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Joeseph Farris Joeseph Farris Photo by Paula Antolini
    Paula Antolini
Post by On 01 October 2013 In ARTSWESTERN Blog

Bullets Flying, Yet One Man Pursued His Passion For Art: Joseph Farris Featured

Story and Photography by: Paula Antolini

See more photos here: picturesbypaula.com


This is a report about a man and a lifetime of art that continued even as he was on the battlefront of war.


I recently reported on two events. One event was a Memoirs Class at the Bethel Senior Center on September 6, 2013, taught by local resident and video production expert Bob Becker, owner of Bob Becker Communications. The other event was the Byrd's Books store opening at a new location in Bethel, on September 14, 2013, On that day famed cartoonist and memoir author Joseph Farris, and his lovely wife Cynthia, just happened to walk in while I was there. I immediately knew, after meeting this friendly couple and becoming aware of Farris's new memoirs book "A Soldier's Sketchbook," published by National Geographic, that I had to ask Mr. Farris if he'd be interested in a speaking engagement for the Bethel Memoirs Class. He graciously said yes, and Bob Becker was delighted to have Farris as a guest. Sometimes you just have to connect the dots.


The life story of 59-year Bethel resident Joseph F. Farris, age 89, is pretty incredible. I spoke about him in my recent article, but I'd like to tell you more about this wonderful, gentle man, who became an internationally known artist, and yet remains as genuine and refreshingly candid as a person can be. He speaks openly about his early beginnings and about his amazing life's journey, and stories are interspersed with humor. It was all recently documented using sketches and letters created when he was serving in WWII, in the book he wrote about his life.

Farris sat in the front of the room at the Bethel Senior Center on Friday, September 27, 2013, with seniors in the audience who had also lived through the war years, who now anxiously waited to hear Farris's life story. The seniors had been reading bits of their own memoirs out loud in class for weeks now, and were looking forward to Farris giving them information on how he wrote his memoir.

Becker's first question to Farris was, "Were you one of those kids that constantly got in trouble for doodling during class?" Farris answered, "No, sadly, I was a good little boy, which, if I had to do it over…(laughter)…but I did doodle all the time." He then began to tell his story.


Farris was born in Newark, NJ, and his Lebanese-American family moved to Danbury, CT, when he was about five or six years old, Farris said. They owned a grocery/candy store called the Danbury Confectionery, at 59 Elm Street, which is near White Street. It was there he began drawing on his own. He said his creativity was a natural curiosity and talent, starting from the age of about seven or eight when he remembers noticing his father artfully arranging fruit in the front window of the family store and that his father's garden was also artfully designed.

But more importantly, Farris mentioned how he learned about tolerance from living in that Danbury neighborhood. "The most important word to me is tolerance," he said, "and I think I got that from living on Elm Street. Blacks, Jews, Italians, it was an extraordinary street to live on." He said his father's store was open from 6:00 p.m. to 12 midnight. "Never once did we get held up or have a problem," Farris said. "We were considered the wealthy people in the area because we had a store and never had to worry about anything to eat," Farris said. He also mentioned how his family would bring food to the needy because it was just something they did.

Becker asked Farris, "So you got values from living in a community that supported each other and did not judge one another?" Farris answered, "Yes, but my parents were illiterate. My mother came here at age eight and they put her in kindergarten." He then added, getting almost teary-eyed, "It took me many years to deal with that and to realize they are good people." Becker commented, "It brings you back to a place of gratitude."

When Farris was about age thirteen or fourteen he said he noticed an ad in the Danbury News Times for an art course being given by a man named Richard Taylor, a famous cartoonist for the New Yorker. Farris said that he decided to take the course since Danbury schools had no art courses. He'd attend the art course every Wednesday and eventually the class would meet with Taylor at his home. It was there he became fascinated by Taylor's lifestyle. "Dick Taylor did not live a life by a dictatorial schedule, he would paint when he wanted," Farris said. Farris liked that free lifestyle and also looked around at the art-filled home and became inspired. "The best thing he ever did for me was pull me out of my pedestrian background and show me anything goes," he said. "I owe a lot to that man, Farris said, then added, "I think he was quite proud of me."


Farris was enlisted into the military at age 18 in April 1943, and by October 1944 he was sent to the front lines in Europe. He served for 34 months. During that time he wrote more than 800 letters home and created sketches, snapshots and mementos of his experiences in the war. He would write to his parents and tell them everything was fine, but now in his new book he includes what the real situation was, that much of the time the soldiers were scared.

Sketching, painting, illustrating and creating cartoon art became Farris's passion. He kept sketching images throughout his military career, an amazing feat in and of itself. He spoke about being fortunate to be in the machine gun infantry because they had a jeep in which he could keep his art supplies, which were mostly watercolors, paper and a drawing instrument. Can any of us even imagine having the presence of mind to draw anything, after having witnessed the most horrific events hours earlier?

Becker asked, "Did you draw as an outlet?" "I wasn't that intellectual about it," Farris replied, "no, I just drew because that is what I did."

Drawings were done when he was off the battlefield. Farris even joked he wished they could stop the action on the battlefront so he could draw it, but they couldn't, he said. "I immediately did a series of drawings afterwards, because I could remember it," he said.

