The Milwaukee Bucks’ exciting playoff run has thrilled local sports fans, especially longtime diehards who can recall the team’s last title in 1971. As the Eastern Conference champion Bucks climb back to the top, they are missing one of their biggest local fans, the late George Pollard, who had a special connection to the team as their longtime official artist.
“My dad would be thrilled!” said George and Nan Pollard’s son Mark in an interview from his New York City home. “He was a fan since the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar days and was the team artist. He loved the characters and the action. I bet he would have seen their success coming and would have been working on their portraits for months already.
“My dad liked basketball better than any other sport, and there was never any other team for him other than the Bucks. He went to every home game for years and sat on the court. It never got old.”
Pollard’s affinity for local sports is just one example of how the artist valued his Wisconsin roots, and particularly loved calling Kenosha home.
The feeling remains mutual. More than a decade since George and Nan Pollard passed away within four years of each other, Kenosha’s connection to the famous local artists has only grown stronger with time.
The reasons are bountiful: George painted presidents and the Pope, but also he sketched scores of “ordinary” Kenoshans. While his professional art career took him from overseas mess hall duty as a Marine all the way to Hollywood and Vatican City, the Pollards’ residence and heart stayed right here in Kenosha.
Likewise, Nan’s art career was a success story from the start. She found her niche in the stuff treasured memories are made of, illustrating fine children’s books, popular culture coloring books and even high-end paper dolls. She traveled and worked with big names in the business, but was proud to call Wisconsin home.
Pollard’s son Mark recently took time from his busy schedule as art director and creative director for marketing for the hit TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to talk with Kenosha.com about his parents’ legacy.
“My parents loved Kenosha, they really did,” Mark Pollard said. “My dad used to always say that Kenosha, being between Milwaukee and Chicago, was the perfect spot for him. Once in the ‘70s they thought about moving to Santa Barbara, but the oil spill there kept us in town.
“Kenosha was their home, where they raised their kids. I can’t imagine they would have wanted to be anywhere else.”
The recent efforts to identify some “mystery” portraits sketched by George Pollard serves as a reminder that he lent his talents to subjects across all walks of life. Pollard had donated a generous amount of art to the Gallery before he passed away, and Nan enjoyed visiting with friends there, Mark said.
Now Kenoshans have come forward to name sketches of everyone from legendary Chicago sportswriter John Carmichael, advice columnist Heloise, and the late Paul Jaeger. The portrait of Jaeger, a former Kenosha County UW-Extension agricultural agent, was claimed by his grandchildren and given as an unforgettable Father’s Day gift for their dad, Paul’s son. The heartwarming stories are a popular feature on the gallery’s Facebook page, evidence of Pollard’s continuing impact on his hometown.
“He loved to talk to people — famous or not,” Mark Pollard said, adding that he would check out the unidentified portraits as well.
The Pollards’ idyllic Allendale home and studio was a world away from where George’s career began, both in miles and milieu. Pollard got his start as a combat artist in 1943 when he was a private in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in New Zealand.
He recounted his humble beginnings in his self-published book “The Journal of a Portrait Painter and his Family of Artists.”
“Even as we boarded troop transports for our first major combat in the Gilbert Islands, the Battle of Tarawa, I found the ability to do a simple sketch that was like magic. I carried my materials in a mortar tube,” wrote Pollard.
The Battle of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest in Marine Corps history, with Pollard serving as a cartographer.
“Thousands died on Tarawa and many more were wounded. … My job as a combat artist was to document the deeds of these brave young men,” he wrote.
The book tells how Pollard, armed with a Coleman lantern, spent months doing montage sketches of Marine heroes, then sent the portraits to hometown newspapers as morale boosters.
Pollard’s history of his art catching the attention of people in high places began in the military. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited troops in the South Pacific, Pollard’s regimental commander insisted that Pollard sketch her portrait. Next up? General Douglas MacArthur.
Quipped Pollard: “I no longer had guard or mess duty.”
After the war, Pollard returned to Wisconsin and resumed his art school education, this time at Layton School of Art. He was only at Layton a short time, but he stayed long enough to meet the love of his life, Nan. They married in 1947, embarking on a beautiful and fruitful partnership that would last more than 60 years.
Again, the theme of Pollard’s respect for his everyday acquaintances led to his connections to the rich and famous. One of his Marine buddies became a successful entertainment agent, and that friendship brought the Pollards to Hollywood. George’s first subject there was Dan Blocker, better known as Hoss on “Bonanza,” thanks to his war-time friend.
