Earl Newman Goes From Venice to the Smithsonian

By Greta Cobar

“I want to thank Venice for being open to free-spirited people,” Earl Newman says 53 years after he came here from the East Coast with a wife and two kids in a ’55 Chevy station wagon “in quest of a future.”

And that he found. After being homeless for a few weeks, Earl and his family moved into the boarded-up store-front that now is the Small World Bookstore on Ocean Front Walk, next door to the Sidewalk Cafe. And there, according to Earl, “opportunity came.”

Someone had left, at the back of the Gas House, all the equipment he needed to silk-screen posters. “And I knew how to use it. I started using it to pay rent and didn’t think that it would lead anywhere or that I’d do it years later,” Earl recently told the Beachhead.

Well, it lead to him being a successful self-employed artist since. This year he is celebrating his 50th year designing posters for the Monterey Jazz Festival, which takes place September 21 to 23. He finds 50 to be a “good, round number” to change direction and “maybe stop designing posters for the festival, maybe go fishing or traveling in a ‘Winnebago’.”

Among his large following is the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, which purchased the complete collection of Earl’s signed and numbered Monterey Jazz Festival posters for their permanent collection.

“I found something I really enjoy doing,” he says of creating and silk-screening his artwork. The first poster he printed in Venice was of the Gas House, a coffee shop just steps south of Small World Bookstore, where Vivianne Robinson’s Name on Rice shop is now located.

“My parents came to visit shortly after we moved into the place, and when my mom walked in, she started crying and said: ‘Earl, we didn’t bring you up to live like this.’ ” According to Earl, it was raining and there were pots and pans on the floor to catch the drips from the ceiling. The floor was covered in sand that he had hauled from the beach to cover up the broken tile.

Earl and his family lived a very primitive lifestyle and had little money. At times Earl didn’t think that they would make it, and might have to return to New England with his wife Jean and two daughters Andrea and April and return to being a school teacher. Looking back, Earl is thankful to Jean, who was also an art teacher, for inspiring him to come out West and for being supportive of their common endeavors. With perseverance Earl and Jean fixed the place up, painted it, made an art gallery in the front and set up residence in the back. “My son Dale was born in the back of the gallery. I delivered him,” Earl told the Beachhead.

Meanwhile, in the front, there was a new art show every month, which allowed Earl to “barely make it.” When he got a night job for the Yellow Pages in West LA, Earl thought to himself: “I’m not gonna do this,” and really got into poster making.

The commemorative 50th Monterey Jazz Festival poster depicts and is a tribute to Shelly Manne, whom Earl wishes to thank for “helping me get to this point.” It was back in 1962, in Escondido, that Earl was selling posters for the first time at a fair, and he met Shelly. “He saw my posters, bought a bunch, and invited me to his jazz club, Shelly’s Manhole, in Hollywood.” Earl went on to design two posters for Shelly, and while hanging out at the club he met a woman who was doing human relations for the Monterey Jazz Festival. She asked him to design a poster for the festival, Earl drew Joe Gordon, a trumpeter, and the rest is history.

“My first time attending the 3-day event, in 1963, I made $1000. I knew right then and there what the formula is: fine art, not commercial, at a good festival.”

Back in Venice, a few years later, Earl set up studio a few houses south of Venice and Abbot Kinney Blvd. He bought a parcel of land with two lots on it, built a 2-story building for himself on one of the parcels, and offered the house residing on the other one rent-free to Rick Davidson, Ana and John Haag, all three of whom founded the Free Venice Beachhead and the Peace and Freedom Party in that very residence. Both the Beachhead and the Peace and Freedom Party operated in that location for quite a few years. According to Earl, “nobody remembers how many.”

By the time the ‘70s came around, business in Venice was slowing down for Earl, and big galleries were coming into town. “I didn’t fit into that package,” he said. So in ’72 he moved up north with his wife and three children to experience farm life in Summit, Oregon. “It’s one of the best things that happened to me – outside of Venice,” Earl said.

He still lives on that farm today with two cats, about twenty chickens, a garden with strawberries, peas, lettuce, rhubarb, carrots and much more. The farm is so big that most of it is a forest with a river running through it. And yes, there are bridges under big trees, with chairs and tables, ideal spots to sit and sip some wine.

Fresh off the boat in Oregon in 1974, Earl visited the Oregon Country Fair for the first time. There he found Peace and Freedom Party members selling bumper stickers and anti-war stuff. He thought to himself: “My posters might fit right in with this.” Within minutes Earl was selling posters side-by-side with the Peace and Freedom folks. After a  few years of co-existence, the Peace and Freedom Party members took off on another adventure, and Earl continues to sell his posters there to this day, without missing a single year.

“I could get bored any time now, but for some reason I don’t,” Earl said about designing and printing posters at 82. “That’s the name of the game: find a passion,” he says. He definitely found his passion. “Art is and has been a great companion for me,” Earl told the Beachhead.

Categories: Art, Culture, Feature, Greta Cobar