Norman Pettingill: His Life

Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

In a 1983 news story in the Spooner Advocate, Bill Thornley wrote: “The move to Superior from his childhood home of Iron River, opened a new chapter in Norman’s life. He became a trapper and a hunter.” He was, in fact, a trapper and hunter most of his life, but had previously regarded it as a sport and not as a profession, his son Bud affirmed. In Superior, it had evidently become a major source of the family’s revenue. Norman related the story of the “very first wolf” he trapped to the Advocate’s reporter, and although it’s implied that the story takes place after Norman moved to Superior when Norman was in his early 40s, it is more likely that it occurred when he was a younger man. Irrespective of when it happened (assuming it did), it is too good a story not to retell here, full of the manic energy and tall-tale-ish humor of his cartoons and very much in Pettingill’s distinctive voice:

He chewed his way out of the trap and drug it. That day I’d been shooting some rabbits, so when I came upon him I didn’t have any more bullets. I chased him all day. He wouldn’t go into the brush where he’d get hung up. Finally, I chased him out to a beaver dam and he started to swim across. Well, I beat him across and then he’d turn and swim the other way. Finally, I got him in the middle. It was about ten degrees below zero that day, but that was my first wolf and I wasn’t going to lose him. I pushed him under with a pole, the bubbles came up, and I got him. We were up to about here [pointing to his upper chest].

In 1946, Norman started a business that would see him through the rest of his life, give him a measure of independence, and allow him to combine his gifts of drawing and storytelling. He had always drawn and painted (and told stories), but as a hobby, not a vocation. Now he saw an opportunity to make a living doing what had been strictly a personal love. He decided to draw postcards, and print and distribute them himself. He was neither an aesthete nor a careerist, did not follow the art world, and had no real antecedents or influences on which to draw. He simply went to work drawing the world he knew and loved; the work is intuitive, somewhat primitive, and both celebratory and satirical, reflecting an exuberant and pranksterish sensibility. His son Jack confirms that his father’s art came entirely from observation and experience, none of it from looking at other art. Pettingill worked in two registers — lyrical and somber scenes of wild animals in their natural settings, and outrageously staged narrative-based cartoons. The latter are positively Boschian (or, perhaps more accurately, Will Elder-esque), teeming with hyperbolized backwoods types. About his creative process, he said that he would often come up with ideas late at night: “I’d have a piece of paper by the bed. I’d have to write [an idea] down, otherwise I’d forget it. When I look at some of those cards, I can’t believe I did them. There was so much detail. I’d work all winter on one card.”

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Norman printed the cards and went on the road —driving to Minnesota, Michigan, Montana and other states to hand-sell them. He took larger orders from retail stores and distributors, printing them to order when he returned home.

Jim Pink met Norman Pettingill in the early 1950s; Pink was 8 or 9 years old and Norman was in his mid 50s. Pettingill became a friend and mentor to Pink, and their relationship turned out to be among the most profound of Pink’s life, leaving him in a unique position to describe Norman’s life from that time until his death.

Pink’s grandmother lived across the street from the Petingills. Every summer, Pink’s parents would put him on a train from New Trier, Ill., to Superior, Wis. Says Pink:

From about the time I was 10, my Dad would put me on a train when school was out in early summer, the Sioux line, and the train would leave at 5:30 in the afternoon and arrive in Superior, if it didn’t break down, around 7:30 in the morning. My grandparents would pick me up. Superior is all pine trees, it’s right on Lake Superior and my grandmother and grandfather’s house was about two blocks from the bay, and Norm and Louise lived right across the street. I’d have one suitcase, a tackle box, fishing rods in a case, and when I turned 12, I’d carry a .22 rifle with me. On the train.

By the time Pink met him, Norman had embarked upon his postcard business, and spent a substantial amount of his time drawing and painting. Pink always knew him as an artist. “When I was around 10 years old,” Pink recalls, “he was painting a mural of a lake and trees on the wall in his living room. They ended up putting the TV set, when they got a TV, in front of it.” Pettingill had two art studios in his Superior house; he drew his pen-and-ink cartoons in one of the bedrooms upstairs, and he painted in the basement. “When he was doing the drawings upstairs, it was a small room and it would have been uncomfortable [for two people], but in the basement, I’d sit on a chair and watch him paint. Not only did he paint for himself, he also did commercial sign work — ‘Joe Musky’s Resort, Hayward, Wisconsin, Turn Off on Route 2’ — that kind of thing.”