“‘Bonanza’ was the number one show when that happened,” Mark said. “It’s a really great story: My dad’s writing partner for his war drawings for Stars and Stripes was a guy named Herm Lewis, who went to Hollywood and became Dan Blocker’s agent. This is how my mom and dad started doing that kind of work from Kenosha.”
From there the list snowballs: Pollard sketched Rosemary Clooney, Bob Cummings, and Kenosha’s own Al Molinaro. He drew Patti Page at 2 a.m. after her performance in Chicago, and sketched Janet Leigh in a hotel suite in New York City while her husband Tony Curtis looked on, holding their toddler Jamie Leigh Curtis.
Nan compiled a star-studded list of her own, including official coloring books for popular television shows from Grizzly Adams to Captain Kangaroo. When she was commissioned to produce the authorized coloring book for the popular Dr. Kildare TV series, she added a personal touch by including Mark as one of the children on the cover.
“I remember my mom taking me to the Samuel Lowe Publishing Company in Kenosha where she would deliver art for the children’s books and doll books she made,” Pollard said. “Southeastern Wisconsin was a mecca for children’s books at the time with Western Publishing and Golden Books right there in Racine. My mom was always busy with work, she was very much in demand.”
The couple collaborated on many licensed paper doll books for Samuel Lowe publishing with George drawing the covers and Nan creating the dolls and dresses.
Nan’s stellar reputation led to the Pollards meeting Jackie Gleason while the star was doing “The Honeymooners.” The couple watched the live show from the producer’s booth after sketching Gleason for both a paper doll book and Nan’s coloring book featuring the show’s cast.
In fact, Nan Pollard is also responsible for one of Kenosha’s most impressive, if not widely known, claims to fame: The one and only official Beatles coloring book was drawn by Nan right here in their home studio.
“They were a great team,” Mark Pollard said of his parents. “My mom didn’t get all the credit she deserved in my opinion. She was a real artistic force. But it’s the way they wanted it and they loved each other very much. They had chemistry.”
While George Pollard’s sketches of political figures started with Eleanor Roosevelt, his encounter with JFK is legendary.
His meeting with Kennedy came when both he and the young senator from Massachusetts both had their eyes set on bigger prizes. Pollard had not yet embarked on the Hollywood chapter of his career, and Kennedy was just beginning his journey toward the presidency, which took him to Milwaukee.
George tells the story in his own words in his book:
“Kennedy was in Milwaukee campaigning when I approached him at the Pfister Hotel where he was staying. I showed him some of my World War II sketches, and asked him to pose for me, explaining how much that would help my career. Security was not as tight (back then).”
The pair took to the hotel’s mezzanine where Pollard sketched him right then and there. In the years immediately following, Pollard met with and drew Robert, Ted and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Coincidentally, the Pfister was the site of big moments both early and late in Pollard’s career. In May 2006, George and Nan were honored together with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Georgia O’Keefe Award for Distinction in the Visual Arts at a gala at the hotel, less than two years before George passed away.
And then there’s the Pope.
Pollard was commissioned to paint a portrait of Pope John Paul II in 1989, following his work with Mother Theresa whom he met when she visited Marquette University in Milwaukee. Not only did she agree to a portrait sitting, the work eventually found its way into the Vatican, where it was noticed by higher-ups.
The invitation to paint a portrait of the Pontiff was a high point of Pollard’s career, and also involved, in his words, a bit of divine intervention that has an in-state connection as well.
Pollard’s sketching session was to be held as the Pope said a 4½-hour canonization Mass. The artist found himself stationed in a media balcony, great for TV cameras but much too far away to create his trademark intensely-detailed portrait. Vatican secretary Marjorie Wieke, a Marquette University alum, asked Pollard to give up his spot to a television cameraman. He worried he would not be able to sketch at all, but politely agreed to move. Before he knew what was happening, Wieke led him to a spot 30 feet from the altar. The two Wisconsinites stood among the College of Cardinals on international television. From that prime position Pollard was able to capture a portrait that was so well-received, he earned a Papal Medal.
Mark said the event was life-changing for his father:
“He went to Rome two or three times during the process and had a solo meeting with the Pope before he presented the painting,” Mark recalled. “I know it sounds corny, but the meeting moved him and he became more spiritual after the encounter.
“He was a combat artist in the war and he was known to use some colorful language, but he became more serious about the bigger issues in life after his time at the Vatican. The kid from Waldo meets the Pope.”
