In early September, one of my Marine Corps buddies and I took a trip to the Poconos. We had been talking about visiting the Frazetta Art Museum in East Stroudsburg PA for years. We finally got around to going and it was a memorable trip. We had a few extra stops along the way that are worth mentioning before I describe the museum.
Neither of us had done much traveling in the last 18 months and decided we needed weekend away. My friend knows Scranton PA well and set us up with a room at the Radisson. The hotel was the main rail station for Scranton at one time and an architectural treasure. The building is gorgeous and they’ve done a great job retaining its glory while repurposing the structure. It is unlikely we’ll see buildings like this one ever built again. Preserving them when possible is important.
Before dinner, we took a stroll down to the Steamtown National Historic Site. There wasn’t much going on that day but I had a new lens for my camera and it was good opportunity to try it out.
As we entered the hotel, we were greeted by sign welcoming the National Beard and Moustache Championships to Scranton. Several years ago, I watched a short documentary about Jack Passion, a world champion in the natural beard category and thought it would be fun to go see one of these events. The synchronicity of going on a buddy road trip to one of the manliest of art museums and coming across a celebration of manly facial hair was too much to pass up.
The next morning, we had a fantastic breakfast at a local diner (house made spicy sausage!) and drove to the Montage Mountain resort for the beard and moustache championship. I suspect the event was much smaller than it normally would be. The feeling of the room was of gratitude. It was easy to see that everyone was glad to be there. I saw competitors greeting each other cheerfully. The comradery was palatable. There were a few vendors selling beard products and I picked up beard oil and balm. If you have a beard, I recommend getting some sort of beard oil. It makes a world of difference within a few days.
A few of the competitors and the current world mustache champion was kind enough to let me snap a photo.
We didn’t have much time to hang out at the competition and got on the road to East Stroudsburg. The museum is located in the Poconos. My buddy, who grew up in Brooklyn, said this was a common vacation destination for old school New Yorkers. I wasn’t surprised that Frazetta spent a good portion of his life there. It is a lovely place with forests and hills.
The Frazetta Art Museum is next to the house were Mr. Frazetta spent his later years. They moved there in the 70’s and, according to his son, more or less stayed put. He didn’t like to travel. A journalist who interviewed him back in 1977 wrote that his dislike of travel was one of the reasons Frazetta turned down the Giants when they offered him a contract to play professional baseball.
Frank Frazetta Jr. was sitting on the front step enjoying the sun. He invited us in and gave us a tour of his father’s work. It was a delight to hear how Frazetta got started making art as a child. I did not know this until I heard the story that day, but Frazetta had gone to an art school in his childhood and was doing professional illustration for newspapers in his teens.
That early working experience led him to a very important decision once he became a freelance illustrator. He decided that he would retain the original art whenever he did a commision. He held to that policy for the bulk of his career. The only time he didn’t keep the originals was when he did work for Hollywood. Frazetta dislike working for Hollywood. He had to follow the instructions of the commissioning filmmaker and didn’t get to keep the work. However, the money was too good to pass up and he did it on a limited basis.
The fact that Frazetta was insistent on keeping control of his work is worth noting. It was and remains common for publishers to buy the work in total. The artist gets a check, hands off the painting and that is it. The artist has no further rights to the work and earns nothing more if the image is used again or if the original image is sold.
Frank saw clearly that many editors and publishers were all too happy to exploit artists. There are exceptions to that of course. Frank Jr. told us that Archie Goodwin at Eerie treated his dad well and that he liked doing work for the magazine. He also told us there was more than one occasion when his dad turned down commissions or backed out of them when he thought a publisher was taking advantage. Frazetta was willing to walk away from money and did on a number of occasions.
I think artists of all types should consider this stance. It put Frank in some tight spots where money was a problem for his family in the short term. He understood his work had value over the long term and he was determined to hold it. His paintings have sold for millions of dollars at auction in recent years.
Most of the art is owned by his family. A good number of them are in East Stroudsburg, PA and available for us to enjoy.
If Frank had not stood firm about keeping the originals, where might they be?
The various works are grouped together by era. Frank and his wife also had a considerable collection of African art though they never travelled there themselves.
The museum is laid out in chronological order starting with some of Frazetta’s work as a child and teenager and finishing with Death Dealer III.
I’ve always loved Frazetta’s fantasy illustrations but even the comic strips were exceptional. Frank Jr. led us through each period of his dad’s paintings and told us stories about how the painting was made or the circumstances surrounding it.
It was a great honor to listen to Frank Jr.’s stories about his dad. He spent a lot of time talking to us that day, even after he had walked us through the collection. We stood around shooting the breeze, while his wife gently nudged him to get busy on numbering and signing some prints. He told us a lot of vignettes that formed a picture of the man and the artist.
