Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Letter From William Ekgren

No letter came today. There wasn’t one yesterday and I don’t expect one tomorrow. But I do have the two that he sent me and perhaps that’s enough.

My small obsession with William Ekgren began years ago when I first saw his three comic book covers. Visual non-sequiturs unrelated to their comic’s contents, excruciatingly rendered, morose, swirling miasmas of ochre and muted reds. Fittingly they fronted comics entitled WEIRD HORRORS and STRANGE TERRORS.

Who was this artist? When it became apparent that not even a little was known about him, I set out to unearth what I could. That many year quest was detailed in my article, “Who Is William Ekgren?”, that I recently posted on this blog back in February. Briefly, it seems that the Norwegian born Ekgren was an itinerant Expressionist painter who had only a cursory intersection with comic book art in 1952.

Thanks to that and the trail my search left on the Internet, I received several emails from acquaintances of Ekgren. Most surprising of all, though, was the one I received from Niklas Ekgren, William’s grandson.

In fractured English, Niklas wrote of his grandfather’s life when he moved back to Sweden from the U. S. in 1959. William had married, fathered some children and he continued painting up until the mid-Nineties. Good information, but it was the email’s last lines that stopped me cold.

“He is still alife (sic), in fairly good shape at the age of 88. He lifs (sic) in Uddevalla in south Sweden.”

William Ekgren--ALIVE?

William Ekgren (2006)

An exchange of emails followed. I asked if an interview with the aged artist was possible. Niklas checked with his grandfather and he gladly consented. I quickly responded with a set of questions, simply put so as not to tax him, but hoping that some information would be gained.

Several weeks later a letter arrived postmarked Goteborg, Sweden. Not knowing what to expect, I opened the envelope with some trepidation.

The letter was five pages in length of handwritten cursive filling every line on each page. In the uppermost margin, scrawled across the page was the line, “Uddevalla, Sweden--December 22, 2007 (on the year’s darkest day)”

How gloomy. How perfectly Scandinavian.

After a paragraph thanking me for my interest and my article, Ekgren went on to answer my inquiries in detail. Not surprisingly since he was writing in his second language, at times his sentence structure was skewed and his choice of words was confusing. This required some effort on my part to interpret his intent. In the text that follows I sometimes had to reword his text. Whenever possible though I deferred to his words and transcribed them faithfully. For added clarity, his words are in italics, mine in plain font.

“At the age of 17...I did begin at the Valand School and the Nils Nilsson School, both in Gotemburg, but after 5 days in each of them, I was forbidden to come back. This due to the fact that I had far too many ideas of my own about Art, teaching, religion, politics, nationalism, racism, etc…. So, until 1939--I did various art studies of my own in museums and libraries, while supporting myself chiefly by drawing portraits and caricatures.” (note: he was born July 6, 1918)

“The art of Edvard Munch did have some influence on my painting, but even more so: the Pointelists Seurat and Signac, the Cubists, Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci…but also traces of Art and Craft productions by Australian and African peoples…”.

Ekgren then began relating his experiences in World War II.

“About my participation in the Winter War on the side of Finland against the Soviets…".

The Winter War was the name given to the 1939-40 conflict between the invading Russian army (then an Axis power) and the vastly outnumbered Finns. Even though the Soviets eventually prevailed, they lost five solders for every Finn fatality.

“In the middle of January, 1940, I came to a training camp about 40 km south of the Swedish-Finn border…there I was trained to become a sledge-driver and groom…thus for carrying food, ammunition, wounded, etc., at the eventual front. I was trained with much shouting…but never became clever at anything, not even the very assiduous skiing.”

“Then one early morning in late February, we started to the front. We went by railroad--I with two sick horses--to Kemijarvi in the northern Lappland…from there we (the 2nd Group Tinoss) by personal means (moved) on…I dragging two horses until one of them collapsed and got left in the snow. Finally we rested. I and 4 other horse-draggers began walking in light and powdery but deep snow about 50 km northeastwards from Kemijarvi to a so called second frontline. The temperature that morning showed -18 degrees Celcius."
(0° Fahrenheit)

“My hands and feet were in extremely bad condition, so when the peace was a “factum” some weeks later, I was in the hospital in Rovaniemi…I was invalided until the end of the year…but with enough able hand to draw portraits and caricatures to support myself…(I got) to Norway two days before Corporal Hitler’s group occupied it. Then I was in Oslo about 3 weeks, very near Formebu Airport, which was bombed by British planes almost every night.”

“In the springtime of 1941 I worked as a messman on a ship going to South America. We visited Brazil two weeks, Uruguay one week and then Buenos Aires, there I was taken into a hospital due to a fever (which proved) to be malaria.”

