My Duane Bryers Interview
Duane Bryers is one of America's most gifted artists and has been for the better part of his ninety-four years on this planet. He earned a living as a commercial illustrator until his early fifties and gradually found himself garnering a nice amount of attention as a fine artists who specialized in western theme paintings. At the beginning of our official interview (I had chatted over the phone with Duane on numerous occasions over the course of three years) Duane tells me he was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan in 1911 on a farm with his three brothers and two sisters. At the age of twelve his family moved to a village in Northern Minnesota called Virginia (five miles north of Duluc according to Duane) where he lived until he left in 1939.
Because the funny papers were the only source of pop entertainment an infant could find on a farm, Duane began drawing his own comic strip at the age of five. He was greatly inspired by the artists that became superstars of their time from the work all of America clamored to see in the newspapers. From the age of fifteen on, Duane was never without a sketchbook and a pencil ("I drew and I drew and I drew..."). In 1936 he had a scheme to overwhelm the world with a mural he would paint for the Minnesota school board which he was confident would help him finance an art career in the big city where he knew fame and fortune would surely embrace him. They gave him permission to do the mural which was one-hundred and three feet long and ten feet high. The massive mural went on to become a historical treasure in Minnesota.
As expected, the mural paid for his move and living expenses in New York City where he studied at the Art Students League. While in the Air Force from 1943-1946 he fullfilled a childhood dream and created a nationally syndicated comic strip of his own called "Corky".. From there he earned his living as a respected and well-employed commerfcial artist.
Duane has exhibited his western theme art at major invitations shows since 1978, including a solo exhibition at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1980. He has been written up in endless art journals and is also responsible for "The Bunkhouse Boys of The Lazy Daisy Ranch", a book he profusely illustrated in 1974 with hilarious text provided by his then-wife Dee. I've included two scans from the book as seen below.
Les Toil: Hi Duane. I want to thank you for allowing this exciting interview to happen for all your fans to enjoy.
Duane Bryers: Exciting? I think your expectations might be a bit too high Les. LOL.
Les: The fact that I'm on the phone talking to Hilda's creator makes it exciting.
DB: You flatter me. How old did you say you are, Les?
Les: I'm thirty-nine, Duane.
DB: That's very close to my age.
Les: LOL. Is it?
DB: Yes. Just reverse the numbers. I'm ninety-one years old. LOL.
Les: I assumed you were at least over seventy. I had a general idea of how long you've been in the illustration business.
DB: But if you don't go by numbers, I'm thirty-seven. That's the truth. I feel very, very young.
Les: The fact that you still dabble in paint is a testament to that.
DB: Your art is so professional and so very well done. You've had a good background in illustration, too, I can see. Are you sure you're not in your nineties?
Les: LOL...I'm pretty sure I'm thirty-nine. Let's talk about Hilda. My two favorite pieces are the painting of Hilda reading “Animal Stories” and Hilda on the tree phone. As an artist I just think those really hit the mark. It's not the content but the execution of these pieces. They're really beautifully rendered. Do you have two or three favorites?
DB: I own about sixty Hilda original paintings and there are four I wouldn't sell for five-hundred thousand dollars.
Les: And which ones are those?
DB: I don't remember all four of them but my very favorite is a painting I did of Hilda looking in the mirror appraising a very large flower hat that she just purchased.
Les: I remember you telling me earlier that that was your favorite. And the other?
DB: That would be the painting of Hilda sweeping dirt under her rug.
Les: I'm very fond of that piece myself. If I'm not mistaken, that painting shows off her backside in a very pleasing manner.
DB: Yes, I did many paintings from that vantage point (Duane laughs strongly). Have you seen the one of her walking on the telephone post? I think I did a great job with that one as well (more laughter). But the reason I loved the painting of her sweeping under the rug is because it looks like the typical Hilda.
Les: The typical Hilda?
