Robert J. Wilson


"Bob Wilson"



(School Project)


Interviewee:    Grandpa Robert “Bob” John Wilson

Interviewer:  Granddaughter Kayla Jo Wilson

Date:  November 2, 2011


Grandpa  “Paint”

On November 2, 2011, I interviewed my Grandpa Wilson because of his story of his life during the Depression and stages in his life leading to his art career.  His full name is Robert “Bob” John Wilson.  He was born in Elmira, New York, and attended Horseheads High School in Horseheads, New York.  He was born on March 8, 1924. 

Kayla:  Horseheads is a very unusual name.  Can you tell me how Horseheads, New York, got its name?  I think I heard that the name came from a true story that happened during the Civil War.

Grandpa:  Well, there are a couple of versions about what happened during the Civil War.  One version is that the soldiers traveled a long way, and a very large number of horses became sick and died.  The other version is that the soldiers had a food shortage and ate a lot of the horses.  When they disposed of the remains of the horses, the Iroquois Indians gathered the skulls and placed the horse skulls along a trail.  The trail was called the “Valley of the Horses’ Heads”.

Kayla:  That’s interesting.  Were there any famous people from Horseheads or Elmira?

Grandpa:  One interesting person that attracts a lot of tourists is Mark Twain.  Mark Twain also went by Samuel Clemens as a pen name.  Many people think of Mark Twain was from Hannibal, Missouri, but he lived in Hannibal during when he was a young boy.  Later in his life when he married a lady from Elmira, they spent many summers on a farm with his wife near Elmira.  Mark Twain died before I was born.  He and his family are buried in a cemetery in Elmira.

Kayla:  Would you describe the land around Horseheads?

Grandpa:  There are a lot of big hills, the Chemung River, and good lakes.  This is a good area to see people using hang gliders around the hills.  It’s nice scenery around this area.

Kayla:  What are some unusual last names of members of our family?

Grandpa:  My mother’s last name was Cone.  I also think a couple of the other unusual names were Phalaspher and Vanduzer.

Kayla:  Yes, those are some unusual names!  I’ll need to research my family tree for those.  How many did you have?

Grandpa:  It was just my brother Al and I.  My Mom and Dad separated when I was young and we lived with my Dad.

Kayla:  Do you have any pet peeves?

Grandpa:  Yes.  I don’t like shaking hands with people because I feel like it will spread germs even if you wash your hands.  When we shake hands in church, I would rather not shake hands so I usually just give them a nod.

Kayla:  Since you were born in 1924, would you tell me what you remember about the Depression in New York?

Grandpa:   My family was one of the lucky ones during the Depression because my Dad was a car salesman and my Mother was a seamstress.  My Dad would go all the way to Florida to buy cars cheap and bring them to New York to sell for a good profit.  Since buying clothes from a store was expensive, my Mother kept busy sewing clothes for people.  Some people made money any way they could, even illegally.  My great-great grandfather was a bootlegger during the Depression and became very wealthy from selling illegal alcohol to the rich people. 

Kayla:  I’m glad you were one of the lucky families.  Do you remember seeing very many poor people?

Grandpa:  Since our town was in a rural area, the Depression was not as bad as those who lived in the city.  The people living in the rural areas could grow and raise their own food, but the people living in the cities had to buy more items, so it was tougher to live in the city.  I remember seeing the hobos on the trains that passed through the town.  The hobos would throw coal to people along the tracks to help the poor heat their homes.  People would gather the coal to take home so that they could save a little by using the free coal.  The hobos also knew which houses would feed them a good meal and ear a few dollars. 

Kayla:  I heard that it was tough to buy shoes during the Depression.  What kind of shoes did people wear?

Grandpa:  Some families had trouble buying new shoes for their children.  To make the shoes last longer, cardboard would be put in the inside of the shoes so that the shoes could be worn longer. 

Kayla:   I don’t think I would have liked not being able to buy new shoes.  Did any of your family leave the area to find work?

Grandpa:  I remember some of my cousins going to the work camps.  These camps were for people who needed money and called the WPA (Works Progress Administration).  A cousin worked on the Hoover Dam in Nevada, but I was lucky that I did not have to attend one of these camps.  I saw many families suffering because of the lack of money, but this made me more aware of spending my money wisely.

Kayla:  During the Depression when you were in school, do you remember wanting to be an artist?

Grandpa:  I remember at the age of seven while living in Elmira, New York, I won the grand prize in an art contest by drawing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

Kayla:  What did you win?

Grandpa:  I won a certificate.  The contest included the students from all of the surrounding schools of Horseheads, New York.  I was very proud of winning that contest. 

Kayla:  After you finished high school, did you want to go to art school?

Grandpa:  Not right away.  I first went into the service because World War II started, and I worked as an office clerk during the war.  I did not go overseas, but I was stationed in Illinois, California, Texas, and some other states.  After the war, my goal was to attend telegraphy school in Kansas City, Missouri, instead of working with art.  Since my parents were unable to pay for me to attend school, I worked in a drug store to pay for telegraphy school.  After going to telegraphy school, I moved to New York City.

Kayla:  What did you do in New York City?

Grandpa:  Well, I would get together at a gathering place called “The Pen and Brush” with young artists to brainstorm cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Colliers, Boys’ Life, and other magazines.  To me, all of these artists were famous, but one friend at that time was Charles Schultz who was the creator of the Peanuts cartoon.  He was kind of peculiar that he did not like to share his drawings.  At The Saturday Evening Post, his office was next to my office.

