By Joan Tupponce
Full of life: The Peanuts characters' personalities are captured with such vigor in Everhart's work that they're nearly audible.
Sunlight pours into Tom Everhart’s Venice Beach, Calif., art studio, illuminating a 7-by-11-foot painting that looks remarkably familiar because it features Snoopy, the iconic character in Peanuts, the popular comic strip. But more than an homage, the painting — called “Big Poppa” — tells a story of a friendship and the power of art to not only inspire but also heal.
Everhart and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz came from divergent backgrounds. Everhart was rooted in academia with a concentration on fine art. Schulz completed a correspondence course and focused on cartooning. And yet these two men of disparate styles connected when Everhart met Schulz in 1980.
The friendship lasted until Schulz’s death in 2000. Everhart was the only fine-arts painter Schulz personally taught to draw his famous line characters. He valued Everhart’s art so much that he and United Media, his syndicate, agreed contractually in 1991 to let Everhart use the Peanuts characters as subject matter in his art in perpetuity. He is the only fine artist in the world to have this agreement. His Schulz-inspired work has been on display in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries and museums, including the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo.
The relationship between the men began when Everhart was freelancing for a design group. He had no cartooning background but had been asked to create several presentation boards to show to Schulz during a meeting. He studied Schulz’s drawings, trying to understand the lines. He finally took a copy of one of the drawings and projected it onto a 30-foot wall in his studio. “It no longer looked like a cartoon,” Everhart says. “It looked like an abstract painting. I understood how to draw it. That was the very first moment that the translation happened between cartoon language and fine-arts language. I was able to translate this new language.”
Anxious about presenting his work to the strip’s creator, Everhart traveled from his office in New York to Santa Rosa, Calif., to present the drawings. He had been told that Schulz would not be in the meeting, but halfway through his presentation Everhart spotted the cartoonist in the back of the room, wearing a blue-and-white jogging suit. During a break, Schulz approached Everhart with two succinct questions:
1. Are these your drawings?
2. Why didn’t you copy my drawings or trace them?
Everhart felt as if Schulz was scolding him, so he shot back: “Because I didn’t want to lose the freshness of your originals.”
He was surprised when Schulz invited him back to his office, where they talked about art for hours. Schulz realized that Everhart understood his line drawings. That line — one of lightness — had been foreign to Everhart, who had relied on a dark and foreboding color palette often laced with skeletons. “It was a complete coin flip,” he says.
The connection between the men was immediate, and Everhart began calling Schulz by his nickname, “Sparky.” Schulz offered Everhart supplement projects related to the comic strip. He completed a promotion for MetLife, did a couple of dozen covers for national magazines and did a White House poster for first lady Nancy Reagan to promote the “Just Say No” campaign.
“He took very good care of me, like a son,” Everhart says.
While Schulz authorized Everhart’s work, he would never let anyone else touch his cartoons. Craig Schulz, one of Schulz’s five children and the president of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, says his dad was an intensely private person and was very guarded about his characters. The comic strip was his world, and no one was going to get in it.
In 1988, Everhart was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the colon and liver. He survived two major surgeries and months of radical chemotherapy and was told by doctors that the odds of living longer than two years were slim. During the weeks he received treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, he amassed boxes of crayons and sketch pads that he used to create colorful drawings. He surrounded his bed with stacks of art-history books on one side and piles of Schulz’s comic strips that the cartoonist had sent him on the other. One day while drawing, he suddenly felt a new understanding of Schulz’s work — a crossover between fine art and cartoons. He said it gave him a sense of freedom, a confirmation that he could use what he had learned from Schulz in his own artwork. “I was always fearful of the art world’s reception of his cartoons in my fine art,”
When Everhart told Schulz about his idea for using the cartoonist’s characters in his fine art, Schulz was pleased but firm on how Everhart should proceed. “My dad said to him, ‘You need to do your own thing,’ ” Craig Schulz recalls. “Dad loved his concept and his design. He wanted to make it Tom’s work and encourage him to bring in his own direction, so he gave him the authority to do fine art on the Peanuts characters throughout his life. Dad told him to just do it and there will be no termination clause.”
Everhart’s largest originals have been priced at as much as $250,000, but his cartoon-inspired art still has its critics. “They look past the artistic contribution and just see it as a picture of Snoopy,” says Daniel Crosby, who represents Everhart and is the founder of the Limelight Agency in Los Angeles. “People who buy one of his paintings may buy it because the picture of Snoopy is nostalgic, but when they get it in their house they are influenced by his message, which permeates the picture.”
One of the few paintings in Everhart’s collection that is done in black and gray hues with no color is “The Tear,” a portrait of Snoopy with one large tear in his eye that Everhart painted shortly after Schulz’s death. For Everhart, the loss of Schulz was devastating. “I don’t think I have been through anything like that in my life,” he says. “I stayed in bed for several days. It destroyed me for a good time period. ‘The Tear’ was the only sad painting I did, and it helped me be able to put that behind me.”
Craig Schulz, who has several Everhart lithographs in his home and loves the vibrancy of the colors and designs, describes that painting as “powerful,” especially to those who know its backstory. “It brought a tear to my eye,” Craig says. “It represents the dark place he was in and defines it.”
Everhart describes both himself and “Sparky” as simple and complex artists, able to lead a simple lifestyle but put complex thought behind each painting or cartoon. Snoopy’s ears in “Big Poppa” hang in a way that Schulz never drew them. As he was painting, Everhart tried to imagine how Schulz would have tilted Snoopy’s head if he had drawn it in that manner. The painting is a tribute to Schulz and a friendship. “He was my big influence,” Everhart says. “My studio is a floor-to-floor and wall-to-wall reminder of his influence. It encircles me. There isn’t anything around me that isn’t inspired by our relationship. I live with it 24 hours a day.”
Joan Tupponce is a writer living in the Richmond, Va., area who has written for Seventeen, Sports Illustrated and O, The Oprah Magazine. She wrote about armless musician George Dennehy in the March 15 issue of American Way.