An Artist's Journey
Chapter 4: Elmer Graphics and The Order of The Solar Knights
Late in 1974 I left Old Tucson to form a business, Elmer Graphics (Elmer is my middle name, from my grandfather). I found a small, funky commercial space for rent on Stone Avenue for $100/month. My mother asked me to sell her quilts, afghans and multitude of other sewn items from the front of the shop. I agreed to give it a try.
The shop included two small office spaces and a back room along with the store front. I offered one of the offices to Dave Castelan, a university classmate and good friend. He signed up for the Peace Corps after graduation and had just returned from his service in Cameroon, in western Africa. I took the other office and used the back for constructing and painting signs. I also enjoyed making rustic tables and other items for friends.
Dave Castelan in his office at Elmer Graphics.
Here I am in the back room with a recently finished sign for a local business.
I built items for friends, including this massage table for Todd, bunk beds for Frannie's girls, Emi and Onna, and a square table for Terri.
Also at this time I offered a drawing class through the Tucson Free University. The organization connected people with knowledge or skills to share with anyone interested in learning them. I thought it would be fun to have a class in the back of the shop aimed at people who had something to draw but needed help getting it down on paper. The class attracted a variety of people and was a worthwhile, productive experience.
Saint Andrew and Alexa Noble
While working in the back room one summer afternoon I heard someone enter the front door. Dave cryptically announced, "Here's the man." I looked up from my chore and was enthusiastically greeted by a charismatic man who introduced himself as Andrew Kasimir Nowina-Sapinski. He spoke with an exotic accent—euro/middle eastern—and projected a worldly aura and charm. He was 49, yet had the energy and appearance of a much younger person. We recognized a link on some deeper level and instantly became close friends.
Andrew Nowina-Sapinski and Alexa Noble
He lived with Alexa Noble in an apartment nearby. She had spotted a Free University poster in my front window while walking by the shop on her way to the Circle K, and mentioned it to Andrew. He had developed a philosophy, Meta Art, that he wanted to teach, and she suggested the Free University might be a way to present those ideas. Andrew stopped by the shop to inquire about the university.
Over the next several months the three of us spent much time together. I would visit with them after work to unwind with a smoke and a Bloody Mary, and talk about a wide range of things. I learned that Andrew was a world-class industrial designer and educator. He had recently taught in Tehran, Iran, as a Fulbright Scholar. After that he landed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where he met Alexa. At the time she was a doctoral candidate in biology, but left the program to explore the world with Andrew. Tucson became their first destination because her brother, Doug, lived here. She found employment teaching biology classes at Pima Community College.
Meta Art is a technique for expanding consciousness that features awareness of one's life as a film and oneself as a character in the film. Andrew went beyond Shakespeare's notion ("All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...") by including the idea that we were also the director, set designer, lighting person, etc., of our film. My DINFOS training and movie lot experience gave me an instant and deep appreciation of his point. I agreed to let him use the back room of Elmer Graphics for his class.
Andrew's playful approach to self-awareness included the creation of The Order of the Solar Knights (OSK). As founder, he had titled himself "Saint Andrew". He accepted me into the order in a spontaneous ceremony one evening and I was officially dubbed "Saint Donald".
He also founded the Terrapatriot movement. Its rallying cry "Terrapatriots Unite" promoted the notion that all people are citizens of planet earth. As we recognize this, we come to embrace and enjoy our differences rather than let them separate us. A memorial collection of St. Andrew's artwork can be found here.
Shifting of residences and work
It was time to move from the Fairmount house. A childhood friend, Chuck Britt, reappeared in my life as I was pondering where to live. He was in the same situation, so, in the fall of 1975, we rented an apartment to share. This arrangement lasted a few months until he found love with a co-worker and they moved in together. By this time an apartment near Elmer Graphics became available, and in January, 1976, I moved again. The new place was on Estrella Avenue, one block behind my shop and two blocks from where Andrew and Alexa lived.
Estrella apartment with pvc shelving and couch made from 2x4 lumber.
While this was going on, lucrative movie lot work was starting to dry up as the heyday and popularity of western movies was rapidly ending. After a few jobs with visiting Hollywood companies that paid $1,000/week, the need for my services slowed dramatically. I began doing more signs for local clients, especially social services.
Another noteworthy project was production of an animated 30 sec. film for a state senate political campaign. Campaign organizers contacted me about doing it—I don't remember how they found me or heard that this was something I could handle, but they appeared in my shop for meetings to discuss ideas before they wrote a check and I got to work. This was the pre-digital age, so It meant renting a 16mm camera and lighting equipment, then setting up a makeshift filming area in the back of the shop.
I devised a desert scene with various graphic elements that could be moved to create the action, then spent many hours and lots of film trying to get it all to work as I wanted. When the film got back from the developing service I scheduled an evening showing in the back of Elmer Graphics. The campaign committee and associates arrived and liked what I'd done. It was kind of a party atmosphere, so maybe the wine helped. I saw it a few times on local TV, but as far as I know, no copy of it survived. Oh yeah, the candidate lost his election.
Other opportunities arose when George Davies shifted his interests to the development of a small ski run and restaurant atop Mt. Lemmon near Tucson. He had sold Ski Haus to Vance Campbell, a former employee and co-worker of mine during our school days. Vance was expanding Ski Haus and also starting a promotional canvas bag company, Natural Duck. They both asked for my help with graphics.
A star-crossed relationship
My friendship with St. Andrew and Alexa led to yet another important development when his oldest daughter, Zoe, came to Tucson to stay with them. I was smitten, and sometime in the summer of 1976, she moved into the Estrella apartment with me. Then, by September, Andrew and Alexa had made plans to continue their world tour and moved to Los Gatos, California, where Andrew had friends from earlier business endeavors.
Zoe Nowina-Sapinski (now Zoe Sinclair) with Kotka
Life with Zoe was never dull. By fall I was deeply stressed and unhappy as the relationship went through difficulties. I needed a break. Andrew invited me to come to Los Gatos, and I spent most of November camped in the living room of their small, rented house. It was a creative time, however, and I produced a painting and constructed a kitchen table that Andrew designed. I also met his friends and co-workers at a design firm where he had found employment. I was impressed with the level of personal and professional activity that seemed to be the theme in that high-tech area and California in general. The atmosphere was charged with energy and opportunity. It seemed that everyone was busy with plans and schemes. Phones were ringing.
Los Gatos painting
I returned to Tucson after Thanksgiving. After a week or two of attempts to work out some kind of life with Zoe, I realized that it just wasn't in the cards. In December I left her with the Estrella apartment and moved into Elmer Graphics.
Elmer Graphics: Take Two
The move into the shop seemed austere to some, but I enjoyed the simplicity and solitude. It was peaceful. I decided to revise the decor to reflect a shift to a different kind of work. With the collapse of the western movie industry, I wanted to focus on a more contemporary approach to graphic design for local businesses. That meant ending the retail experiment with sewn items as well as repainting the front windows and changing the interior decor.
This invitation attracted a big crowd to a spring shop warming party
All of this was, of course, a reworking of my psyche as well. The activity was therapeutic and helped me reset my goals and attitudes. I decided to re-enter graduate school before my GI benefits expired. I was accepted into the painting program in the Fine Arts College of the University of Arizona to begin in the fall of 1977 and began to ease myself out of Elmer Graphics. Rather than close the shop, I offered it to Dave for a nominal fee arrangement. He assumed ownership of the business that summer when I moved out.