An Art Director Draws On The Past

The removal last weekend of Max’s Art Supplies’ iconic sign — and the snapping of a group photo reminiscent of a 1981 shot with 100 artists, not to mention a recent “06880” post connecting the end of “Mad Men” with a Westport art director — got John Kennedy thinking.

John Kennedy modeling around 1980 for the famed Civil War illustrator Don Stivers. All the gear is authentic.

John Kennedy modeling around 1980 for the famed Civil War illustrator Don Stivers. All the gear is authentic.

The longtime local resident is one of a once-large-but-fast-diminishing crowd of artists, illustrators, admen and other creative types who once kept Max’s hopping. As well as many other Westport businesses (including, significantly, bars and restaurants).

As Max’s sign came down, Kennedy recalled those long-gone days. In 1970 he’d returned home from the Air Force determined to do professionally what he’d done in the service: be an illustrator.

“Westport had always been a center of excellence, and I was determined to succeed,” Kennedy says. “I thought to be part of the scene, I had to ‘make the scene.'”

So he headed to Max’s. He picked up a shading stomp, some charcoal pencils, a couple of pads and a kneaded eraser.

The bill was $20. He did not have it.

He started to put some items back. Max Kaplan stepped up.

“An artist needs his tools,” the owner said. “I’ll give you credit.” He told Shirley Mellor to open account for Kennedy.

“I had no credit,” the budding illustrator says. “Max said, ‘I trust you.'”

Kennedy walked out with everything he needed. A month later, he paid Max back.

One of John Kennedy's first paintings. Max Kaplan sold him the canvas. Shirley Mellor sold him the See-Rite projector for scrap use. Nina Royce sold him the paints after Shirley recommended that he use colored pencil and acrylic because, she said,

One of John Kennedy’s first paintings. Max Kaplan sold him the canvas. Shirley Mellor sold him the See-Rite projector for scrap use. Nina Royce sold him the paints after Shirley recommended usiing colored pencil and acrylic because, she said, “once it is dry, it is permanent!” And Jay Cimbak framed it.

Kennedy went on to work for Golf Digest and Tennis Magazine. More magazines, some illustrations, book designs, and an agency called The Art Department followed.

Through it all, Max’s was Kennedy’s go-to place. As a director, he happily sent others to the store too.

Then the world changed. With computers, Kennedy says, “publishers no longer cared about quality. They took design and excellence, and turned it over to lesser staff to just ‘get it out.’ Illustration was done in the box. All of the skill, talent, education and technique disappeared.”

Today, he adds, “artists are leaving us. They are replaced by wannabe idiots who know nothing, and do little but talk.”

As Max’s closed last year, Kennedy called himself “the last director. The last of my breed. I will hide, and let the world only wonder what true art is. Nobody cares.”

The famous 1981 photo. Max Kaplan and Shirley Mellor are in the center of the front row.

The famous 1981 photo. Max Kaplan and Shirley Mellor are in the center of the front row.

But Kennedy still has his memories — of Max’s, and the Westport community that nurtured it and its artists.

He ordered western-theme books from Stan Klein. Greenwood Press on Riverside Avenue was Kennedy’s advertising account. For 20 years he prepared their ads, brochures and promotional materials.

Westport Bank & Trust manager Fred Shepard gave Kennedy his 1st credit card, at a time when returning veterans could not get credit. Fred also set up Kennedy’s retirement.

Cartoonist Stan Drake shot the breeze with him at a restaurant that is now a real estate office. Illustrator Bernie Fuchs provided wise counsel; Harold von Schmidt provided Kennedy’s 1st lesson in western art composition. Kennedy calls them “giants in the art field.”

Kennedy did not hang out only with other artists, of course. He played in a coed softball league, with and against people from all local businesses. (“Westport had the most beautiful girls, making the game hard to concentrate on,” he recalls.)

He fished at Burying Hill Beach. He bought skis from Sport Mart on Main Street, and played tennis with a racquet from Schaefer’s (next door to Max’s).

Somehow, Kennedy always circles back to Max’s.

“Through the years, the best talent in the world walked through its doors,” he says. “Red Wexler, Walt Spitzmiller, Bob Peake, Bob Heindel, Tony Ravieli, Stan Lee, Randy Enos, Miggs Burroughs and so many others.

“All of them were at Max’s, and all of them were always encouraging. I owe my start, and my career to them. They are my true family.”

Max's famous clock with (from left) Nina Royce, Rita Ross Englebardt, Sherri Wolfgang, Shirley Mellor, Jay Cimbak --

Max’s famous clock with (from left) Nina Royce, Rita Ross Englebardt, Sherri Wolfgang, Shirley Mellor, Jay Cimbak — “family” to many generations of noted artists and illustrators.