DB: Yes. On some of my other Hilda paintings she may look like so many other plump redheads, or they may be paintings of what I call Hilda on a bad day...LOL. But that's a painting where Hilda looks like Hilda.
Les: Do you remember how many Hilda paintings you are responsible for?
DB: Over a period of thirty-six years I've done close to two-hundred and fifty Hilda paintings. If you were to stack all of those paintings on top of each other they would stand three and a half feet tall. My memory is going haywire but that's one of those things I remember.
Les: That's absolutely phenomenal. How's your art going now, Duane?
DB: How's my heart going? My heart is going surprisingly fine.
Les: Oh no, I was asking about your art...LOL.
DB: Oh...LOL...I was going to say my heart is going. At ninety-one years old if that's all I can say about myself then I'm ahead of the game. Regarding my art, I'm always selling my paintings usually through a gallery or an auction house (Duane is referring to his beautiful western paintings as well as a few of his Hilda originals). I sold two paintings at a major show over the weekend, so it's nice people still enjoy my paintings. As a matter of fact I'm taking a group of my art collecting fans from Canada to my private club here.
Les: Do you ever tour with your work? I'd love to arrange to exhibit your Hilda originals here in California.
DB: Well, I don't really want to get involved in too much traveling. I'm cutting back on what I do so I can devote time to actual painting. And the desire...when you get to be ninety-three years old you get sapped of your strength or your determination or your capacity to do good paintings. Most people at the age of ninety-three are supposed to be dead.
DB: That's supposed to be funny.
Les: LOL...Thanks for telling me so. Duane, I remember seeing some of your cowboy paintings from a few years back, maybe four years back, and the dexterity and confidence that went into them, one would assume you'd be able to do that until your last breath.
DB: Are you familiar with older people that can hardly talk and they're senile and they can no longer write their own names? And do you think they can write a great novel or paint a great painting?
Les: No, I can't imagine they could.
DB: Most artists are through with their craft at the age of sixty-five. I'm almost thirty years beyond that.
Les: LOL…I'm aware of that Duane, but I can't help but to think of the last time we talked and you had such vivid and fond memories that spanned back to your childhood.
DB: No, no. My memory is shot. I may remember great details from things fifty-five years ago because those are stories I've told often, but I can barely remember what I had for breakfast today. But don't worry, I'll be around for at least another ten years. I have a pacemaker and that's when the battery runs out.
Les: LOL...You don't have to tell me that was a joke. Duane, as a huge Hilda fan, I wanted to know if there were other Hilda collectibles I should look for on eBay or antique shows. I'm familiar with the calendars and the decks of cards and the Hilda drinking glasses-
DB: Those Hilda glasses are abominable reproductions.
Les: I have a complete set of the glasses. They don't do you justice.
DB: I know, and I'll tell you why. They were silk-screened on the glasses. Brown & Bigelow used some of their staff artists that took the original Hilda art and copied it by hand and made a simple silk screen out of it and those glasses are a product of a very inept artist copying my work. They're the shape and the image of the Hilda art but grossly simplified. I had nothing to do with that.
Les: The good part about the glasses is that the art is printed directly on the glass. I don't know if you're familiar with those small drinking glasses from the 1940s that had the George Petty pin-up girls on them. The nice thing about them is that they used reproductions of his original art, but the bad news is they were decals of the art pasted on the glass. After so many years those decals began to peal off. Not many have survived. At least those Hilda glasses will be around for as long as the glass is. We'll at least be keeping her image alive.
DB: I have a set of the Hilda glasses but I can't bring myself to look at them.
Les: There's also the decks of playing cards but of course each deck only has one or a couple images of Hilda on them. Are there any other Hilda products your fans can look for?
DB: No, no. Not even on matchbooks.
Les: I was hoping to have better news for all of your Hilda fans. LOL. You say you now possess about sixty of the two-hundred and fifty Hilda paintings you created. Will you eventually sell them off? One by one or as a collection?