Pollard later had a private audience with the Pontiff during the World Youth Day appearance in Denver in 1993.
Pollard recounts in his book that the Pope recognized both George and his artwork, greeted him warmly and exclaimed “Marvelous!”
During these same years, Pollard was still sketching locals from business owners to journalists, never forgetting his fellow Kenoshans nor where he came from.
“My dad was born on the kitchen table in Waldo, Wisconsin, to dairy farmers. He had to work hard from a very early age,” Mark said of his father’s down-to-earth personality. “He eventually traveled all around the world, but he never pretended to be someone other than the kid from Waldo. Or maybe he tried over and over to not be the kid from Waldo.”
Of all his endeavors, Pollard’s greatest passion was sports, especially the aforementioned Milwaukee Bucks. Longtime NBA fans will remember Pollard’s annual team poster, and can imagine how he would be celebrating the team’s current run, or how he would capture Giannis or Coach Bud.
An unlikely source, local grocery chain Kohl’s Food Stores, led to Pollard’s now well-known work with the Bucks. Pollard had been drawing “The Wives of our Lives” series about the wives of celebrities including athletes and politicians as a promotion sponsored by the grocery store in the ‘60s-80s. Then chain owner Herb Kohl bought the Milwaukee Bucks.
In his book, George recalled the turn of events: “I found myself by happy coincidence drawing athletes instead of their wives for the new team owner.”
Pollard became Bucks’ royalty in his own right. In addition to the yearly posters, and poster and media guide covers, full-color posters were given to fans to commemorate two of their biggest names. When Bob Lanier’s number 16 was retired in 1984 and during Kareerm Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA farewell tour, Pollard was commissioned to present them both with his work.
“As a professional athlete, I can tell you how much it means to a player and his family to receive an official George Pollard portrait,” said Lanier at the time. “Your drawings and paintings are sought after throughout the world of professional sports.”
Brewers fans who attended games in the ‘80s may recall that Pollard’s sketches were displayed on the scoreboard along with their statistics as each came up to bat.
As a true local sports fan, Pollard of course worked with some of the biggest names in Green Bay Packers lore. One of his most memorable sports moments came when he presented a painting to legendary coach Vince Lombardi when another Kenosha legend, the late Frank Misurelli, arranged Lombardi’s visit to the Mt. Carmel Sports Breakfast. Years later, Pollard received a note from Marie Lombardi telling him that his portrait of the coach and an accompanying portrait of her were always her favorite and hung in the Lombardi’s living room.
These larger than life sports figures were part of growing up, Mark Pollard recalled. He recalled a lunch at Ray Radigan’s with his dad, brother, and possibly the most famous athlete in history, Muhammad Ali.
“That was a blast,” Mark remembered, with his family’s trademark humble demeanor.
All of George and Nan’s children, as well as the next generation, went on to careers that took root in their upbringing immersed in creativity. The couple’s influence lives on through their children and grandchildren’s work.
The oldest, Sherry Bingaman, is a retired educator who lives in Portland. She sells her tapestries and wall hangings, which she has designed and sold for decades. Bingaman’s daughter Kate Bingaman-Burt is a professor of graphics at Portland State University as well as an artist and illustrator, and her other daughter, Kory Franca, is a noted comic artist.
Jim Pollard lives in Black Earth, Minn., and manufactures soft pastels for artists with his son Ross through their business, April Blue Earth Pastels. Grandson Ross is a sculptor in southeastern Minnesota, recently honored for donating works to his community.
Youngest son Paul, along with his wife Tomo Makiura, designs and produces modern art catalogs for the Pace Gallery in New York City.
Mark has been making art for movies and film throughout his career and is currently working on the fourth season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for Amazon Prime. He serves as art director for the show and creative director for the marketing. His wife Renate Spiegler designs props for movies such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “John Wick.” Their son Chester Jones Pollard recently graduated from University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is starting out in New York as an actor.
“I draw on my parents’ work in the ‘50s heavily,” Mark said of his art for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
But before they became artists in those myriad capacities, the Pollard kids and their parents were a Kenosha family.
“We were a regular family, we all ate meals together and they came to our baseball games and such,” Mark said. “There was always lots going on! One difference was that my mom was a working mother — a little unusual at the time. She was a great mother to us, though — I remember her always up late at night working in the studio — but always there for breakfast or for school.
“As I said before, my parents just loved Kenosha.”