16 responses to “An Art Director Draws On The Past

  1. John Kennedy,
    I/we at Sacred Heart University Art & Design Department are keeping “Good Art” alive.

    http://www.shuartanddesign.com/galleries.html

    My Name is Mary Hughes Treschitta. Grew up in Westport. My Father was Dr. William Hughes, from Surgical Asc.(Fort Apache)
    Modeled for Stan Drake and Bernie Fuchs, bought all my supplies at Max’s (Stan sent me down to see Max, several times), and lived next to Tip Shaffer. Also former life guard at Compo beach & Burying Hill. I share similar memories………

    Could not resist a reply!
    Check out SHU A&D website.

    Best
    Mary Treschitta, MA, MAT, MFA
    Associate Professor, CHAIR
    Art & Design Department
    Sacred Heart University
    5151 Park Avenue
    Fairfield, CT 06825
    203.371.7738

  2. brad french

    Fred Shepard and Westport Bank and Trust, a true hometown bank. Co-ed softball league allowed local working people to have fun together. Fred is down in So. Carolina now.

  3. Thank you, Dan, for telling it like it was. I’ve said before that you are keeping us the village we once were. mmm

  4. One man’s “wannabe idiot” is another man’s illustrator.

    “artists are leaving us. They are replaced by wannabe idiots who know nothing, and do little but talk.”

    • John Karrel

      Love his recollections …
      I do wish Mr. Kennedy would chat with a few more of Westport’s newer guard. He might be pleasantly surprised by the huge number of Renaissance individuals – – yes, even some of the private equity types. ; )

  5. Great post. A simpler time in the old Westport and the old world. I love the old photos. Thank you — it soothes my heart some days to feel my childhood and those days in Westport.

  6. Elaine Nord

    Being a newcomer to this great town, I love hearing about all of the great people past and present. One of the reasons we moved here was because of the rich artistic culture. Love the wonderful art shows, the random painters along the roads, the lively performing arts and the community that supports the arts. While it is sad to see art legacy pass as with this Max coverage, thanks for celebrating the artists and the memories with us!

  7. I am Max’s daughter. In the early 60s, I remember the phone ringing at 2 am one morning. It was Walt Spitzmiller calling. “Max,” he said, “I’m out of (whatever it was he needed) and I have a 10 am deadline.” My father got up, went down to the store and got him what he needed. That’s what Westport’s artist community was like.

  8. Sherri Wolfgang-Peyser

    I bought my first drawing pad and pencils from Max when I was 12.
    I moved my studio from Greenwich Village to Westport in 1992. (The Dynamic Duo Studio) All of the hometown artists welcomed us and I remember hanging out with all the cartoonists and illustrators at Glynns Cafe’.

    Unfortunately there will never be another Max’s. I will always be thankful to Max, Shirley, Rita, Jay et al…

    I am still painting but I miss the comraderie of artists just hanging around Max’s…xoxs

  9. Thank-you for this post. It made me well-up with tears & a lump in my throat. My Dad was an Art Director & so many of the names evoked special memories. I remember modeling for some of the illustrators as a young girl & what fun it was. I loved the old Westport as it resides in a special place in my heart. Also thanks for all the posted comments as each one evoked another special memory.

  10. Marc Bailin

    I went through Burr Farms, Long Lots and Staples with Mark Mellor. Was/is he Max and Shirley’s boy? Great guy!

  11. Marc Bailin, Mark Mellor is Shirley’s son from her previous marriage, not Max’s son.

  12. Actually, as we were all one big family, I misled you. Mark was Gordon Mellor’s son with his first wife. Max was Shirley’s 2nd husband and Gordon Mellorher 3rd. So, Mark is not biologically related to Shirley (or me), but just part of our wonderful extended family.

  13. i remember that clock. i used to set my watch (which my parents bought from
    Jack Karron for my graduation from St. Luke’s in 1953) to that clock when it
    was in the window of Jack’s store. the art scene in Westport was really wild
    back then. we lived across Kettle Creek Rd. from Steve Dohanos for awhile in the 40s, and, even with the war on and all, they knew how to party over there ! sounds like the current group of Westport artists might want to open a coffee house for themselves to hang out in and sell their stuff in, like Greenwich Village in the 60s.

  14. David Squires

    Most Excellent Story, and one of the many that makes Westport a Great town to call Home!

  15. HELLO WESTPORT!
    WOULD ANYONE CARE TO SHARE ANY ANECDOTES ABOUT THE ONE AND ONLY BERNIE FUCHS? I’M A FELLOW ILLUSTRATOR IN SAN DIEGO AND HAVE BEEN A BIG FAN SINCE 1973. I WISH I HAD BEEN THERE TO ENJOY MAX’S AMBIENCE!
    THANK YOU KINDLY.