DB: Oh no. Those are willed to my daughters. They're worth quite a bit of money. They'll continue to increase in value.
Les: Do you think there's a chance your daughters will ever exhibit those paintings around the country? I have no doubt it would make for a very successful tour. The demand is very much there.
DB: No. They'll probably hold onto them and sell them through an agent.
Les: Can I ask why you stop painting Hilda?
DB: You are an illustrator and you know how thick a piece of illustration board is. Not even an eighth of an inch thick.
And if you took all of the Hilda paintings I ever did and stacked them up, there'd be a stack three and a half feet deep.
Les: Yep, but you're not going to tell me you stopped because you ran out of storage space in your house are you? LOL.
DB: Oh no, no. I don't remember why I stopped painting the original Hilda paintings which was in the mid 1990s, and now they're making Hilda calendars using past Hilda paintings.
Les: Two-hundred and fifty Hilda paintings, huh? Incredible.
DB: When I started, I couldn't come up with ideas for that first batch of seven calendar paintings. LOL. But yes, there were about two-hundred and fifty Hilda paintings, each one different from the next.
Les: Amazing. And each one was on illustration board? Nothing on canvas or masonite board?
DB: No, just illustration board.
Les: The year my Hilda website first hit the internet, I was contacted through the email by a gentleman who owned a Hilda original. He assumed I could appraise the value of the painting. I asked him to describe the medium and the surface the painting was on and I was surprised it wasn't on a larger surface.
DB: No, twelve inches by sixteen inches on illustration board.
Les: Painted with gouache, correct? This guy said it appeared to be watercolor.
DB: Well, water-soluble.
Les: Right. The paint looks too opaque to be watercolor.
Les: Now Duane, can I ask who posed for Hilda? I'm sure this is the number one question most of your Hilda fans want an answer to.
DB: She's a creation out of my head. I had various models over the years, but some of my best Hilda paintings I've ever done were done without a model. Are you familiar with the painting of Hilda sitting up on the window?
Les: Sure, yet another masterpiece. That was a calendar cover, right?
DB: Right. One of the more recent ones. Well, if you look at that figure, the entire painting, the whole thing was done right out of my head with no model.
Les: That is absolutely incredible. Some of the muscle mass and the fat mass are just flawless.
DB: If you look at the one…my favorite of all…I wouldn't take five-hundred thousand dollars for it now…the one of Hilda with the great big flowered hat, and that was a calendar cover as well, that's my Hilda masterpiece, and that was painted completely without a model.
Les: So could you give me a rough idea of how many Hilda paintings were done with a model? Half maybe?
DB: It's hard to say. When she was much younger I used to use my celebrity daughter to model for Hilda even though she was tiny and skinny. I used her as a model. An arm is an arm and a leg is a leg and all you have to do is add a little fat.
Les: Your celebrity daughter? Is she famous?
DB: Well, Tucson is a big city and my daughter Pattie Weiss is the number one TV anchorwoman in this entire part of the country. And in exactly one hour I will be watching my daughter on television for half an hour.
Les: Wow Duane, you have one hell of a life history.
DB: She's been in the business for almost thirty years. She's my claim to fame. LOL
Les: What about the other women that posed for Hilda. Did you get friends or professional models?
DB: Let's see. In New York I had a professional. Her name was Susie Peterson. She had a wonderful body.
Les: Did she have a body like Hilda?
DB: No, she wasn't as plump as Hilda but she certainly wasn't skinny. Just a wonderful pin-up body.
Les: So if you had a model, sometimes they wouldn't be as thick as Hilda. So you'd have to “improvise” the fat? Did you ever have a model as big as Hilda?
DB: Pretty close. In Tucson about fifteen years ago. Not her body so much as it was her face. The pert nose, the cheeks, the double chin.
Les: Duane, in all due respect I've noticed about three different Hildas in your paintings. LOL. Maybe that's why I assumed there was more than one model.