“From there--in the beginning of January, 1942--I was again taking off as a messman on an American, Panama flagged Standard Oil tanker. On April 7, around 7 o’clock, we were torpedoed by a German U-boat about 40 nautical miles northeast of Natal, Brazil. After nearly 3 months in Brazil we, the crewmembers--alas! minus one man--came to New York. The torpedoed tanker’s name was Ben Brush…”.

Ekgren’s recollection here is slightly flawed. The Ben Brush was indeed sunk, but it was by the Italian submarine, Calvi, on April 12, 1942. He was correct, though, in asserting that one crewman was lost in the sinking.

Björkar (circa mid-1940s)
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]

“My first coming to the U.S. was in the winter of 1942 and the second was in the summer of the same year. The third was in April 1946 and I then tried to make myself at home by drawing portraits, caricatures as well as painting some outdoor motifs. Also 2-3 days a week I had a few hours instructing at the Norheim Studio (in Brooklyn) and even instructing housewives in their homes.”

portrait (1945)
Reportedly painted only months before Ekgren left for the U.S.
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]

“I kept my things of importance in a rented room during the winters while roaming about the world on a Panama flagged ship 3-4 months each year until 1950.”

portrait (1946)

“During the 1950s I lived a little here and there in New York City--on St. George on Staten Island, 200 Mott Street in Manhattan, the section called Little Italy and in Harlem one year…”

“In the early 1950s I was a member of the Manhattan Gallery East…also I was one of the first 20 or so members of the Bedford Village Art Guild in Brooklyn--the only non-African American…”.

The next portion of Ekgren’s letter dealt with his comic book covers and took me completely by surprise.

“One day in the Spring of 1952--at the Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show--three men and a woman were murmuring between themselves looking at one of my paintings…after less than 5 minutes they had bought the publication right to it--for 100 dollars. After a week they gave me the painting back so that I could sell it again…the same procedure came about at the next Outdoor Show (and then the next after that)…the same persons coming back, acting in an almost impolite way and paying 100 dollars for each picture. The editor’s name was Archer St. John (one of the four).”

Ekgren at Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show (circa early 1950s)
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

Ekgren at Greenwich Village Outdoor Art Show (circa early 1950s)
Could Archer St. John and company been in the crowd that day?
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

That explained a lot. Ekgren’s comic book career never really existed. His comic book covers were unlike any others because they never were intended to be comic book covers. Chance selections by St. John, editor Marion McDermott and two unidentified colleagues. Was Matt Baker, St. John’s art director, also part of the group? Alas, we may never know.

“I did never draw or paint any special artworks for comic books or other publications. The works I at all times created were meant as free pictures--to be exhibited as such…”

“And concerning the three pictures you’re familiar with--they never meant more to me stylistically or subjectively, then most of (the) works produced by me…”.

Girl at Piano (circa early 1950s)
[image courtesy of Heritage Auctions website]

portraits of children (1961)
[image courtesy of Roger Jonasson]

The final portion of Ekgren’s letter is the most personal, dealing with his beliefs and a startling revelation.

“…as both an artist and a poet, I’m self-educated and the same must be said about my knowledge of the English language, plus my citizen-of-the-world and vegetarian philosophy.”

“Although I am still going strong very well for my 89 years of age, I naturally enough cannot be sure about having hours, or even less, of a future. But I am not a pessimist, having as yet not found any sane or crazy reason to be so.”

“About that and that: yes, of course, I’m schizophrenic, thus being more nutty than a fine fruitcake. But thus far I’ve been able to handle this “mental thing” rather nicely, by using ingredients, as well as wholeness, as basic measures giving informative vividness and strength to all my creative activities.”

“And please, let us skip the Mr. title between us. My name is William, Ekgren, Bill, or anything that suits you, Ken, to call me.”

“Sincerely, William Ekgren”

There has been only one more letter between us since, but at last report, Mr. Ekgren--I mean, Bill--is alive and creating in Sweden.

unnamed painting (mid-1990s)
[image courtesy of Curth Ekgren]


  1. Fantastic post as always, Ken.

    Who knew that it was nothing more than chance that brought us Elkgren's work as comic covers?

    It still remains an impressive and peculiar choice made by the St. John's editor(s) to select Elkgren's work as covers for their line. Was it the eerie quality of his work that attracted them? Alas, as you say, we'll never know ... but thanks to you we get to discover the man behind the fantasies.



  2. Thank you, Michaël!

    My quest to find William Ekgren and how it turned out produced some of the most unexpected and fascinating results possible.

    A chance meeting at an art show on a spring day...who'd a thunk it?

