History of Graphic Design in South Louisiana
T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History
Baton Rouge, LA 70803
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Mary Borne, AKA Miss Weenie, discusses how her father paid for her educataion during the dificulties of the Great Depression. This recording is from the 2010 oral history session and her quiet voice is emblematic of her age at that time. She was 94 years old.
In this 2010 recording, Tom Varisco, originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, refers to himself as a “design director”. He describes the variety of projects and campaigns that helped him open his studio in New Orleans. Varisco opened up shop more than thirty years before the recording date.
Don Smith recalling his motivation about an entry-level job at The Fitzgerald Agency where he worked until retirement. Over time, he advanced to the title of Art Director.
Kenny Harrison recounts his love of art beginning in elementary school.
Gus talks about having to open the eyes of dead cadavers to take mug shots.
Michael Deas shares his view on the transition to digital media.
Justin Sheils shares his earliest memory of fashion with stripes and the influence of Andy Warhol.
Kathy Cain and Paulette Hurdlik
Kathy Cain shares her view on the percentage of engineeringand art in being a designer in her 2009 interview.
Byron Levy briefly discusses his career in his 2009 interview.
Peter A. Meyer
In these clips, Meyer takes credit for the demise of the Fitzgerald Agency, Interview 2012
Mary Serena Gibbons A/K/A Ms. Weenie was born in 1916 in planes countryside Louisiana near Baton Rouge. Her life long nickname came from her brother’s pronouncement of her as teeny weeny when she was a baby. Later, when she was four, he taught her the alphabet and sums. Understanding arithmetic served her well throughout her life. In school, math became her favorite subject.
As far as she knows, she became Louisiana’s first woman banker. She was the first female banker at the First National Bank of Thibodaux. She worked there for fifty years. Mrs. Borne A/K/A Miss Weenie, was included in this History of Graphic Design in South Louisiana project because she was very proud of the fact that she purchased one of the first mimeograph machines in Louisiana. She realized the money-making potential that it had. With it, she could offer cheap printing services to small organizations and church groups that, otherwise, did not have a budget to print their newsletters, flyers, and announcements.
Mimeograph machines were perhaps the first office-size printer marketed to small and medium-sized businesses. Byron Fowler in Alexandria, Louisiana, was the first distributor to sell them in this state.
Tom Varisco Designs is a well known regional branding company. Two examples of his iconic work are The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc. logo, and the photographic essay Spoiled. This award-winning publication documented the discarded refrigerators that populated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Varisco has been profiled in Communication Arts, How, Publish, and Photo District News and has judged many design competitions.
He received the first Fellow Award from the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).
Other subjects discussed were his love for working in film and how to have a successful relationship with a client in today's fast-paced, technology-based society. Though he has no one favorite movie, he loves 8 ½, Annie Hall, Citizen Kane, Godfather I and II.
Don C. (Christopher) Smith, painter, sculptor, and art director was born in New Orleans in 1929.
When he was about 12 he drew a P-38, WWII fighter plane on his school looseleaf binder. He knew he could be a successful artist when his fellow students wanted him to draw the fighter plane on their binders, too.
He attended Tulane University and then convinced his father to pay for enrollment in the Famous Artist School. This was a popular mail-order learning course in the 20th century advertised in the back of comic books. Smith attributes his accomplishments in the fine and commercial art fields to this experience. In 1954 he talked his way into an entry-level job at The Fitzgerald Agency where he worked until retirement. Over time, he advanced to the title of Art Director.
Smith is an accomplished artist in a wide range of mediums that include watercolor painting and cast bronze sculpture.
In addition to his fine art and long-advertising career, Smith is particularly proud of his illustrations for Western Horseman magazine. Such as the February 1962 magazine illustration, “Waterhole”. This realistic, full-page cover art shows a cowboy riding a horse through a western watering hole. Smith was fond of painting Western motifs, painting commissions for Western Horseman magazine as early as 1957.
Harrison talks about the excitement of working with other talented artists. Over time, he developed lots of techniques through thousands of assignments. He ascribes his background in drawing to being able to adapt to the computer.
He emphasizes the importance of perseverance for up and coming artists, to expect lots of rejections and the luck factor, and meeting the right people.
At the time of this recording, he was the Features Design Editor and Illustrator at The Times-Picayune. Harrison was part of the newspaper’s 1997 and 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, each receiving the Gold Medal for Public Service.
Gus Daniel Levy, a native of New Orleans, born in 1923, spent most of his early life uptown, raised by his grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
His father was a frustrated artist.
In high school, Levy took art lessons from the art teacher, Joseph Smith, at Fortier High School in 1936-1940. Smith was an excellent artist who took Levy under his wing during the Great Depression.
He worked for the Times-Picayune for five years as a layout artist and night retouch artist. His duties were divided-up between advertising, promotion, and editorial art staff.
He talks about having to open the eyes of dead cadavers to take mug shots. He usually worked the 2 pm to 10 pm shift and frequented clubs and bars in the French Quarter. He did retouching with an airbrush and gray and white paint. He did a lot of layout, paste-ups, and montages, cutting and pasting images by hand. “Layout” consisted of a pencil diagram with cast-type. I would align characters (set type) by pasting them together while working closely with a designated compositor. Levy also worked as an illustrator during his time there.
Levy got a job as the art director at the New Orleans Godwin Advertising firm. He did designs for industrial and commercial clients, like banks and insurance companies. After several years, Levy left the newspaper to work for himself and teamed up with his wife, who was also working for an advertising firm. Their big clients include the Bank of New Orleans and the First National Bank of Commerce.