Some of his sketches are of soldiers holding weapons or soldiers at rest, and sadly some are of soldiers he drew before they had died. Farris spoke about a moment when he was talking to his buddy on the battlefield and in the next moment the friend was shot in the head and killed.


When he returned home he continued his art studies thanks to the GI Bill. He sold his first piece of art at age 23 for $15. Soon after he sold another piece to the NY Times Book Review.

"I never knew how hard it would be," Farris said. "I never had a job other than working for my father. I was a freelancer all of my life."

Farris talked about traveling to New York City, from Connecticut, to deliver his art. He mentioned doing work for Liberty Magazine in Manhattan, which was a two hour commute, and it took several trips to go from the rough drawing approvals to the finished artwork approvals. Eventually he paid someone $10 to take his artwork into the city for him. "It was like my private FedEx," he said. Then years later in the age of the internet he got a prospect in London and had approval back in one hour, Farris said, "I could not get over that."

He also earned $20 per week at first, doing book jackets eventually doing cartooning for the Saturday Evening Post, and it took six months for them to approve artwork, he said. "I am persistent, I don't give up easily," Farris said. "Drive is more important than talent. I had an inferiority complex but had self confidence and that's different."

Farris thinks it is still a hard road. "I was pretty ignorant about what the art field was like and I would tell anyone today it is a tough field," Farris said. "I was rejected many times and if you can't take rejection then don't be in this business," he said, "You had to have a passion and staying power.

Becker asked, "How does the work progress?" Farris said, "I never stopped painting but there were times I put it aside to do my regular work. I've gone through about a dozen styles."

I asked Farris about the colors used in the artwork he did during the war, if the colors and drawings were purposefully made more somber, as shown in drawings in his new memoir book. "No, it was subconscious," he said, but agreed the colors were definitely darker and drawings included barren trees too.

Farris said, "I never thought I could succeed." He now has eight to ten thousand published original artworks, he said, also a contract with the New Yorker where they have first refusal rights. He can then do anything he wants with the rest, he said, and he would submit them to other markets. He also stated he's done work for Time, Newsweek, Penthouse and Playboy, adding, "I don't do dirty cartoons."

He considers it a milestone when he got his contract with the New Yorker and in two weeks he got a cartoon strip. Eventually it was made into a book, "The Art of the New Yorker."

Regarding his artwork, Farris said, "My parents did not encourage me or discourage me, they wanted me to be a pharmacist, or perhaps buy a liquor store and draw between customers.  I don't really think they knew what I did.  They were involved in the nitty-gritty of life, making a living, making sandwiches."

Becker asked Farris if he ever consciously puts his own image into his cartoons. Farris answered, "Not intentionally. The good looking guys are me."

Becker asked, "Which comes first, the character or the subject?" Farris replied, "I keep lists of topics, or sometimes I take a drawing and put a new caption."

"Is it ever a blank canvas? Becker asked. "It's almost always a blank canvas," Farris said.


Becker asked Cynthia Farris, who was in the audience, "What's it like living with this guy?" She answered, "There isn't anybody easier to live with. Gentle, and he doesn't say a cross word to me."

I asked Farris, in light of all of his reference materials of letters and drawings he'd kept, how did he begin to organize and write his own memoir, and what would he suggest to someone wanting to write their own memoir? He stated that he had created a scrapbook about his life, mostly for his family, never imagining it would be published, but then he was urged to publish it.

Farris said he published his memoirs book so that is family could know his life. "One thing leads to another," he said, regarding gathering materials together and how the process works. He then added, "It's a gift for your family, and it's fun."


For more information about Joseph F. Farris and to see his work: http://www.josephfarris.com/Home.html

Partial Biography from Joseph F. Farris Website:

Joseph Farris has  been a contract cartoonist with The New Yorker since 1971. He has done covers for The New Yorker, Barron's, Harvard Magazine, ABA Journal, Indiana Alumni, Industry Week and many others. For almost twenty years his cartoons were featured in Stern magazine in Germany.He has had two syndicated features, FARRISWHEEL for the Chicago Tribune Syndicate and PHIPPS for United Features Syndicate. He recently completed an illustrated memoir A Soldier's Sketchbook. He has published many books of his cartoons including Phobias and Therapies, A Cog in the Wheel, They're a Very Successful Family, and Money Inc. Farris has illustrated a number of books, among  which are The Latin Riddle Book and Loose Leaf. His work has appeared in scores of cartoon collections including most of The New Yorker albums. He has had one-man shows of his cartoons and has participated in many group exhibitions.

His cartoons and paintings are in many private collections such as President Jimmy Carter, Paul Newman, Colleen Dewhirst, William Safire, Paul Mellon and many others. A large selection of Farris's cartoons from The New Yorker are in the permanent collection of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. His cartoons are in the permanent collection of The Bruce Museum in Greenwich CT and the US Army Women’s Museum in FT Lee, VA.

Presently on exhibit locally in Plain Jane's in Bethel CT and "A Soldier's Sketchbook" book can be purchased at Byrd's Books in Bethel, CT or online.


For more information about Bob Becker: http://www.bobbeckercommunications.com/

Bob Becker Communications

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Read 1369 times Last modified on Tuesday, 01 October 2013 19:25



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