Ball, cube, cylinder, cone. By using these four shapes, I can draw any picture I want. And so can you! Hello friends, this is Jon Gnagy, to prove to you that you can learn to draw by following my step by step television lesson. So get your papers and pencils ready, and we’ll start right away!
In May of 1946 NBC placed a sixty one foot antenna atop the Empire State Building and kept one promise made in the 30’s and postponed during the war years—television. At the same time, Jon Gnagy began teaching America how to draw. He was a television star before Lucille Ball, Milton Berle or Arthur Godfrey. In fact, Jon was the first act on the first commercial television show ever, broadcast May 14,1946.
On the first episode, Jon Gnagy, sporting a goatee, wore an artist’s smock and beret. He led the viewing audience through his step-by-step method to make a drawing of an old oak tree. His crayon melted under the studio lights, his chalk squeaked, but in seven minutes the lesson and the picture were completed.
That first live program was seen by about 200 viewers living within 80 miles of NBC’s 61-ft tower atop the Empire State Building. In 1946, there were 15,000 televisions in the entire United States, by 1949, 3 million. By 1961, there were more televisions than bathtubs in American homes.
By the autumn of 1946, Jon Gnagy had become so popular that NBC gave him a show of his own. This was a plain speaking Midwesterner dressed in a plaid shirt and dark trousers. The format of his show was so simple—one character in a single, shallow set, and a minimum of camera angles—that it became a training ground for all the new directors, camera men, and sound technicians starting out in a burgeoning industry Here was a show that was accessible to everyone and it was called You Are An Artist.
Jon Gnagy was born in 1907 in Varner’s Forge, Kansas, where he grew up as a member of a Mennonite Community. In this straight forward, hardworking environment, Jon Gnagy began making pictures. Portraits were tantamount to idolatry according to the Bible, so he made drawings of the farm and the Kansas landscape that were good enough to win prizes at the State Fair art shows.
“I had a great many artistic inspirations… I tried to express these inspirations on canvas but I found I lacked the mechanical know-how. For years after that, I spent my evenings and weekends studying philosophy, psychology, physics, and physiology in an effort to obtain the know-how and to find, if I could, a key to esthetics.”
“When I was satisfied that I had achieved both, I decided that what I wanted most was to give this knowledge to others. The desire to express is in everyone, and if people are shown logically how to materialize an idea, then their inspiration grows and gains momentum and they work intuitively and have a swell time of it. There is nothing like the supreme satisfaction that you get from being able to express objectively something that is subjective and nebulous. That’s what art is, the expression of unconscious feelings in an objective form.”
In 1939 Gnagy decided television was the “ideal teaching medium”. Seven years later, Gnagy was on the air, teaching “the world’s largest art class”.
Jon Gnagy introduced to American families the idea of being an artist, an idea that was not couched in terms of privilege or preciousness. He was sharing some first hand knowledge at a time when television viewing still had a sense of intimacy and concentration.
In 1951, members of the Museum of Modern Art’s committee on art education sent an angry letter to the New York Times. “The use of superficial tricks and formulas found in the Jon Gnagy type of program,” they wrote, “is destructive to the creative and mental growth of children.” Gnagy responded, “My purpose,” he always said, “is to get as many people as possible to sketch on their own.”
To go along with his television show, Jon Gnagy produced a kit of art supplies and a book of drawing lessons. The writing style is direct, outlining his plan. The chapter titles are terrible puns, the sort of jokes one forgives a favorite uncle for making (While There is Still Life There is Hope, How To Get A Head By Going in Circles). At the end of the book, he wrote “The plan I have outlined in this book will be invaluable to you. It will release the creative drive in you and set you free. . .”
Who taught Jon Gnagy? Jon called it the Art Spirit.