ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 64 Charles Turzak
Though an expert chopper of wood, Abraham Lincoln —so far as Charles Turzak knows — was never a handyman at carving pictures on wood blocks and pulling impressions of them. During the two summers of A Century of Progress, Turzak made his living selling his book “Abraham Lincoln: Biography in Woodcuts” in a little stand in the Lincoln group., His assurance to prospective buyers that the book was printed from “original wood blocks” brought, with surprising frequency, the query as to shether or not they were the blocks that Lincoln himself lent.
Equally surprising considering the number of “Lincoln Bugs” loose in Illinois and all over America, Turzak didn’t get into any arguments over his presentation of various phases in the life of the wood chopper. The frontispiece portrait of Lincoln is traditional, and so is the log cabin where he was born. But there are other pictures a bit fantastic, a bit “primitive,” bordering on the “modern.” It may be that the chronic belligerents accepted everything on guarantee of the cabin and the portrait.
The book — which saw him not only through the Fair but through the greater part of the Depression — was made possible by his wife, Florence Cockerhan, a young Northwestern University student in journalism whom he had just married. Among the wedding presents to her was a check for $50. Turzak was finishing the cutting of his blocks. With the $50, she bought the paper for use in the printing of them. They then sold enough volumes by subscription to pay the whole cost of the issue.
The success of the Lincoln book, destined to become a “collector’s item,” perhaps in its first edition, suggested to Pascal Covici, formerly of Chicago, who keeps an eye on the lakefront from his quarters in New York, the possibilities of a similar life of Franklin in wood blocks, only with a page of text accompanying each of the pictures. Eventually Covici-Friede brought cut Turzak’s “Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in Woodcuts” with text by Florence Turzak, the erstwhile student of journalism and “capitalist.”
Turzak’s earliest recollections are of the Illinois coal frields, first at Streator where he was born, and then Nokomis where he grew to maturity before coming to Chicago to study art.
His father was from a small village in Czechoslovakia, surrounded by four mountains, rich in metals; and his mother from the same general mountainous region. Both are of families that had lived there for centuries, and the mountains are still full of relatives, as Turzak discovered on a visit to his ancestral home a few years ago. The Czechs of that neighborhood are skilled carvers in wood, not as “artists” but as “artisans,” making their furniture and household utensils, including plates and forks, from the hard woods in the hills.
At Nokomis, the Turzaks lived next door to an English cabinetmaker, and very early the boy Charles found the Englishman’s shop more fascinating than his father’s mines. The inherited urge to work in wood asserted itself and, in time, he became quite expert, eventually making no fewer than five violins, some of them still in existence, doing their humble bit of rivaling Stradivari.
However, Turzak didn’t quite escape the mines. As he grew old and husky enough, he was given a job, but not a very strenuous one, operating a piece of machinery controlled above ground.
Just before graduating from high school, Turzak encountered the “crisis” of his career. Manufacturers in St. Louis of a patented stock feed were enclosing in their packages a puzzle picture — a donkey, a dog, a cat, an owl, a mouse, a pair of scissors, a bar with a hayloft, and a picture of a bag of the feed. The idea was to put the picture together in the funniest way to tell how the donkey could get the bag of feed. Turzak assembled the dramatis personae into a cartoon, sent it in, and in due time was notified he had been awarded the capital prize of $100, and was to come to St. Louis to collect.
In St., Louis, he was dined and winded (or grape-juiced), given a lot of national publicity as a bright boy with a future, and introduced to such celebrities as a metropolitan newspaper cartoonist, one of the judges in the contest. This cartoonist advised him to follow in his own footsteps — to study and become a cartoonist. He recommended Chicago as the logical “educational center” in art.
So to Chicago Turzak came, after going back home, displaying his $100, and getting his high school diploma. The Nokonis paper had a big story about him, reproduced the donkey and feed cartoon, and filed the cut away. Every time now that Turzak does something ito break into print — as his “Lincoln” and his “Franklin” — the editor hauls out the old cut, dusts it off, and prints it again, with the new story of Turzak’s honors.
When he reached Chicago to enter the school of the Art Institute, Turzak was vague about a “woodcut” as was Abraham Lincoln.
It was in his second year that Turzak took his first wood lessons. For a Christmas card, he did a tree trunk with a snowy landscape back of it — his first “masterpiece.” He found the carving of the block so easy, what with his Czechoslovakian ancestry and his own making of fiddles in the Englishman’s shop, that after a few weeks of getting the fundamentals of the technique, he announced his withdraw from the class to concentrate on more abstruse problems of art, such as composition and design. His profession was disgusted and predicted all sorts of dire consequences because of the flaunting of a great medium. Of all the members of the class, the rest of whom plodded faithfully along, Turzak is the only one who has made his mark as a woodcutter.
Turzak, who was born in the waning days of the old century (Aug. 20, 1899), was now in mid-20’s earning his way as a “commercial artist,” having early decided cartooning was not to his liking. It was in pursuit of a “commercial art” career he took up the making of woodcuts, still in demand by advertisers, though long displaced in the general art of printing by pictures on metal.
A trip to Europe was his goal, in common with most artists, with the added spur of visiting Czechoslovakia and meeting his old-world kin. So he saved up his money, got enough for a two years’ stay, and set sail. His quest was for industrial art, particularly of the modern trend, and he went direct to Munich.
But he could find no “modern art,” only the tourist rounds of historical things. A little disappointed, he went on to Prague to pay his visit to Czechoslovakia. He journeyed into the village back in the mountains, saw lovely scenery, and his kin with whom he found he had little in common, got bored, returned to Prague, and went on to Paris.
Paris was no more thrilling than Munich — “old masters” galore and holdup artists gypping tourists. One night, in a mood of the blues, he boarded the boat train to Cherbourg and was back in Chicago in three months, almost to the day, from the day he set out.
Hardly had he resumed his comfortable stride on Rush Street, however, when the financial crash came. His bank closed its doors, and he lost the money that was to have kept him 21 more months in Europe. But it was on his eve of A Century of Progress, of marriage, and of “Lincoln.”
He’s gong back some day, he tells me, and spend a whole two years among the Czechs painting and woodcarving their mountains.