Art and Antiques
May 7, 1991.

Jon Gnagy.   Moon and Grapes, 1943. Oil-glazed tempera on panel. 10 x 14 inches.

You Were an Artist
by Liz Seymour

When Jon Gnagy's You Are an Artist went out of syndication in 1970, it held the world's record for the longest continuously running show on television. The formula was simple and irresistible: a man, an easel, a piece of charcoal, and a sketch that was completed and framed in fifteen minutes. At its height Gnagy's show reached 60 million households, and his learn-to-draw kits—still in production today—reached even more. "Jon Gnagy," said Andy Warhol, "taught me to draw."

Who taught Jon Gnagy? From his youth, Jon called it the Art Spirit. Something inside him told him how to see and to recreate what he saw. That "spirit" turned my grandfather, a high school dropout from Pretty Prairie, Kansas, into, arguably, the century's most influential art instructor. But the journey wasn't easy.

In 1935, Gnagy (then an art director for an ad agency) suffered a nervous breakdown that proved a pivotal point in his life. "I began to ask what was happening to me . . . what was the nature of the various levels of consciousness I was experiencing,' he later wrote. "In short, I phrased the question: 'What is art all about?'."

He studied psychology, philosophy, physiology, and biology. The physics of light and color became an obsession. He developed a personal chart tracing the creative processes in the human mind.

Distilling his self-taught theories into a method of art instruction, Jon Gnagy began taking on students, but with the zeal of a missionary he longed for a larger audience. At the 1939 World's Fair, he saw a demonstration of television and soon began working and reworking a series of ten-minute lessons he hoped to bring to the air.

From feast to famine and back to feast again; an offer of a job as assistant art director came from Philadelphia. The move was made, the work and pay was good and soon the Gnagy family moved to the growing art colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Jon could mingle with other artists and study for three hours a day on the commuter train. During the next eighteen years the smoking car of that little train was Jon's study hall. Reading every book on art and philosophy and joining interesting discussions with famous artists, authors, playwrights and composers in the Bucks County Genius Belt gave him better than art school or college education.

When, in 1946, the first TV tower was erected atop the Empire State Building, Gnagy was ready. NBC gave him a spot on "Radio City Matinee" alongside a chef making hollandaise sauce and a milliner trimming hats. The crayon melted under the lights, the chalk squeaked, but he was a hit—with almost everybody.

In 1951, members of the Museum of Modern Art's committee on art education sent an angry letter to the New York Times. "The use of superficial tricks and formulas found in the Jon Gnagy type of program," they wrote, "is destructive to the creative and mental growth of children." I think the phrase "superficial tricks and gimmicks" really stung. When my mother was going through her father's things after his death in 1981, she found a copy of the MoMA letter carefully preserved in a file cabinet, along with a Times article in which he rather stifly defended himself. "My purpose," he always said, "is to get as many people as possible to sketch on their own."

The principles my grandfather taught were too basic to be called tricks. After all, the cube, the ball, the cone, and the cylinder—the building blocks of every Thursday-night broadcast—were old news in Caravaggio's day. What was new, and startling in it's power, was the medium of television, which made those principles available on a scale never before seen in the history of art. The thousands of carefully shaded pumpkins, covered bridges, and cocker spaniels taped up on refrigerators weren't the products of stifled imaginations, they were shouts of amazement from people who had suddenly discovered, as Jon Gnagy said at the beginning of every show, "If you can draw these four simple forms, you can draw a real picture the first time you try."

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