Manhood and New Horizons - New York City
"My first break with home was in 1938. It was a pivotal year in my life. I was twenty years old - on the threshold of manhood. Life was beckoning."
Peter's Grandma Doane had died that year and left a modest sum of money behind. It was his parents' decision to give it to him in order to enroll in the Commercial Illustration Studio of New York City.
"I first saw New York City in the spring of 1938. In those days it was a far different place than it is today ... I left Montreal on the overnight bus, it so happened, and early the next morning I saw the skyline of the great city up ahead. Then, the bus entered Holland Tunnel and emerged into the crowded streets of New York. I shall never forget the feeling of leaving the bus depot on 34th street and looking up at the unbelievable height of the great buildings thrusting into the sky and gleaming in the morning sunlight, and the incredible bustle of streets. I was to stay with the Lefrens, friends of my parents who lived on 81st Street in Ulster Park, and got instructions about taking the subway. The roar and bustle of the train as it sped uptown was overpowering in a tremendously exciting way. I remember seeing George Washington Bridge from the apartment, and walking with Eddie Lefren downtown to take in the sights."
The school was located downtown and atop the Flat Iron Building [view painting] - so named for its distinctive architecture. Living in the big city would mean staying on a tight budget, but he was sure it could be done. With an exhilarating surge of excitement, Peter embarked on his independence with a mixture of trepidation, determination and joy. He spent his first few weeks living at the YMCA, familiarizing himself with the city and attending classes. He found accommodation at a 108th Street apartment, and made new acquaintances at school. For a short time he was homesick, but the feeling soon left him as he got his bearings and adjusted to his routines.
The art school was exciting, emphasizing the avant-garde work of such designers as Joseph Binder, A.M. Cassandre, E. McKnight Kauffer and Tom Purvis. Open to new ideas and eager to excel, he mightily enjoyed his classes, and began to learn the finer points of colour and design. Figure drawing and constructive anatomy in "life classes" showed him how to imply what was underneath a surface, and he found it intriguing to "suggest" with only a stroke of the brush, and to communicate with illusion, shadow and tone ...
To make ends meet with only $10.00 a week, he counted pennies, literally, and kept a strict record of his spending. He discovered the Automat where he could insert coins and receive what he considered to be an appetizing meal of deep-fried scallops, mashed potatoes and carrots, with lemon pie for dessert, and still stay within his budget. Eating at the Automat, walking from place to place, riding the subway only when absolutely necessary, he managed to find and afford his way.
He agonized for a time about spending money on a $7.00 radio, and was highly relieved when his parents approved of his extravagant purchase. The music it delivered was a real help to pass and enrich the time in the evenings.
"A new and intriguing musical awareness was dawning. I didn't know exactly why. It was the start of a journey that continues to this day. Up to this point I had developed an appreciation for more familiar and easily digested pieces like the Moonlight Sonata, Clair de Lune, etc. Now I was intrigued by a new voice..."
On special occasions he found events and sights to see: Kate Smith at Radio City Music Hall, Frankie Carle at Cafe Rouge, the Metropolitan Museum, Macy's Parade, Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Blossom Seely, Toscanini at NBC Studios, The Cloisters ... He went home for Christmas and Easter, eager to describe his adventures in New York. By spring he had managed to make the acquaintance of a young lady, a model who had posed for one of his life classes at the school, and she consented to come up to Montreal one weekend to ski and meet his parents - quite a coup for him at the time.
During the last two months of his courses, all New York was abuzz with the 1939 World's Fair happening there.
Clarence and Edith came down from Montreal to visit the fair and Peter was proud to show them his knowledge of the city - his newly established territory. When the fair was over, so was his time in New York. The year was up, and although he was sad to leave, he had gained confidence in his own abilities and talents, and ideas for a future in the art world awaiting him in Canada.
"When I started out in the art world, I had the intoxicating feeling that I was going to "make it" right away. After all, I had a great portfolio, I was fresh from art school in New York City, and I was sure I had something the art world was waiting for. Ah, youth!
Alas, such was not the case. As I went from agency to agency it was, "Nice work. Leave your card and we'll call you." The phone never rang. I kept making the rounds. And at the end of a grey November day, I decided to call on the CPR at Windsor Station in Montreal.
Ernie Scroggie, the assistant director of the Exhibits Branch, looked through my portfolio. Complete silence. I waited for the now familiar "Leave your card," but instead he called in Ed Noltie, the director, and the two of them examined my work. They turned to me and Scroggie said, "We're looking for a new ski poster design, and I think your style may be what we're after." That day led to my first commission. the poster was printed, and I received my first payment for a piece of artwork: fifty dollars.
Making a living as a freelance artist is difficult when you start out, and I found it necessary to work as a staff artist from time to time. The loss of artistic freedom in this situation is hard to accept, but the experience is valuable nonetheless. You learn discipline and have to work under pressure.
However, freelance work has always been my preference. There is the opportunity to devote more time to the process, and the resulting design is usually better. In your studio things happen. You savour the moment when the design is complete. You just know the client will think it's the greatest thing he has ever seen.
Looking back over my career, I do feel a sense of satisfaction. True, I never did get to do a twenty-four-sheet billboard or a postage stamp. But I did manage to earn a fair living doing work that I enjoyed.
As for Canadian Pacific, that first fifty dollars is long gone, but the memory of the experience will always be with me. In the years that followed, I designed twenty-four posters for the Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian Pacific Airlines.
Peter Ewart, Surrey, British Columbia, April 9, 1988
(from Posters of the CPR, Choko/Jones Firefly Books)