Jim Sharpe was the first mainstream illustrator whose work I could identify by name. Oh, I’d known about Norman Rockwell, but he didn’t count – Rockwell was so well known that his name had become a generic term like Kleenex or Xerox. I knew about Frank Frazetta, Neil Adams and other various comic artists but none of those names could pass snob-muster in the Graphic Design and Illustration program I was enrolled in.
Sharpe, I learned about when I returned to BYU after my bicycle penance – this stunning portrait of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was part of a travelling exhibit of Time Magazine cover illustrations that had taken roost in the university’s secured gallery for a month or so. It was an exhibit that I almost missed as it overlapped with the preparations my Beautiful Saxon Princess and I were making to start our life together. Sharpe’s work is good, but it couldn’t compete with that gentle cascade of light brown hair, the water-color blue eyes with the slightly sad tilt, and the hint of a Southern accent.
Somehow, I ended up in the gallery one day between classes and the minute I saw the crisp design and macho pencil work “up-close and personal” I was transfixed. I actually stood in front of the framed original taking notes and sketching details until the gallery attendant hustled me out the door just before closing for the day.
For the balance of my undergraduate studies I kept a clipping of this TIME cover thumbtacked above my desk and went on to collect clippings of his work over the years. His drawing skill and refined sense of design are a major factor in the aesthetic vision that drove my work when I was first starting out.
I was disappointed but not really surprised to find that he passed away in 2005, but while I was doing research for this post I found out something that brought a smile to my face. Before Jim Sharpe was an award-winning illustrator had been a naval aviator flying the F3Hs Demon. In the late 1950s he deployed to the West Pacific, serving with VF 193 on the USS Bonhomme Richard (CVA 31); I managed to find a copy of a CVN 31 cruise book and was delighted to find a picture of Sharpe in his flight suit and helmet…and to find out that he had been the squadron’s administration department for the cruise, a position that I held at FIRSTEURLANT 0867 during my five-year experiment with the Navy Reserve.
He only served the one tour before continuing his education at Art Center School of Design in Pasadena and launching himself into the illustration world and stardom in the Sixties. Was the common interest in aviation a factor in my interest in his work? I honestly have no idea – I mean the guy surpassed me so far in both illustration and aviation that I can’t even begin to make a comparison, but I’d like to think that somewhere in that tight design and arrangement of “macho pencil lines” is something that I can identify with.