Frank Frazetta was a complicated person. He loved sports, baseball in particular. He was from the city but enjoyed his rural home in Pennsylvania. He liked playing with his kids, taking photos and sketching more than he liked painting. I suspect, though Frank Jr. never said it, that he was kind of like one of his famous subjects. Like Conan of Cimmeria, I think Frazetta was a man of great mirth and great melancholy.
He would take a commission, put it off for a month, paint for two days and then collapse in exhaustion on the couch. One time, Ellie shook him because she thought he might be dead. Often he would only work a few days a month. He prefered to play stickball with the kids, taking photos with his Leica or sketching. A theme that shone through many of those stories was that Frank Frazetta was a man who had a deep emotional states. I have the sense that he went with his gut and did what he felt was the best thing in the moment. Sometimes it got him in trouble and other times produced a magnificent result.
The Flesh Eaters was a painting I had never seen before. It was the cover to a book of the same title by L.A. Morse. It isn’t one of the more famous images like the Death Dealer paintings. I don’t know why. It is a master work.
When I saw it at the museum, it took my breath away. It is a quintessential Frazetta painting. He puts the most detail at the center of the painting. The cannibals are heavily muscled and you can see the veins popping out on the forearms of the main subject. His knife drips with blood. He smiles with ecstasy and triumph. The outer edge of the painting gives us the context. A group of cannibals have gathered around the fire to enjoy their grisly meal being delivered by the hunters at the center of the canvas.
When Frazetta passed away, his children had to split the collection between themselves.
There was no will so they split them up by each one in turn picking a work they wanted. Frank Jr. felt he had selected the best works and the ones his father liked the most. Though many of them were not the most iconic and celebrated of Frazetta’s paintings, they all had an energy and subtlety that I appreciate. Those who criticize Frazetta’s work often fail to notice what he emphasized and the subtle but important elements of his composition. They look, but they don’t see.
Frank Jr. talked about how his dad was very specific about limiting the degree of detail in a painting to only the most important elements. He would make the parts of the story told by the image most detailed and stand out the most. He intentionally exaggerated some figures even if they were a little off anatomically. Others he would mute, giving only a suggestion of their presence.
We spent a couple of hours in the museum and gift shop. I picked up a print of The Flesh Eaters and a few other souvenirs. I’m glad to be able to give some support to the collection. Without the fans buying a few shirts and prints from time to time, the collection will be sold off and held in private collections where the public cannot see it. I got the impression that Frank Jr and his wife intend to avoid that if at all possible.
Frank Jr. has been approached to sell some of his dad’s work but he’s only parted with two of the paintings. One to be able to buy the property and another to keep it going. As long as he is able to, I think his collection will remain intact and on display in the museum.
There’s more to the collection than I can go into in this essay. I recommend you go see it for yourself. There is concept art and reference statues that Frazetta made for the film Fire & Ice. Photos of celebrities that came to visit Frank. Part of his personal collection of cameras, guns, knives, art and lots of small objects that tell you about who he was are included in the museum.
A Profound Effect
This trip helped me realize that I needed to reconsider some of my priorities.
I had been thinking of a trip to the museum for years. I kept putting it off. The events of the last few years got me going. Taking the opportunity to go with a close friend of mine, experiencing the beard championship, seeing the works of one of the greatest illustrators of sword and sorcery reinforced the lesson that you only get one life.
Some of the stories Frank Jr. told about his dad spurred my thinking about family and what is important.
When he was a kid, Frank Jr. would step into the studio where his dad was painting and ask him to play stickball. Frank Jr smiled softly as he told us that Frazetta would put down the brush and go play. Always.
In 2019, Kirk Hammett, the guitar player for Metallica, loaned some pieces from his collection of horror art to a gallery in Toronto. There were four Frazetta paintings in the exhibition. I thought about going. Toronto isn’t that far from me and it would have been a great weekend trip. I didn’t go. I kept coming up with excuses. It will cost too much. It’s a long way to drive just to look at some paintings. I don’t want to fuss with going over the Canadian border…blah blah blah.
I wish I had gone. More than likely, that art will remain in a private collection and there will never be another chance to see them in person again. The experience of standing in front of a great work of art can’t be replicated.
To see the genuine article creates a moment of awe and appreciation that I can’t explain.
Nothing is free. Nothing worth doing is easy. Going after the things I feel passionate about and really grabbing them is what makes the struggle of life worth while.
This trip taught me that I am committed to doing more of that.
I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to see those paintings up close. I recommend the experience to anyone who is able to make the trip.