Part one: Early years in Chicago and NYC, 1914-1921
Many fans of the great animator and artist Myron Henry “Grim” Natwick (August 16, 1890 – October 7, 1990) are aware that he began his career in commercial art as a freelance sheet music illustrator, supposedly while still in school at the Art Institute of Chicago. While this part of Natwick’s career is often considered a footnote to his later successes in animation, Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon (Norman M. Klein, 1996) claims “Grim Natwick had produced over 400 covers for sheet music and worked a comic strip before being brought into animation in 1919 by Gregory LaCava.” If Natwick indeed produced over 400 covers (Grim himself once claimed 200 (1)), this should be considered a more significant part of his career, and overall development as an artist.
Born in Wisconsin in 1890 to James and Henrietta Natwick, Grim was raised among seven siblings and attended the local Lincoln High School, where he excelled in athletics and art. Grim recalled that he entered the sheet music business around 1914, after attending the Art Institute of Chicago from about 1909 to 1913. Grim also drew covers for the Wisconsin local Consolidated News, supposedly around this time.
Around 1913, Grim spent a year or so working in a Chicago area commercial art studio, as a letterer for individualized post cards and advertisements. A young song “plugger” (or in store pianist who would “plug” songs for sale by performing them) Grim met in a department store through his lettering work needed artwork for a song, and gave Grim his first job as an illustrator(2). It’s unknown which piece Grim was specifically referring to, but he recalled the illustration featured an attempt to render a “Gibson Girl” in the style of the then significantly popular illustrator Charles Gibson.
After this initial sale, Natwick was able to take his cover around to Roger Graham and other small Chicago music publishers and secure steady freelance work illustrating for them. Grim’s early Chicago covers are his most striking and show a wide variety of style: noticeable when comparing the highly impressionistic art gracing Richard Widmark’s Fox Trot “Caberavings” to his more angular, modernistic rendering for W.C. Polla’s “Hesitation Con Amor” (both 1914). Some, such as the Paderewski caricature on Grim’s cover for James White’s republication of his 1915 composition “My Favorite Rag”, anticipate themes Grim would encounter in his later career in animation (Grim animated a Paderewski caricature 15 years later in the Talkartoon Fire Bugs).
At this time, Grim began a tradition of illustrating for African-American Jazz and Blues writers when he began picking up assignments from the legendary “father of the blues” William C. Handy. Viewable with this post is his cover for an early edition of the St. Louis Blues, which combines moody color toning with photographic and drawn elements, further demonstrating the scope of young artist’s range. While it’s documented that Grim produced other sheets for Handy later in the ‘teens and 20s, St. Louis Blues is the only sheet from his early Chicago years I’ve found (despite Grim’s claim years later that he illustrated “the first six published songs by blues master W.C. Handy”(3).
In the summer of 1918, Grim was drafted into the US army and served in the final months of the First World War. Upon his discharge in Spring 1919, he came to New York City and began working as an animator for his former Chicago schoolmate, Gregory LaCava (who was then managing the animation of the famous Hearst comic characters). However, Grim continued extensive freelancing as a sheet music artist during this time. Now working directly for the main branches of publishers who’s smaller offices he’d worked for in Chicago (such as Jerome H. Remick, Pace and Handy and Joseph W Stern), Grim also established new relationships with firms such as Shapiro – Bernstein and the Triangle Music Company. Some of the tunes Grim illustrated sheets for at this time became immortal Jazz standards, penned by noted composers such as Maceo Pinkard, Al Bernard, and Clarence and Spencer Williams.
Click on sheet music covers below to enlarge:
Next: Last years in New York and Art School in Vienna, 1919-1924
(Special Thanks to Michael Chisholm and Alex and Sara Hassan)
1 – An Interview with Grim Natwick, David Johnson, Animation Artist Magazine, 2000
2 – An Interview with Grim Natwick, David Johnson, Animation Artist Magazine, 2000
3 – Art Facts: The Man who made Betty Boop, Albert Williams, Chicago Reader August 31,1989