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Saturday, September 17, 2011

An American Icon

Without a doubt, he was one of the most beloved artists in American history. His work is as American as Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, or Jackson Pollock, though he never took up a brush and painted a picture in his whole life. Yet some of his images are more familiar today than that of any other artist. He has given us a child's eye view of baseball, taught us how not to fly kites and kick footballs, reminded us what it's like to be an utter failure in school, to undergo sidewalk psychoanalysis, and added the term "security blanket" to the American lexicon. We've seen his work produced on TV, in the movies, even on Broadway. Unlike other American art icons who claim influence from Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, or Van Gogh, his art idols have been names like Clare Briggs, Walt Disney, Milt Caniff, Al Capp, and Roy Crane. He has drawn his inspiration from his life growing up in Minneapolis and from a mixed-breed dog named "Spike" he had as a boy. In fact, believe it or not, his first published work was a picture of Spike (a dog that would literally eat anything), appearing in the 1939 Ripley's Believe it or Not. He was fifteen. His nickname was Sparky.  Today we know him as Charles Schulz.

A pre-Peanuts panel from 1948
Schulz would have been the first to admit that he was Charlie Brown, though the name was based upon that of a fellow artist and friend. And most of us would also admit that, at times at least, we are Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown is not special. In fact that's the beauty of it all. Like so many of us, he's so average, it's pathetic. And also like most of us, it's the people around him who are so interesting and unique and funny. We all live in a world full of Lucys, Linuses, Schroeders, Peppermint Patties, and yes, even Snoopys. Our Snoopys may not look like Charlie's but they all think the same way, and often act the same. And the fact that Charlie Brown is just over sixty years old makes us realize that we have, many of us, known him all his life--and ours. No other artist has ever drawn so precisely what it's like to be a child, nor projected so sharply the fact that the same childhood fears, joys, heartaches, and headaches continue to be a part of us as adults.

The "Li'l Folks" became "Peanuts."
Though having died more than ten years
ago, last year, Schulz was second only to
 Elvis in earnings from the grave, more than
$35-million--not exactly peanuts.
Charles Schulz was born in 1922. He was two days old when he picked up the name "Sparky" and it was his for the next twenty years. The son of a Minneapolis barber, Schulz began drawing cartoons when he was hardly much older than the Peanuts gang. And while other working artists brag of art degrees from the National Academy, the Art Students League, or the Chicago Institute, Schulz got his first art instruction as a result of a "Do You Like to Draw?" matchbook cover from the Art Instruction Schools and his only training in art from their correspondence course. It cost his father $170. After a stint in the Army during WW II, he returned to become an "instructor" at the school, opening dozens of envelopes a day and "grading" the efforts of would-be artists all over the country not unlike himself. His first professional work came as he managed to get several single-panel cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post during the late 1940s. His big break came in 1950 when United Features Syndicate in New York liked his work. His Li'l Folks became Peanuts, his little dog, Spike, became Sniffy (later changed to Snoopy because there was already a cartoon dog named Sniffy), and we all began to laugh and sometimes even cry as Charlie Brown and Charlie Schulz became a part of who we are.
November 26, 1922--February 12, 2000

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