Thank You, Jon Gnagy: An Appreciation of a Predecessor to Bob Ross

Ned Stuckey-French reflects on the host of Learn to Draw, the “middlebrow” instructional art show he loved as a kid.

Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 2016 | 9 minutes (2,204 words)

 

Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.

I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.

I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything.

Phoebe loved it and I could see in her my old desire—to emulate Gnagy and learn to draw; to acquire his sharp eye and his quick, smooth lines.

I’ve also been writing a book about middlebrow culture – the culture of those who had recently arrived in, or were aspiring to, the new middle class. Anxious about their class position and unsure of what to say at dinner parties, these autodidacts turned to the Book-of-the-Month Club, radio book-talk and quiz shows, reprints of classics, popular anthologies, and magazines ranging from Reader’s Digest to The New Yorker for answers and assurance. Middlebrow is usually associated with the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first appearance of the word in the December 23, 1925, issue of Punch, where it was used to describe “people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about middlebrow and just as when you learn a new word and suddenly see it three times in print over the next week, so have I been seeing middlebrow everywhere. Or at least I think I do. Nicola Humble, one of middlebrow’s historians, has said, “‘Middlebrow’ has always been a dirty word.”1 Because it’s so dishonored, middlebrow often feels obliged to gussy itself up to make the sale. Good books become “Great Books.” An adult education course becomes an “evening seminar.” Sometimes, when tentatively feeling out a new market in a new medium, it might even pass itself off as something else entirely – children’s television, for instance — and then it can be hard to spot. Yet here, in Jon Gnagy’s earnest efforts, middlebrow was undeniable. Self-improvement, democratic access to the humanizing possibilities of art, the promise of new and easily acquired skills, an original and effective marketing scheme that made use of the latest mass media, the invocation of past masters—it was all there.

And now, it’s gone. The Age of Middlebrow has passed and Jon Gnagy would be gone with it except his shows have been digitized and saved in the museum that is YouTube––a handful of artifacts, nine-and-a-half-minute clips from 1950s and 1960s America.

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Jon Gnagy was born in Pretty Prairie, Kansas in 1907, and displayed artistic skill early in childhood.2 His Mennonite family valued pacifism, simplicity and craftsmanship, but classified portraiture as forbidden idolatry, so his first drawings were landscapes. When he was thirteen, he won a ribbon for one of them at the Kansas State Fair. He kept winning and, while still a teenager, began to receive and accept job offers. The first took him to Tulsa to create posters for the International Petroleum Exposition; then, it was on to Wichita to do designs for aircraft companies; and finally, to Kansas City, where he worked for an ad agency and took courses at the Art Institute, where Walt Disney had studied a few years prior.

But then the Depression hit and in 1932, “armed,” as he put it, with “ignorant nerve plus enthusiasm,” Gnagy moved with his wife and young daughter to New York City. Things went well at first. He landed a job creating full-page ads for ALCOA in Fortune and The Saturday Evening Post—but soon the freelancing dried up, and he young family–which had grown to include a son–was forced into a cheap apartment over a steam laundry in Queens. Gnagy suffered a nervous breakdown.

A job offer in Philadelphia and a move to the perfectly named town of New Hope, Pennsylvania saved him. New Hope’s Mennonite community felt familiar, but Gnagy was most invigorated by the town’s growing group of artists. Lured by ads in the New York Times for cheap properties, Gnagy’s neighbors in the Bucks County “Genius Belt” included (middlebrow) artists, musicians and writers such as Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, Oscar Hammerstein, James Michener, George Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Pearl Buck.

For a decade Gnagy commuted from New Hope to Philadelphia, reading and sketching three hours a day on the train. After Pearl Harbor he became the art director at Philadelphia’s War Service Committee, instructing soldiers in camouflage techniques, showing them how to disguise and conceal vehicles and buildings. He also created posters for war plants; then, as the war wound down, he led some workshops at local colleges, women’s clubs and art centers. He found that he loved teaching and decided it was what he wanted to do.

On May 14, 1946, sporting an artist’s smock and a beret, he was the opener for the first show broadcast by NBC from its new 61-foot tower atop the Empire State Building. It was called “Radio City Matinee” and also featured a comic, a cooking demonstration, and a woman who modeled hats. When Gnagy picked up his crayon to begin, he found the lights had melted it into a useless glob, so he switched to a piece of chalk. For seven minutes the chalk squeaked across the paper as he showed his viewers how to draw an old oak tree.

There were only about 300 television sets within the tower’s 80-mile range, most of them owned (as the first radios had been, and the first personal computers would be) by electronics enthusiasts who made them at home from kits. Maybe half of them were tuned to WNBT that day, but the creators of television knew Gnagy was onto something. Vladimir Zworykin, who had invented the cathode ray tubes that made television transmission and reception possible, rushed over to shake Gnagy’s hand. RCA and NBC President David Sarnoff called to congratulate him. The show’s producer exclaimed that his segment was “pure television.”