He worked on cartoon strips such as Mike and Joe and Crack Backs. His competitors included Ted Drell, Charles Dolce, Charles Steinball, George Mouton, and Harry Marrone. He was president of ADDA, Art Directors and Designers Association of New Orleans, for a brief time, which grew out of a desire to further their interest in design.
Michael Deas was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he currently resides.
Deas is a self-taught illustrator with a unique, personal approach to drawing. His painting and drawing methods are not reliant on digital technology. Rather, he finds the process of working by hand meditative and creative. For his commercial illustration and portraiture, he works in the laborious and highly demanding oil paint medium.
His hyper-realistic style is evident in the work he has done for the United States Postal Service. Deas has illustrated several famous postage stamps. Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Tennessee Williams, to name a few.
Perhaps his most famous image is the original painting still used in a current iteration of the Columbia Pictures logo. The highly-recognizable woman in a toga image, framed by our very recognizable Gulf Coast and Lake Pontchartrain clouds, is iconic.
Deas was the subject of a one-artist exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans. Additionally, Deas is considered a leading authority on the poet Edgar Allan Poe.
Justin Shiels was born in 1985 in Memphis, Tennessee. He moved to attend Loyola University New Orleans and graduated in 2007 with a major in graphic design and video concentration. He and his sister were raised by a single mom and chose a Jesuit university because his sister also attended one.
As a child, he wrote stories, drew, and made comic books. His sister taught him how to draw during church and started by drawing girls in dresses. Their church was a Southern Baptist, but not traditional because it was pro-gay and tolerant.
Shiel’s black race is integral to his work. He loves to show diversity and minorities in his art. His biggest influence was Andy Warhol because he made the mundane awesome. Other influences include Basquiat, Milton Glaser, and Saul Bass.
He likes to show things in the clearest way rather than lying to the customer. Shiels explains his process of designing for a client and problems relating to working with clients who don’t understand that content drives design. His message to people is they are immensely more powerful than they think and that the world is changing so people of his generation can have a positive impact.
Kathy Cain and Paulette Hurdlik
Kathy Cain and Paulette Hurdlik of Zehno Cross-Media Communications were recording in December of 2009. To their memory, they were the first female-run design studio in New Orleans. Paulette has since retired.
They opened shop about 1984 as Design Partners. The name was to reflect the importance of partnering with a client. This is a notion that holds throughout the recording.
A false early rumor was that they were a lesbian couple.
Paulette was from Minnesota and Kathy is from New Orleans. They have opposite personalities. They share a common belief that money is not their business's driving force. Paulette wanted to name the company Blonde Ambition so she could write off hair dye.
Kathy loved the physical process of making while Paulette found it tedious. A favorite interview question for potential hires was what percent of design is art versus engineering? The correct answer was at least 80 percent should be engineering.
Design is problem-solving, they say.
Accounts were evaluated annually “by profit and how much we like them.” The goal was to retire one or two clients per year.
At the time of this recording, Zehno was keeping clients longer than cookie-cutter firms. Their company handled print, web, and video work. At the time of the interview, their agency had a dozen workers and 6,000 square feet in office space.
When asked about the green movement, they responded that they would be doing less print, more web. That print was becoming a luxury item.
Paulette and Kathy wound up co-president of ADDA. Together they led ADDA from 1985 to the early 1990s. The New Orleans chapter of AIGA New Orleans Chapter was chartered in 1997 and ADDA closed.
Born 1921 in New Orleans, Byron Levy lived uptown on Jefferson Avenue.
As a child, he made model airplanes and became interested in radio-controlled planes as an adult. More scientifically minded than his peers, he worked in the shipyard and then the Army Air Corps.
After WWII, he decided that the paper business might be more lucrative than engineering. By then, commercial printing took off as a lucrative industry. It provided opportunities for technically-minded salespersons to find careers in the region. Levy tells a funny story about trouble with the paper that wrapped Milk of Magnesia bottles. He identified the paper. It was produced in nearby Biloxi. Levy knew the paper mill and was able to solve the problem.
In about 1960, Levy was instrumental in organizing the Art Directors and Designers Association of New Orleans. He, along with Don Smith, Ted Drell, and, Gus Levy produced the 1961 studio/visual slideshow presentation promoting designers to the advertising community in the region. He also knew Don Smith in business.
He explains the importance of publicity for graphic designers, that ADDA was an important vehicle to promote the graphic arts industry. In time, ADDA turned into AIGA.
Levy understood the balance between profitability and other aspects of paper business.
This recording was made in the common room of the retirement community where Levy and his wife lived near the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, LA. At the time, Levy took printmaking classes several times a week at Louisiana State University.
Peter A. Meyer
Peter grew up in Germany and immigrated to the United States when he was six.
He graduated from Fauche Highschool when he was 16. His heroes were Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. He joined the Louisiana Air National Guard during the Korean War. While in the armed forces, he entered the Information School that taught public relations. For this, he was sent to Fort Slocum in New Rochelle, NY, and finished second in his class. While in New York, he interviewed with the New York Times and didn’t get hired. After he returned home, the Picayune newspaper hired him. In 1951 he entered the new field of television in where he worked with the likes of Mel Leavitt and Nash Roberts.
Meyer founded the Peter Meyer advertising agency in 1967. In 1985 Peter asked his son, Mark, already working in the agency, to take over as President. His youngest son Josh also joined the agency and rose to the level of creative director. According to their father, they are both excellent at their job.
Peter talks about being instrumental in the destruction of a primary competitor, the Fitzgerald Agency, and how he convinced a client that television was a powerful and compelling (new) media.