The big turning point in John Clymer’s life came when he first saw a reproduction of a painting by Frank Schoonover done for a Brown & Bigelow calendar. On the back was a biographical sketch of the artist that included the artist’s address. Not only did he carefully fold and save the reproduction for future reference, but also it gave focus to a lifelong goal. As a youngster growing up in the small mountain town of Ellenville, Washington, John was inspired by the wilderness and wanted to make pictures of the wildlife around him, but he had no idea how to go about it. Now he knew he wanted to be an illustrator.
Enrolling in a correspondence course, Clymer learned the rudiments of working for reproduction, and by the time he finished he had made his first sale to the pulp magazines. However, he realized he did not know enough and began an impossible 18-hour day study program. He had a daytime job in a studio making clothing catalog drawings, went to art school at night, and studied privately with Vancouver artist, George Southwell, until 2 a.m. After two years of this, John’s health broke down. At the age of twenty, he was a physical wreck. His doctor advised a complete change of scene, normal hours, and some hard physical labor. John took a job as a deckhand on a paddle wheeler making a trip up to the Yukon. It was rugged work, but also an opportunity to know the life of the Indians and trappers along the way. This became a rich mine of information for his later career. As John says, “I never panned it that way, but that chance summer’s trip has guided and shaped my life since.”
Back in Vancouver, John wondered what he should do next. On impulse, he took out Frank Schoonover’s address and without prior announcement made the long trip to Wilmington, Delaware, to seek advice. Schoonover sent him back for further study in Vancouver where he was already illustrating for Canadian publications. It took a longer time to break into the American magazines. Subsequent studies with Harvey Dunn played a big part in preparing him for the intensively competitive New York market. However, the emphasis in the magazines was on boy-girl romances, which was not Clymer’s forte. Doing them was a painful struggle. The direction of his career was changed by a stint as a Marine Corps artist during World War II.
After the war, he began to do covers for The Saturday Evening Post with requirements much more suited to his own outlook and for several years Clymer’s cover paintings of regional Americana were extremely popular subjects with the public. Simultaneously, the artist was painting and exhibiting historical illustrations, particularly of situations relating to the Oregon Trail and settlement of the West. Based on family diaries, visits to the actual sites of events and with thorough research in area museums, his paintings became authentic recreations of history never previously depicted. As John says, “Being on the spot where an event occurred is much different than just reading about it. Going and seeing the places makes history come alive for me.”
His gallery sold his historical pictures as soon as he painted them. Finding this new market meant that Clymer could drop his commercial work and paint pictures of his own choice. He then decided to move to Wyoming to be closer to his subject matter, with a studio located in the Tetons. There he can see deer and elk from his window, and many of his finest pictures have been painted in this studio.
Today John Clymer is one of the most esteemed painters of the historic west. He has done an important mural for the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming, and his paintings hang in important public and private collections across the country. With the organization of the Cowboy Artists of America and the National Academy of Western Art, Clymer was embraced by both groups and his pictures have won top honors from each in their annual exhibitions. Despite his own modestly stated objective, “All I wanted to do was live in the mountains and paint,” John Clymer has created an important and authentic documentation of forgotten places and historical events that will now be remembered because he painted them.
Walt Reed © 2011 Society of Illustrators