  3. WOW! You just made my list of best people ever. Thank you so so much for finding all this out and sharing it!

  4. Wow, Ken! What a trip.
    It does bring up the question of what other artists were paid for their St. John covers. Joe Kubert is still alive. Perhaps he recalls. And if it was around $100 like Ekgren was paid for publishing rights, it helps explain why so little original art remains from that era. All the editors wanted was the image, not the board it was painted or drawn on.


  5. *blush*

    Thank you, Dylan! I don't know if I'm worthy of such praise, but I certainly appreciate it!

  6. Kubert (and Maurer) had a special deal with St. John and I'm guessing that they didn't get paid the same as other artists who worked for him. But what about Matt Baker? Did he do all those gorgeous romance covers for $100 each? And what happened to all of that original art?

    So many questions...

  7. Ken, thanks for sharing all this information and such a great story!! You certainly filled in a lot of blanks.


  8. Great research and follow-thru to gather this info.


    Steven G. Willis

  9. Thank you Joanna and Steven!

    Glad to know that others care as much about the little explored tributaries of comic book history as I do!

  10. What a beautiful follow up to the first post you made on him. I had been awaiting it eagerly! Here's to hoping you get another letter!

  11. Thank you, Jacque!

    I'm planning to write Ekgren another letter and who knows? Maybe another post will be the result!

  12. Wow. Fantastic find! I have collected those three comic book covers and they will always remain part of my collection. I love that painting of the girl at the piano!
    Hope more pictures of his original paintings will be shared by his friends and fans who own them!

  13. Thanks!

    I'd love to see more Ekgren original art, too!

    Anyone "out there" have any images they care to share?

  14. Terrifically interesting piece, as usual. Great detective work, Ken!

  15. It helps when you have an interesting subject.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  16. I am a Swedish citizen and William Ekgren was a childhood friend of my mother. He visited our family in the summer of 1959 and he drew a portrait of me which I still have on the wall at my home in Sweden. In January this year I managed to trace him and I had a long conversation on the phone with him talking about his time in New York and his childhood in Tanum, Bohuslän, Sweden Hopefully I will be able to see him this summer.
    Yours sincerely
    lillemor Brander

  17. If you do get to talk with Bill this summer, Lillemor, please tell him I said, "Hello"!

  18. Hi! This is truly amazing! I visited William Ekgren earlier today. I'm working for a book-company and visit people in their homes. Mr. Ekgren wasn't interested in the material that I brought but he invited me in! Such a fascinating man. He was very kind and told me stories from America and showed me some paintings. He also mentioned the contact he had with Ken Quattro. He told me that he dreamed about a trip to Italy where he would exhibit his paintings. After reading the excerpt of his letter I get even more fascinated by him.

  19. I am so happy to hear that Bill is doing well. And you are correct, Johan, he is fascinating!

  20. Thank you so much, Ken, for staying on the trail of William Ekgren. We - Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa - are including three of his artworks (2 oils and 1 charcoal portrait) in an exhibit. I'm pleased to have quality biographical information to share with the visitors.
    Laurann Gilbertson, Chief Curator

  21. And thank you, Ms. Gilbertson!

    Hopefully you have also read my earlier piece on Mr. Ekgren:

    As you are likely aware, it was the Vesterheim Museum that provided much of the original biographical information that allowed me to find him in the first place. For that reason, I will always be indebted to your institution.

  22. We had your earlier piece on file. When I went to your blog for an update I was so excited to see the letter from William Ekgren. Fascinating to learn more about his life and artistic vision. Thank you for sharing his letter. Laurann

  23. The pleasure has been all mine, Laurann!

    I'm happy that I've had a small part in bringing more attention to this fascinating artist.

  24. Wow! Thanks so much for this. I just saw his cover in four color fear and instantly wanted to see more of his work and know about him. Had no idea he lived here in Sweden (I do too).

    1. I, too, learned about him in 'Four Color Fear' (great compendium, as is 'The Horror! The Horror!'). What an interesting post. What drew me instantly to the St John's cover paintings was their otherworldly, almost shamanic quality... the textures and colors remind me of taking the consciousness-shifting plant medicine Salvia Divinorum: taffy-like swirly textures and Latino-esque themes and colors... not to mention the medicine woman motif of that comic cover... Makes me wonder if his schizophrenia (if we can attribute his unique style to that) is sensory access to other realities/dimensions. Fascinating!

      Aaron, Portland, OR

  25. I never thought of Ekgren as a Scandinavian Carlos Castaneda, but I have to admit: that's an interesting premise, Aaron!

  26. It's interesting to see that he is sort of well-known. I've never met him personally but he is my Grandmother's uncle. He is still going strong and my Aunt is currently working on a biographical film and visits him regularly, both for interviews and just to hang out.

  27. I know you aunt Erika well! We have corresponded many times and I'd love to see her film when it is finished.

  28. Now to find Archer St John son? And all that St John OA.