! We still laugh about the array of specialty departments, like the one presided over by the fastidious “bra lady” who took the most careful measurements in a local department store.

It was a buying culture, and consumer packaging design was as artful and calculated in the 1950s as advertising campaigns were became for the Mad Men of the 1960s. “Best designs are those that interpret understanding of human nature,” he wrote in 1956, about the same time he was extolling the growing importance of women in consumer decisions. “Women,” he told a local Kiwanis lunch in Mount Vernon, Ohio, “influence 85 percent of all sales, control 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, buy 90 percent of all household purchases and 62 percent of hardware sales.”

Sounding a little more like his Madison Avenue “Mad Men” counterparts who came later, he wrote: “The treatment of the color, subject matter and layout denotes gaiety and excitement which the consumer associates with enjoyable experiences. This detonates the feeling of desire, motivating the shopper to make the purchase-impulse buying. When we are able to build this type of consideration into our package designs, we are taking the long step towards providing our customers with selling packages.”

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Celebrating the Golden Jubilee – Boomers with 50 Years of Success

Yikes! When I read that The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Chieftains will celebrate their Jubilee Year in 2012, I did a double-take. If they are that old, what does that say about me? In 1962, I was right in there discovering these bands, much to the chagrin of my parents. But if we are going to talk about Vernon Johnson’s legacy of the 1950s, then we must acknowledge the Boomers — his generation’s offspring — and how we were influenced by the transitional 1950s. Let’s face it, look at their clothes if nothing else, we are still torn between the nostalgia of tradition and the energy of the future.

The New York Times, in describing these bands’ 50 years of staying alive, despite all the changes in music, technology and culture, calls their impact “living histories.” Note the emphasis on “living” — they are for the most part alive, well and actively working. Like it or not, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, haggard as they look, are killing the rest of us with their on-stage athleticism and survivability. And The Beach Boys remain the default brand for “summer.”

Contrast that with The Sammy Kaye Orchestra, with which my father played pickup during his college years in Cleveland, Ohio back in the late ’30s-early ’40s. They have performed deep into this century even though Sammy Kaye died in 1987.  In my case, I grew up with both Sammy Kaye and Mick Jagger — and so did most of us in those early Baby Boom years. No one translated the old to the new for us, because that understanding comes with wisdom years later. So we had the very traditional pre-1950s with the revolutionary ’60s with no guideposts. By the 1980s, it was normal to take my son to a Rolling Stones concert with his parents, while my parents would never have envisioned taking me to see Sammy Kaye.

Traditions preserved, innovations achieved. With life experience comes the knowledge that all this is interconnected, although all the dots may not create a linear pattern. What really strikes me is the longevity — hate to say it, but 50 years of staying alive in any business is pretty phenomenal! As the New York Times noted, our Baby Boom youth and these musicians demonstrated both “a well of history and a blank slate for representing the ideals of the culture.” What I’ve come to understand in my research and introspection in writing this book and the many responses following is that as much as we want to marginalize the past, we are its children, and embracing rather than fighting the transitional context of the 1950s helps us truly know who we are. Even at 65 we are still learning what that means.

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