Kayla:  Wow!  You knew the writer of the Peanuts cartoon with the Snoopy character?

Grandpa:  Yes.  I also remember being friends with Mort Walker.  He had been a student at the University of Missouri, and he later created the Beetle Bailey cartoon.  He told me one time that I could sell a lot of drawings to The Saturday Evening Post if he would get 30% of the price received.  I didn’t like that, and I said I wasn’t interested.  However, I did not gather with the group very long.  Since I was in the Army reserves, I was called to duty to serve in the Korean War.

Kayla:  Wow!  That’s interesting that you were friends with Charles Schultz and Mort Walker.  What did you do in the Korean War, and what branch of the service were you in? 

Grandpa:   During the Korean War, I was in the 8th Air Force.  My job during the war was to draw safety pictures, such as how to identify enemy planes and how to identify our planes.  I enjoyed drawing these pictures.

Kayla:  That sounds really interesting and important.  Did you go back to New York City after the war?

Grandpa:  No.  After drawing pictures during the Korean War, I moved back to Kansas City, Missouri, to attend the Kansas City Art Institute.  I was interested in this school since I remembered seeing the Kansas City Art Institute when I was in Kansas City going to telegraphy school.  After the war, some of the big magazines were either downsizing or went out of business.

Kayla:  Is this when you met Grandma?

Grandpa:  Yes.  I met your Grandma at a dance at Wolf’s Dance Hall on Troost in Kansas City.  I thought she was as cute as a bug.  She first went out with a friend of mine.  He didn’t seem interested, and he said that all she did was talk about me, so I became interested and asked him if he would mind if I took her out.  He said he didn’t mind.  Your Grandma said that when we were dating and she was riding on the streetcar, she saw one of my cartoons hanging in the streetcar with the other advertisements.  At that time, I made drawings for different advertisers and Hallmark Cards.  After we married, I worked a while at the Independence Examiner as an editorial cartoonist. 

Kayla:  What other jobs did you have in Kansas City?

Grandpa:  I also worked at a drug store frying hamburgers, and for two days I worked at a Montgomery Wards store selling shoes.  I didn’t like helping people try on shoes. 

Kayla:  When did you move to Jefferson City?

Grandpa:  I contacted the Missouri Farm Bureau in Jefferson City to find a job that would support my family.  I was lucky that I was quickly hired as their art director, and worked there for 40 years. 

Kayla:  When did you start drawing caricatures? 

Grandpa:  I started drawing these in my spare time after moving to Jefferson City, but I usually called these drawings cartoon portraits.

Kayla:  I remember sitting in Johnny’s Pizza Restaurant and seeing a drawing you did hanging on the wall.  What kind of people ordered these drawings?

Grandpa:  Mostly businessmen and politicians wanted a drawing.  At one time, almost everyone in the State Capitol had one of my pictures hanging on their wall.  The Governor, Senators, Representatives, and others who wanted to honor someone special.  Sometimes they would order a portrait for a birthday, retirement, or some special occasion.

Kayla:  Were politics portrayed in your portraits since you drew for a lot of politicians?

Grandpa:  I kept my own politics out of my own art.  Instead I focused on providing a realistic likeness that my subjects would be proud to display.

Kayla:  Why did your cartoon portraits have big feet on the people?

Grandpa:  I always said that everybody is a clown and all clowns have big feet.

Kayla:  How would you describe the cartoon portrait to someone?

Grandpa:   I started out asking for a good picture of someone.  This picture must be able to show me the eyes of the person.  The eyes are a very important part of the picture.  I have even been known to place a single flake of glitter in each eye to cause a sparkle as you pass by the drawing.  The portrait has very true to life facial features, and I usually included little signs posted around the subject detailing the character’s interests.  I do not like putting anything negative in the portraits because it helps the subject enjoy it more.  But, one time I did make a lady angry, and that was the only one I ever made angry.  I also like to draw men more than women because women’s hair styles change too often.

Kayla:  How much did you charge for a portrait?

Grandpa:  $65 without the frame.

Kayla:  How long ago has it been since you have stopped drawing portraits for people? 

Grandpa:  I think it has been about ten years.  My back started hurting leaning over the table to draw.

Kayla:  I remember spending a lot of time with you drawing on your art table when I was young.  That was why my nickname for you became Grandpa Paint.

"Life is a work of art, designed by the one who lives it."


            After interviewing Grandpa, I looked at the historical society page on the Internet about Horseheads.  I found out that Eugene Zimmerman, who was an international humorist and political cartoonist who lived in Horseheads.  He was also described as being an “excellent illustrator and caricaturist.”  The house he lived in is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The website, said that Zimmerman worked for the Judge magazine and traveled to New York City two times a month to submit political cartoons and work on the weekly magazine.   Perhaps, he may have influenced Grandpa.  I did not hear him talk about Zimmerman, but the information said that he died in 1935.  Grandpa was born in 1924.  So, Grandpa would have been 11 years old when Eugene Zimmerman died.  Next time I visit Grandpa, I will need to ask him about this person.

            Grandpa “Paint” or also known as Robert Wilson is now living in Jefferson City, Missouri and retired from doing art, but he still has a passion for art. 

In his self portrait below, some of the signs in the picture read:  shaking hands spreads germs, flying saucer info, how to enjoy Osage River during the flood, golf course, and where to get senior citizen discounts and freebies.  Above his name, it says, “Gran-Paw”.  This refers to me since I am his only grandchild.