Inveterate New Yorkers often grumble that the city has lost most of its charm. Among other complaints, these disgruntled long-time residents are quick to point out that most of the unique little shops that made real adventures out of simply wandering around neighborhoods have disappeared. Today, these dissenters claim all you can find while exploring corners of Manhattan are big box stores and fast food chains, branches of Duane Reade and Citibank. The complaints are mostly valid, but, thank goodness, there are a few exceptions—a few long-established businesses that manage to continue to hang on and to retain their distinctive qualities.
The Earl Mayan Studio, a frame shop on Second Avenue and 29th Street, is one of these special places. Cluttered, casual, and very friendly, the store bespeaks another, gentler, and less crowded time in the city’s history.
But who is or was Earl Mayan?
It’s not the genial proprietor, Bob Hammerquist, a Harvard-educated raconteur who also happens to be a first-rate framer.
No, Mayan was Hammerquist’s late father-in-law, an illustrator and fine artist. Some of this man’s work can be seen interspersed with other paintings in the shop and goodness what wonderful work it is!
Born in 1916, Earl Mayan was a graduate of Pratt Institute who, like the better-known Norman Rockwell, forged a career as an illustrator. Initially working for the “pulps,” the low-cost monthlies that entertained enormous audiences in the first half of the last century, Mayan went on to work for such prestigious publications as the Saturday Evening Post and McCall’s as well as book publishers Random House and Bantam. He also produced a substantial amount of artwork without any commercial association.
But let’s start with the “pulps.”
As mentioned, these were the cheap and very popular fiction magazines that flourished from the days just before World War I to those just after the Korean Conflict. Called “pulps” because of the cheap wood-pulp paper on which they were initially printed, it was these periodicals that first featured many of the perennially popular characters of fiction, among them: Hopalong Cassidy, Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and Conan the Barbarian. It is also worth noting that over the years such celebrated but diverse writers as Agatha Christie, C. S. Forester, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mickey Spillane all made contributions to the genre. Sinclair Lewis, the first American winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, at one time worked as an editor at Adventure, one of the most successful of the pulps.
Working in this genre, Mayan was certainly in good company. And an important part of his own early recognition came when he was recruited to illustrate The Shadow—one of the most famous adventure heroes of the twentieth century. Indeed, even today there are many who remember “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
In 1941, like many of his peers, a still young Mayan joined the Army and his work as an illustrator and artist was temporarily halted. During this stint in the military, however, he never stopped creating. Among other work produced at that time, he made drawings in lithograph crayon of scenes he witnessed such as soldiers playing cards in mess-tents and a ruined bridge along the Rhine. Interestingly, he carried these drawings rolled up in his pack throughout his time serving in Europe and somehow they survived his more than four years of service.
After the war, Mayan resumed his career and in the process he progressed from the pulps to more respected and prestigious periodicals and publishers. From 1954 to 1961, for example, he painted ten covers for the Saturday Evening Post. Perhaps the most famous of these appeared on April 20, 1957, and depicted New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in action with fans looking on and rival Red Sox players in their dugout watching with rapt attention. At the time Berra was in the prime of his career. Having won the Most Valuable Player award in 1954 and 1955, he was a major sports celebrity of the day and the Yankees themselves had won the previous year’s World Series by besting the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games.
Many of the stories that appeared inside the Post were illustrated by Mayan as well and these drawings were very popular with readers. In an informative and comprehensive website devoted to “The Visual Telling of Stories” (www.fulltable.com), contemporary graphic artist Chris Mullen writes:
“Mayan was a marvelous illustrator operating within the so-called hyper-realist style. He managed great visual invention, possessed excellent powers of drawing, and entertained his readers with an inventive set of references within the images.
Most glorious of all are his covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and the illustrations to fiction within, but he also was responsible for a lot of adverts in the press and periodical world . . .”
Alas, Mullen also adds that “I have seen no reference to him in the usual reference books, but would like to pay this small tribute to him and his skills as a commercial illustrator.”
In 1962, Mayan began teaching classes in fine art and illustration at the Art Students League of New York. It is said that he enjoyed this work very much and, interestingly, that teaching brought out his verbal skills. As a result of discovering this formerly hidden talent, he began writing his memoirs as well as some poetry and a few children’s books. This period in his life lasted for more than thirty years and even when he retired from teaching in 1995, he continued to paint and to explore different genres: landscapes, still lifes, portraits, even abstract art.
Discovering Mayan’s work is a treat. Looking through the old magazines is one way to enjoy the work and exploring the internet is another. Those interested can also check out the portrait of César Chávez he was commissioned to paint and which hangs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It is quite compelling.
But probably the best way to learn about Earl Mayan and his work is to visit the aforementioned gallery. Here among the wonderful artistic clutter on the walls are, of course, numerous examples in a style which is emphatically Mayan’s own—some of the World War II drawings for instance. As a bonus, there are also samples of work he did in celebration of artists of the past, works in the styles of his beloved Cézanne, Monet, and even Picasso.
If time allows and before the expansion of Manhattan forces any more changes, take a peek into the Earl Mayan Studio at 529 Second Avenue, New York 10016. You’ll get a glimpse of some art that is bound to bring a smile.