DB: Well, the reason for that is my ineptness. That's because most of those paintings come from right out of my head.
Les: I mentioned about how much I love the painting of Hilda reading animal stories to her animal friends, but on a less technical level the piece that's the closest to my heart is a painting that was done for one of your earliest calendar covers, I do believe the 1959 cover. It's an above shot of Hilda lying in bed asleep with a big, beautiful smile on her face. She has a plate with crackers and crumbs-
DB: A close-up of Hilda.
Les: Yes. Well that's just one of the sweetest paintings I've ever seen.
DB: Again, without a model.
Les: Fantastic job. On an emotional level it may be my favorite. Hilda writing her name in the sand is incredibly charming as well. You just don't see images as pure and as innocent as that too often nowadays, at least not in the form of painted art. Again, that was a cover painting.
DB: It was always difficult coming up with the top sheet.
Les: The top sheet?
DB: In other words the cover. Often I'd have to incorporate her name…at least in the earlier calendars. And in the later ones I'd have to have a little story-like cartoon on the cover. Three or four panels leading to the main illustration.
Les: Well you're an inspiration to me. I hope I'm painting well past your age Duane, and I hope my work will be appreciated even a fraction as well as your art is.
DB: Just hope you're alive at this age. LOL.
Les: I always think about those great artists I've admired over the years whose talents have diminished as they get on in years--which is only natural of course.
DB: It's very true. Most artists reach their peak at fifty or fifty-five.
Les: I'd have to say you're the exception. It seems that you've done much of your best work in your later years. You've become much more recognized as an artist because of your western art which I do believe you went full steam on in your late fifties. That's not too typical for an artist. If an artist hasn't made a mark with his or her work by the age of forty, quite often those chances are gone. And here you are having lived TWO glamorous careers as an artist.
DB: Hilda is one of five separate careers I've had through my life, Les.
Les: I have to tell you I get emails from guys that are in their late thirties and their forties and fifties that share these fond memories with me about their fathers or grandfathers or uncles that had these calendars in their homes--their garages--of this plump redhead who's frolicking in the woods and sitting around in red long-johns, and they tell me that through my website they've finally discovered who that woman was in the recesses of their mind since childhood. One man even told me he thought he only imagined there being pictures of this chubby redhead on the wall of his dad's work area in the garage. But more often I get emails from women that are zaftigs like Hilda and they've just discovered her as I had a few years back who think she's great. They never knew there was a fat pin-up queen that had been gracing the pages of calendars throughout America--and for so many years.
DB: You just used the word zaftig. Are you familiar with the book Zaftig?
Les: I've got that book! I was quite happy to see your work in there.
DB: Yes, along with Reuben and Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir... In fact, I'm the only living artist in that book. LOL.
Les: What? Really? Aren't there other contemporary artists in Zaftig?
DB: Nope. I'm the only living artist in it.
Les: Well Duane, I see it's almost time for your celebrity daughter to deliver the news so I guess I'd better let you go.
DB: It's been a pleasure Les. You do fine work.
Les: I can't thank you enough for granting me this fantastic interview. It means a lot to me, sir.
DB: Was it exciting?
Les: Well I...what?
DB: You said earlier you this would be an exciting interview. Was it exciting?
Les: LOL! To be honest I got more information out of you than I thought I would, so this interview was more exciting than I hoped it would be.
DB: I think you're being a bit too kind, Les.
I conducted this interview with Mr. Bryers over the phone in the Spring 2002. What you have just read is the more Hilda-relevant aspect of that interview. Throughout the interview Duane was in his natural state: amiable, gracious--and truly full of life.
The brilliant artist passed away in his Tucson home Wednesday, May 30th, 2012 just a month shy of his 101st birthday. The four phone conversations I had with Mr. Bryers over the course of a three year period will always remain some of my fondest memories in life.
With much love, respect and gratitude may you rest in piece Duane.