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Mountain Home Magazine

Portrait of the Artist as a Small-Town Man

Jun 04, 2014 05:34PM

When I was little, growing up in the small town of Wellsboro, I had nightmares with alarming frequency. After particularly bad dreams, I would often climb, trembling and sweaty, into my parents’ bed for comfort and safety. Lying with my head on my mother’s stomach, I would look up at the wall beside their bed and study the watercolor hanging there.

The painting was of a beach at twilight. It was impressionistic, as though the beach were obscured by fog, but I could make out two small figures near the waves, one clad in white, and the other in red with a small blue dot just above her head which I always thought was a bucket hat. As I got older, I wondered who painted the landscape that stood sentinel over my sleeping parents. But it was only recently, during my last springtime at home before leaving for college in the fall, that I discovered the painter who watched over my childhood dreams and nightmares. He was the late Warren Goodrich, a noted California-born artist who had already achieved fame as a newspaper artist and jewelry designer when he discovered Wellsboro late in life and “decided to stay,” saidThe Wellsboro Gazette, “when he became enchanted with the storybook quality of the town.”

Goodrich, fifty-nine when he arrived in town in 1972, had invented the iconic newspaper cartoon figure The Little Man for the San Francisco Chronicle and designed the seminal Jackie Onassis belt for Cartier in New York City. After designing jewelry for the former First Lady, who reigned as American royalty, he turned his talents to the small-town queens of Wellsboro. Enchanted by Wellsboro’s Pennsylvania State Laurel Festival, he designed a crown for the Laurel Queen, the winner of the statewide beauty contest for high school girls. This year’s festival, in its 73rd year, runs from June 14 to 22 in Wellsboro, culminating in the coronation of the queen, with her glittering crown. They don’t use Warren’s crown anymore; his classic gold laurel-and-fur creation, fit for Ovid or Dante, proved too heavy after a few years. But you can still see Warren’s remarkable tiara, complete with matching cape, displayed in the window of Dunham’s Department Store on Main Street, another Wellsboro institution. Just across the street, the festival-goer may stop to rest on a bench dedicated to Goodrich, a final homage to his thirty years of contributions to the town.

After twenty years in Manhattan, Goodrich was overwhelmed by the small-town charm of Wellsboro (pop. 3,000), and looked for real estate the first day in town. It was like coming home. Born in 1913 in Willows, California (pop. 6,000), Warren set out as a young man for UCLA Berkeley, carousing around with the legendary Californian John Steinbeck, whose literature won both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Soon after, Warren enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts to more acutely hone his already blossoming artistic bent. Upon graduating, he worked in an art supply store before joining the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935, where he first began to make his mark.

Though many cartoonists and newspaper artists are celebrated in their own time and place, very few demonstrate the staying power of Warren’s comics. He is the progenitor of the syndicated comic strip Animal Crackers, which continues to be printed daily, as well as The Little Man, inarguably his most famous creation. Idly doodling a behatted man in a series of poses of ascending enthusiasm, drawn in response to a request from his editor, he changed the face of movie reviews. From that moment on, Warren’s creation has been used as a more neutral, and clearer, visual cue than stars in the Chronicle—and has inspired countless imitators around the country. “The only rating system that makes any sense,” said the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, “is The Little Man of the San Francisco Chronicle, who is seen (1) jumping out of his seat and applauding wildly; (2) sitting up happily and applauding; (3) sitting attentively; (4) asleep in his seat; or (5) gone from his seat…The blessing of The Little Man system is that it offers a true middle position, like three on a five-star scale.”

Warren, though, was only getting started. He headed east to New York City, where he spent time at a jeweler’s table in the Diamond District, learning metalcraft with a cadre of Dutch smiths. After studying jewelry making at the Fashion Institute of Technology, he applied to work at Cartier, the world- renowned jeweler whose flagship store is in New York. He was granted an audience with the president of Cartier, who thought that while Warren had talent, it just wasn’t up to par for Cartier. As Warren left, though, the president caught a glimpse of a small trashcan that Warren had fashioned out of silver. Finding the humor of juxtaposing the high and the low with a droll wink— the humor characteristic of Warren throughout his life—the president of Cartier immediately ordered a gross of the little trashcans to be delivered in a week. “I didn’t even know what a gross was,” admitted Warren to close friend Larry Biddison. After working day and night, he finally finished all 144 of les petites poubelles and started his career with the celebrated jewelers.

His stint at Cartier also gave Warren a national stage, as he created jewelry belts for the president’s wife and established a Jackie O-style belt that became popular during the ‘70s. As an accessory that oozes Cape Cod nonchalance and a carefully crafted, devil-may-care sartorial style, his belt is still an essential part of the prep handbook.

Weary of the frantic pace of New York, Warren searched for a place that would not only be small enough for him to concentrate on the arts, his comics, and his writing, but also a place of true beauty. He was looking, essentially, for a town that would take him back to his roots, a town that could capture the small town magic of the idyllic Willows. In lieu of searching out west, though, he decided that he’d rather look for a place reasonably close to New York but not another Manhattan suburb.

In Wellsboro, it was love at first sight (see the accompanying story by Warren himself, “My Kind of Town”). As was Warren’s wont, he got involved immediately. As a part of the Presbyterian Church, Audubon Society, and Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center, he quickly became one of the founders of modern Wellsboro along with his close friend, the eponymous Arthur Gmeiner. Arthur, also a transplant, and a millionaire from Denver, came to Wellsboro at nearly the same time as Warren, and the two men became fast friends. Gmeiner also loved to paint, and although his talents didn’t necessarily match his enthusiasm, he was driven to create the Gmeiner center, where he and others in town could display their art, including that of his good friend Warren.

Warren also played the trombone, and seeing that there was not yet a town band, he created one. He lobbied for, and was instrumental in creating, the band shell that used to stand next to the Robinson House, the town’s historical museum. He served as vice president of the historical society. He drew a charming map of Wellsboro, with an accompanying love letter to the town closest to his heart. The map still hangs proudly on walls around town, including at the Chamber of Commerce. Even the sign for the Town Band Concerts, that many will automatically recognize, was graced by illustrations from Warren, with his classic, everyman whimsy.

Because of Warren’s attachment to Wellsboro, he felt that it was important to give a sense of majesty and wonder to the Laurel Queens who would mesmerize the children of the town and fill their dreams for years to come. So, using the skills learned at Cartier, he made a golden crown in the shape of laurel. By using the mountain laurel as his template, Warren sculpted a coronet that combined regality and local flavor, a crown that could only be worn by the royalty of the Endless Mountains.

Warren Goodrich died in Wellsboro in January 2002 at the age of eighty-eight, in the nursing home where he was provided his own art studio, allowing him to practice his passion to the end. He was accorded a fawning obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, and a similar one in the Los Altos Town Crier, which he co-founded, as well as The Wellsboro Gazette, where he was a beloved columnist for many years. His autobiography, An Artist’s Life: You Never Know What You’ll Be Remembered For, refers to the 1942 doodling of The Little Man that was his most widely recognized achievement.

But in Wellsboro, this fountain of creativity was also remembered for his paintings, one of which happily ended up on my parents’ bedroom wall.