December 1, 2009

One of a Kind

Westways cover artist Merv Corning enjoyed a long and varied career in California

By Matthew W. Roth

Merv Corning's watercolor painting, Wood Plank Road, appeared on the June 1975 cover of Westways.

Merv Corning (1926–2006) was a California original. Not just because he was born and raised in Santa Ana and spent his entire working life in the state. Not just because his most famous paintings, depicting World War I aviation and the stars of the National Football League, connect with California’s aircraft industry and its sporting heritage. And not just because his favorite leisure activity, riding his Harley-Davidson Softail, drew him, like millions of others, to the scenic roadways of the Golden State. Subtler, deeper factors inextricably linked Corning with California in the second half of the 20th century.

Merv Corning approached life with an unbridled sense of possibility. He had no formal training, yet he never wavered from his commitment to work as an artist. He started at age 13 as a helper at a Santa Ana sign shop, painting signs on the sides of buildings. The boss would rig a scaffold, apply a chalk outline, and leave Corning with a supply of paint and a small color original for guidance.

In long days on the scaffold, Corning resolved to become an artist. After serving in the merchant marine during World War II, he got a job producing pen-and-ink drawings for newspaper ads.

In a series of jobs at ad agencies and department stores, Corning learned illustration techniques, layout, copywriting, and other tasks connected with commercial art. He never forgot those lessons. “There’s a great purity to this art,” he said, recalling his days drawing for print ads. “You only had black and white to create dimension.”

In 1953, Corning joined Studio Artists Inc., a consortium of Los Angeles artists who provided commercial design services. In 1959, one client, Leach Corporation, asked for a series of paintings of World War I airplanes; over the next 11 years, Corning produced 43 paintings on that theme. They have been displayed at the Pentagon, acquired by the Air Force Archives, and reprinted countless times in aviation journals and general-interest publications.

Corning’s association with the National Football League began in 1967 and lasted for the rest of his life. He painted posters, program covers, and the Most Valuable Player portrait from each Super Bowl. In 1981, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., hung his portrait of Johnny Unitas in a show on sports heroes, and the 1992 Super Bowl game program called him “football’s preeminent artist.”

Although most acclaimed for his work in military and macho themes, Corning’s keen observations of nature and his interest in the texture of everyday places reveal an empathy for life’s quiet moments, too. His ability to evoke the mood or feeling of a landscape attracted Westways to his art. His first cover, in October 1965, delivered on this promise; it depicts two fishermen at dawn, the sun illuminating far-off peaks, the nearby hills still in shadow. The 16 covers Westways commissioned from Corning all shimmer with immediacy, with the alchemy of a medium that can seduce us into thinking that we are in his pictures.

The Westways covers helped Corning develop a distinctive creative vision, and he left Studio Artists in 1968 to concentrate on his own art. Throughout an enormously productive career, Corning never lost focus on the job at hand—the current painting—and he took joy from his work. Though frequently invited to serve as a judge for juried shows, he disliked rejecting anyone, and the notes he left for other artists express his thoughts about his chosen field with a candid eloquence. This excerpt from one such note captures his belief about artists and their place in the world:

The very fact that we all are artists means we possess a sensitivity beyond most normal people, and for that we should be grateful. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s creating, and it is special, and we are special.

Merv Corning self-portrait 2000

Matthew W. Roth is the Auto Club’s historian. He would like to thank Tula Corning for access to her late husband’s archives.