My Father the Madman

Dad and Mom as newlyweds 

I can still see the blue smoke swirling above my dad’s head as he puffed on a pipe while reading the Sunday newspaper. Sometimes he entertained my sister Patty and me by blowing rings that lingered, then floated to the ceiling and disappeared. The sweet scent of pipe tobacco filled the living room of our small apartment along with classical music which resonated from the speaker on the record player.  Patty and I lounged on the white wool carpet while giggling at the comic strips.

He used a large magnifying glass to show us how color is separated during the printing process. We gasped in amazement upon the discovery of the tiny dots of red, yellow, and blue that blended to create the colorful funny pages. One time, he gave us each an egg filled with Silly Putty and flattened it out, then pressed it onto our favorite strip. We could see the duplicated image on its sticky surface. Back then it seemed like magic! Mom would fuss about the lint he would pick up on his black trousers after sitting on the floor with us.

My dad was creative director of Hanson Outdoor Advertising in Madison, Wisconsin. He designed the logo for American Family Insurance in the early 1960’s, which hasn’t changed in fifty years! That red roof may be one of the most recognized symbols in the United States. Go Dad! The lighted billboard that he created for the company became the marker for airplanes that flew into Truax field.

Logo created by my dad, Ed McCartan

These monster murals were 12 feet high by 40 feet long. His artwork was photographed, projected, and traced onto giant sheets of paper. Then, two other men from the company would hand paint the plywood. It took a crew of eight men and a cherry picker to install it onto the roadside billboard which could be 15 feet off the ground. Other times the artwork was enlarged, printed on giant sheets of paper, and then glued onto the massive board. Sometimes he brought home this folded paper so we could draw on the back of it. The front side showed vibrant and sometimes complicated examples of color separation.

One of the last signs he painted with my brother Joe

Dad was one of the original Madmen. I remember my parents hosting a few cocktail parties for the agency. The women wore snazzy dresses with their hair piled high in up-dos and pageboys with long bangs and hoop earrings. The handsome men wore suits and ties. They all seemed to smoke cigarettes. From the back hallway I watched the guests engage in lively discussions while holding those super cool martini glasses.

A cocktail party from Madmen

Although Dad could be a lot of fun, he was also the parent I feared the most. He had the gift of the look which consisted of widening his eyes and knitting his bushy brows. He never shouted at me, but drew back his lips and succinctly spoke in a way that got my attention. I had been raised in the days of “children should be seen and not heard at the dinner table.” It had been listed in a magazine along with other wonderful ways to raise children. Many times I gabbed away and found myself in my bedroom. Eventually, my parents gave up on the idea of altering my personality. As my sister and brother got older, we fully engaged in the dinner conversation. I never quite mastered the look when disciplining my own children.

Sunday was family day. Many times after church, my mother packed up a picnic lunch and we drove to a nearby park. After eating our sandwiches, Dad painted with oils or watercolors while my sister and I worked in our coloring books usually at the side of beautiful lake.

One time he entered an outdoor art show. Dad framed one of my crayon drawings to display along with his paintings. I was thrilled when a lady bought my artwork until she said, “Oh, I really just wanted the frame. It’s a lovely picture. Would you like to keep it?” I fought back tears as she took my masterpiece out of the gilded frame and handed it to me. Dad consoled me after she left. 

Remember the science fair? “The Uses and Nuisances of Mold”

My dad had the brilliant idea of using baby food jars.

As a fifth grader, I received an assignment to create a diorama about the early settlers. By now we lived across the street from school and I skipped home very excited about the art project. My brother had been born the year before, so my mom was happy to hand over the supervision to my father. By then he worked as an independent advertiser. With watered down paste, we dipped newspaper strips and formed two hills on top of a piece of fiberboard. After it dried, I painted the surface to make it look like grass and a stream. Then he helped me build a log cabin out of twigs from the yard. It even had a small window! My dad beamed when I received an “A!”

The next year I needed to do another one for the book Misty of Chincoteague. After explaining the assignment my dad said, “Why don’t you use the diorama from last year.” I sprang to action and glued a few of my porcelain ponies onto the surface. “Done!”

I smiled after receiving another “A,” but one of the kids in my class remembered something more than familiar about my artwork and made a stink about it. My “A” was downgraded to a “C+.” I stumbled home humiliated and crying. My dad comforted me by saying, “You did all the work. That kid was a smart-aleck for telling on you.”

 

I can’t believe “we” lugged that aquarium to the fair.

After graduating from college, I hoped to be hired by an advertising agency as an illustrator like my dad. I set up some interviews in downtown Milwaukee and arranged to stay with a friend. Dad drove me to the Badger Bus Depot. As I stood ready to board the bus with a portfolio in one hand and a suitcase in the other, my dad said, “Well Susie, good luck.” He gave me a hug and then tears welled-up in his eyes. It shocked me that the possibility of moving away saddened him. How I viewed the relationship changed after that. I realized that he would miss me not only as a daughter, but as a friend.

As it turned out, my high hopes were dashed in Milwaukee. I stayed in Madison where I eventually found a job as a medical illustrator for the VA Hospital and later transferred to Denver after getting married.

A chip off the old block – Working as an illustrator in the ’80’s 

My dad (who is 86-years-old), and I continue to enjoy the common interest of art. We still appreciate each other’s work even though I have switched mediums to writing.

My father truly was one of the original Madmen!

~~~

Thanks for everything Dad and Happy Father’s Day!

Do you remember those art projects? Did one of your parents help you?

~~~~

Family photos by Susie Lindau

Madmen photo from website

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