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Pink and Norman would go camping together and, when Pink got older, hunting.

He had specific places he remembered, from way back, maybe from his teens, and one place he took me a hundred times was this area called Camp Oar. There wasn’t anything specifically more beautiful about it than anyplace else, but I think it had been an area that he knew before it was logged. I would say that what was there that I saw as a kid was third growth; the trees were just beginning to come back. Louise or my grandmother would pack us sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, so I was drinking coffee with him from the beginning.

Pink continues,

We also went to a place called Buckwig, which was close to the Erin River. It was hard to get into. it was a small lake and the road kind of disappeared and then you’d have to walk in part way. He’d take me camping there and you’d see a lot of deer, occasionally bears, porcupines. I remember one summer when I was 10 or 12, we’d go out flashing deer just to see them. We’d each have a ten-cell flashlight and he’d drive slow and then you’d see the deer caught in the headlights. One time we were out till probably 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and my parents and grandparents were there and they were all real nervous that something would happen to us.

I hunted with Norman and [his son] Bud when I got older, deer hunting a couple times, and looking back on it, thank God I didn’t hit anything. It was more about the romance of it. But we’d shoot snowshoe animals, snowshoe rabbits, and Norman taught me how to skin them. It’s something that’s good to eat. Then he taught me how to tan them. My grandparents had switched from coal to oil heating and so the coal bin was empty and I’d tack the skins put in the old coal room and rub them with salt.

Throughout their long friendship, Pettingill continued to draw and sell his postcards. Pink would occasionally accompany Norman when he went on the road in his capacity as salesman, or help him install the road signs he painted. “Norman and I traveled together to various bars and little grocery stores out in the middle of nowhere where his cards sold. I’d go out with him to help him install [commercial signs] or I’d go out with him just so he had company and he’d drop off 50 or a hundred assorted cards. A lot of them were in wire racks where you can pick the cards that you want. Once people got interested, they’d write him and say, can you send me 50 or 60 cards as a group and he’d do that. The entire time I knew him, that’s how he made his living, and he told me that he actually had a salesman and the salesman would go into Canada and Mexico.” His son Jack also said he hired a salesman, but cast doubt on the idea that the salesman worked in Mexico.

Norman’s son Bud also joined him on his sales sojourns: “After I got out of the service, I’d go with him, we’d haul a bunch of cards in the back of he car, stop at different places, sell them. So he pushed around quite a bit that way, different places, mostly resorts.”

Pettingill kept his postcard business running until the late 1980s, right up to the time his health began to fail. (Louise passed away in 1988. All of Norman’s siblings had by then also died; Lyman in the late 1960s/early 1970s; Russell in 1954; Georgia in 1948; John was murdered over a dispute involving a gunman and Russell — shot in the back of the head — in 1938.) By all accounts, Norman lived a quiet life — gardening and hunting continued to be two passions. He drew and painted and enjoyed the companionship of his sons and his grandchildren. Norman lived by himself until he realized he couldn’t; in 1989 his sons Bud and Jack placed him in the Middle River Health and Rehabilitation Center. “He had gotten to the point,” explained Bud of his ailing father, “where he fell a couple times, he couldn’t get up. He wouldn’t let us put him in a home before that, so we said, OK, Dad, whatever you want. We decided to just leave him alone. Then he finally decided that it was time for him to go, and so we did it. He was halfway content by that time.” Jack adds: “He had a sense of humor. He loved to tell stories, and he did, right through his last breath; in fact, when he was 94, he was still telling the nurses dirty jokes.”*

Norman Pettingill died, age 94, in 1991.

*An example of Pettingill’s cornball risqué joke-telling can be found in an undated letter to Jim Pink:

“A woman went in a dry goods store to pick or buy some material for a night gown for her husband.  She asked the clerk about how many yards it would take.  The clerk sez, if your husband is about average size, about 2 ½ yards.

“The woman sez, ‘I’ll take about 6 or 7 yards.’

“‘Oh,’ the clerk sez, ‘you’re going to make him 2 or 3, eh?’

“‘Nope,’ she sez, ‘just one.  You see, my husband is a lot older than I am, in fact, he’s an old man, and I want to make it real large and bulky, ’cause when he goes to bed with me, once every 2 months, he has a lot more fun looking for it than he does when he finds it —’

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha …”

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