Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering Samson Pollen (1931-2018)

"The Brooklyn Outcast Who Ruled an Amazon Woman Paradise," Stag, January 1963. Courtesy The Robert Deis Collection. Art by Samson Pollen.

Artist Samson Pollen was one of the most dynamic and prolific illustrators to work in the men’s adventure magazines (MAMs) of the 1950s-1970s. Before and after his time in MAMs, Pollen painted numerous paperback covers in every genre, from two-fisted action series to teen books to romance novels. In recent years, Pollen collaborated with Men’s Adventure Library editors Wyatt Doyle and Robert Deis on a series of art books drawn from his significant archives. The first result of that collaboration, Pollen’s Women, was released in January 2018 to overwhelming acclaim. Further volumes are in process, and the second release, Pollen’s Action, was headed to press when we learned the sad news of the artist’s passing on December 4.

Working as an editor and publisher—particularly in tandem with Bob Deis on The Men’s Adventure Library series—has provided opportunities to meet and collaborate with some truly unique and fascinating artists. Their friendship changes my life for the better, and I treasure their insights on the worlds they inhabited and the eras they lived through, shared both through their creative expressions and in their patient interviews and testimony. But a sad caveat of working with those who’ve already lived full lives is that these wonderful, open-hearted people who you meet, befriend, collaborate with, and come to love, are called away long before you’re ready to say goodbye. Walter Kaylin. Reverend Raymond Branch. Robert F. Dorr. Harlan Ellison. Samson Pollen.

When I visited Samson and Jacqueline Pollen, they welcomed me warmly into their home like an old friend. To be able to observe their relationship that afternoon was a gift. Both of them were convinced beyond any doubt that the other hung the moon. Though in a sense it was his day—I was there to shake hands on our agreement to publish books collecting Sam’s artwork—Sam encouraged Jackie to show us a few of her recent pieces. Alive, wild, and abstract, it didn’t matter at all that they were very different from the figural style of painting that made Sam’s reputation. He was enthusiastic about her talent, and profoundly impressed by her drive to create. He praised her with artist-to-artist respect and admiration. It was clear she adored him, and just as clear that she still beguiled him completely.

Sam said they enjoyed listening to every kind of music together, even things some people might consider far out. He laughed a little when he told me recently how he and Jackie had spent the previous day listening to a performance by a Swiss yodeler. “The guy was fabulous!” he insisted. I believed him. And my mind keeps going back to that happy, enviable image: Sam and Jackie, sweethearts snug in their cozy home, two beautiful dreamers daydreaming together to music from a far-off mountaintop.

The last time I spoke with Sam, he said, “I think I approach everything the way I approach my art: If I can’t do it, do it again. Throw it away and start over. I’m pretty stubborn; I don’t give up so easily. I think that’s an important part of it, to stick with it. It’s so easy to quit on something. You can’t get it right, or you think it won’t be accepted, so you avoid facing it. That’s fear. There are people who live with fear, and that’s not good.” When I asked if he considered himself an especially confident person, he chuckled. “It’s been interpreted more as stubborn.”

Sam was a groundbreaking and prolific artist and visual storyteller. But even that magnificent career was only part of his own story. “I always had all kinds of hobbies,” he told me. “I loved to ice skate; I used to do that quite a bit. Chess, I used to love. I actually played a rated expert and came out even with him. I was deep into computers at one time. I built my own printing press. I built everything in my studio by myself—the hardware, everything. I always had to have some kind of challenge. And I managed to squeeze it all in, some way.”

You sure did, Sam. Hope they yodel where you are.

Text © 2018 Wyatt Doyle, all rights reserved.