Pure television was going to save American culture. In 1941 Sarnoff predicted that television would introduce the country to opera, dance, literature, and art so that Americans might “attain the highest general cultural level of any people in the history of the world.”3 After the war, Sarnoff hired Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a wealthy Phi Beta Kappa Dartmouth graduate, and the two of them launched “Operation Frontal Lobes” to produce the programs they thought America needed. “Television is a miracle,” said Weaver. “It is going to change social history” and “create an aristocracy of the people, the proletariat of privilege, the Athenian masses—to make the average man the uncommon man.”4

To the defenders of high art such grandiose claims were disturbing. Schooled by New York intellectuals such as Clement Greenberg, who had recently railed against the “insidiousness” of middlebrow culture and accused it of “devaluating the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest, and stultifying the wise,” the art establishment knew middlebrow when they saw it and moved quickly to censure Gnagy.5 Victor D’Amico, Education Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, convened a special session of the Committee on Art Education, a national commission of art educators. The group drafted a resolution and sent it to WNBT:

Television programs of the Jon Gnagy type are destructive to the creative and mental growth of children and perpetuate outmoded and authoritarian concepts of education. Creative education is based on the development of each child’s individuality, the opportunity to use his own experience and to explore new media and techniques. The use of superficial tricks and formulas, found in the Jon Gnagy type of program, destroys this objective.6

The New York Times picked up the story and interviewed Gnagy, who displayed a winning self-deprecation even as he skewered the Committee with irony: “I dream of the day when I can feed the viewers more and more esthetics. …I’d like to sell the same thing the Museum of Modern Art is selling.” In the meantime, he allowed, the market wouldn’t bear it so he’d just keep trying “to get as many people as possible to sketch on their own and to be observant of the things around them.”7

Viewers agreed and Gnagy won the day. His show remained on network television until 1971 and in syndication on PBS beyond that. He received no royalties, but now had a platform from which to promote his lesson books and art kits. Doubleday sold a copy of his book to one out of every fourteen television set owners in the United States. His art supply company moved fifteen-million art kits.8 He even spawned some successful imitators, most notably Bob Ross, whose show “The Joy of Painting” ran on PBS from 1983 to 1994. Because it arrived during the age of black-and-white television, Gnagy’s show had focused on drawing. Ross, sporting his signature halo of permed hair, made full use of color television and emphasized oil painting, but he continued to use Gnagy’s quick-study teaching techniques.

But if Gnagy’s success and influence were undeniable, so also was the pained mix of anger and apology lurking in his witty response to the Committee. Clearly he wanted to be taken seriously by the tastemakers and it hurt him that he was not. Yes, he could sniff out pretension in others and in himself—he kept his goatee, for instance, but got rid of his beret and artist’s smock after the first show—and he would make a good living doing what he did, but he knew where he stood with the critics. “Let’s not call my program art,” he told the reporter from the Times. What he offered, he admitted later, was just a “fence-straddling combination of entertainment and education.”9

I was born in 1950 and I’m middle-classI am middle-class and middlebrow, a product of mid-twentieth-century American middlebrow culture. My family’s journey parallels that the country’s new middle class. It begins with my grandparents on both sides, who were Midwest farm couples, moves through my mother, who was a Book-of-the-Month Club member and over whose shoulder I read, and my father, a GI Bill intellectual and college professor, to my wife and our daughters with our ranch house, our Volvos and our Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that we ordered online.

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Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century. His essays have appeared in journals such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tri-Quarterly, and Guernica.

Editor: Sari Botton

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1 Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (New York: Oxford U P, 2001)

2 Gnagy’s daughter maintains an excellent web site about her father’s life and work with links to articles about him and videos of the original shows: Polly Gnagy Seymour, The World of Jon Gnagy, October 20, 2006 . The best print sources on his life are a brief biography from An Exhibition of Paintings and Litho-Drawings (Idyllwild, California, 1964); Susan Morgan, “Each and Everyone of You,” Real Life Magazine 18 (Summer 1985); and Bill Einhorn, “Did You ‘Learn to Draw’ From Jon Gnagy,” Reminisce Magazine (22 November 1997). [full citations from Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995) 404.

3 David Sarnoff, “Possible Social Effects of Television,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 213 (January 1941) 152, quoted in Pamela Wilson, “NBC Television’s ‘Operation Frontal Lobes’: Cultural Hegemony and Fifties’ Program Planning,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 15.1 (1995) 89.

4 Weaver as quoted by Thomas Whiteside, “Profiles: The Communicator (Part I), The New Yorker (16 October 1954) 39, as quoted in Wilson 90.

5 Greenberg, “Symposium on ‘The State of American Writing,’” Partisan Review (August 1948) 879.

6 Quoted in Val Adams, “Art Instruction for the Masses: Jon Gnagy Combines TV Entertainment With Drawing Lessons,” The New York Times (20 January 1952) X11.

7 Ibid.

8 Cecil C. Hoge, Sr., Mail Order Moonlighting, Revised Edition (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1988) 44.

9 Quoted in Adams, “Art Instruction for the Masses,” X11.