Monday, November 15, 2010

Don Weller

Cover for Communication Arts Illustration 30- by Don Weller

A few weeks ago, I saw a posting on Today's Inspiration that included the work of friend and fellow Utah based artist Don Weller. The initial posting identified the work as "unknown", but I immediately deciphered the signature as well as the style.

Don with dog Buster in the barn tack room

This prompted me to approach Don about an interview, though my request was as much an excuse to travel to rural Oakley, Utah for lunch and a visit. Don and wife Cha Cha live on a ten acre ranch property that they share with two dogs, a cat some horses and several cows. Don always liked to draw as a kid, inspired by the work of Charlie Russell and Will James. A cowboy at heart, Weller arguably stumbled into illustration as a career. Growing up in rural Washington, Don studied art Washington State and left there with a portfolio filled with Abstract  Expressionist paintings and a handful of figure drawings. This apparently was the extent of what was taught there and Don insists it was "a terrible background for someone who wants to illustrate".

Cover art for Angel Records

From Washington, Weller ended up in Los Angeles in a position doing fashion paste up for the May Co. By 1961, Don had managed to find a position at UCLA doing brochure design for the campus colleges. He says he got the job mainly because the hiring agent was being fired and wanted to saddle the college with the worst possible employee ever (remember that Expressionist portfolio?).

Westways magazine cover

Well, fellow employees Mits Kataoka and Bill Brown eventually took him under their wing and Don spent all his energy and extra hours learning the craft of graphic design while honing his own illustration skills. The brochures he was designing needed illustration and he had the luxury of complete autonomy in how to fill the visual space. At the time, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and the rest of the Pushpin Group in New York were doing groundbreaking design that incorporated their own illustration as imagery.

Illustration for Simpson Paper Company

The logical solution for Don was to follow suit and illustrate these projects himself, which he did. The UCLA job led to more and bigger opportunities in both graphic design and illustration including work for Rexall Drug, Schick Razors, T.V. Guide, Boys' Life, Warner Brothers, Continental Airlines, Sports Illustrated, and even Time Magazine covers.


For Weller, illustration has always been about the idea and how to communicate that idea. He remembers a couple of Time Magazine projects he worked on in the early 1970's One was a cover featuring Elton John in which he was competing against fellow illustrator Wilson McLean.


Time's typical practice was to commission two illustrated and one photographic solution for each cover subject, all of which were paid for. One cover would be chosen to run unless some current event pushed the cover story aside. Wilson's version neglected to include the piano, which the editors felt was key to conveying the idea. Don's version of course had a piano, so he won the cover battle.


Later, Don was asked to do a cover featuring Bruce Springsteen, whose "Born To Run" album had just exploded on the charts. This time, Don was the one who forgot the key element, the guitar. Much to Weller's chagrin the magazine ran a version painted by Kim Whitesides which included the guitar. Time and the other news magazines would routinely leave commissioned artwork unused. One time, Don created a cover for a story on Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie". The release coincided with the 1976 Summer Olympics and was bumped in favor of teenage gymnastic darling Nadia Comenici.


By the time Don and wife Cha Cha left the congestion of Los Angeles for the mountain vistas of Park City, Utah in 1984, Don was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award from the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators. Don felt that this was a bit strange if not premature since he was still going strong in both illustration and graphic design.

Logos designed by Don and Cha Cha Weller

Upon arriving in Park City, Don rediscovered his passion for horses, particularly cutting horses. I'll post an overview of the beautiful western themed work Don is currently creating tomorrow.

Like this post? Please comment, it helps me plan future posts.

Don Weller's website

9 comments:

Rob Colvin said...

I really enjoyed all these! The Time cover of Elton John still amazes me, Don's talent for design and drawing are flawless. He was my earliest influence and inspiration. He came to USU every year I was there, he was a definite student favorite!

Greg Newbold said...

He came to BYU and taught a three week segment of the then "Guest Illustrator" class. It was one of my favorites partly because the articles he assigned (though he didn't tell us) were real articles for Park City Magazine. He chose a couple of the best works (mine included) to be published in the magazine and we got paid for them. It was one of my earliest commissioned works, and I am still grateful for that opportunity.

Will Strong said...

Wow, these are fantastic. Thanks for sharing them. I wasn't familiar with Don's work but I need to check it out now.

Chris said...

Fun to see this, Greg. I had Don as a teacher at Art Center back in '82 and he was great. I was unaware of his art since then, thanks for adding this to Leifs site as well.

Kathy Weller said...

Greg, thank you thank oyu thank you for posting about my dad!! I'm so glad you posted the Elton John and the Bruce pics. The Bruce pic is the greatest cover that never was in my opinion. The Time cover is the greatest cover that WAS.

Thanks for this! I am linking this post! :)

Brian said...

Excellent article! I work with Don's daughter Kathy (who commented above and is the reason I found this site) and I can tell you that the artistry definitely runs in the family!

Greg Newbold said...

Thanks Kathy! Believe me, it was a true pleasure to write this little post on your Dad. I agree that the Bruce cover was a real winner. I am sure much better than what ran, but since I have never seen that one, I will never know. Don is a true genius and I am so happy to consider him a friend.-Brian, thanks for stopping by!

Karen Lee said...

I have a vivid memory of the day the Time cover of Elton John appeared on the newsstand in Scurlock's Grocery in Edinburg Texas. It sucked me right across the restaurant and I couldn't put it down, had to actually buy the magazine just for the cover. Lucky girl, five years later I was working for Don and Cha Cha! Don is an such an original, thanks for sharing this story.

Greg Newbold said...

Thanks for sharing, Karen. Don and Cha Cha are great. I have enjoyed working with them and associating with them very much over the years. My Dad was in advertising, so we got all sorts of magazine subscriptions. I remember that Elton John cover as well many other beautifully illustrated ones. I think they may have had an influence on me becoming an artist.