In a new artbook that celebrates Hal Empie’s Kartoon Kards, Ann Empie Groves reveals how her father’s extraordinary talent and humor connected the people of rural Arizona with the outside world.

By Nancy H. Fitzpatrick

In the preface to Way Out West, Ann Empie Groves writes that she’d rather describe the Grand Canyon than try to describe her father, internationally known western artist Hal Empie. “All I know for sure,” she says, “is that they are both Arizona treasures.”

 

“He could draw anything,” she says. “Time stood still in his art as it captured the beauty, history and characters of the American Southwest, and he was never happier than when he started a new painting. It was like starting a new day.”

 

A great amount has been written about Empie’s fine art career, his unique cartoon art, his drugstore in Duncan where he worked as a pharmacist and artist – and about his life in Tubac where he settled in his later years. But until the recent release of Way Out West, a 232-page book that chronicles the evolution of the wildly popular Empie Kartoon Kards, there has never been an opportunity to enjoy so many of these unique artworks “under one roof.”

 

Empie Kartoon Kards stand alone in the world of postcards. They were a phenomena from the start, and for a long time there was nothing similar on the market. Groves writes that her father’s “distinct style, comic character and wit – along with his famous phrase, Way Out West – singled him out from any other postcard creator.”

 

He began creating the cards during the Great Depression as a way to make a little money for his family. Groves recalls that his easel was in his pharmacy department and he worked on his cartoons and his paintings “between filling prescriptions or makin’ cherry cokes.” But it didn’t take long for the popularity of his postcards to spread well beyond his own drugstore in Duncan.

 

In all, the artist produced a total of 320 pen-and-ink drawings for his postcards between 1936 and 1950. At the peak of their popularity the cards sold in the hundreds of thousands in more than 38 states. They were also featured in magazines, books and newspapers around the country.

 

While rural America provided the primary settings for the cards, their appeal was universal. Empie Kartoon Kard characters were often captured in the middle of predicaments that left them with no time to write any more than the few lines that would fit on a postcard. Their time-stealing predicaments? What do you do when the car breaks down in the middle of nowhere? How do you cope with a runaway horse, stubborn mule, or mad bull? What’s the best way to escape a hungry bear or fearsome rattlesnake? And how do you rope a steer, ride a bronco, or survive a long walk across a hot desert? All of the situations said, “Too durn busy to write.”

Not only do the scenes present a humorous glimpse of life in the Southwest during the first half of the 20th century, they also aid and abet the idea that no matter how improbable or difficult a situation might be, there is a way out – as long as we give ourselves permission to laugh, and to feel compassion.

The drawings also exemplify Empie’s tremendous talent. What might seem like a simple pen and ink sketch at first glance, is – on closer inspection – a high art form. The detail is exceptional, from an exaggerated expression of surprise, alarm or downright chagrin on an old cowpoke’s face, to a buzzard’s gleeful wink at the prospect of dinner as it watches a cow struggle across a desert scape.  Each card is also a window into the artist’s appreciation for universal dilemmas and high jinx fun.

The postcards have become collectors’ items, and on any given day it is possible to find Empie Kartoon Kards for sale on the internet. Groves dedicates one chapter of the book specifically to the collector. But, her motivation for writing the book was not driven by the potential of its appeal to any one audience but rather to the necessity of preserving her father’s work. It was a task that would take her more than two years. What she didn’t know at the outset, she says, was that “the process itself would introduce me to myself.”

The process also led to a massive collection of cards, sketches, magazine articles, books, letters and ephemera that, when viewed as a whole, visually documents a specific time in history, reminding us of the “Ma and Pa businesses and places” that have since been “lost to the Interstate.” The collection also provides a glimpse into the 1940s, and the nation’s need for “a bit of humor during a time of war.” The author writes that, in all, the “cartoons are like a history book. They are snapshots of our past.”

From Duncan to Tubac

Ann Empie Groves is well-known in Tubac, where she and her husband, Peter, have lived for more than three decades.  The Artist’s Daughter, her shop on Tubac Road, has been a mainstay in the downtown area since it first opened in 1986.

“I started the store on a budget,” she says, and I have not had to put any money into it in over 33 years.”

Of course, Empie Kartoon Kards are sold here – along with a diverse mix of delightfully nostalgic items and vintage paraphernalia ranging from Tubac-centric license plates to cowboy hats and enamelware dishes.  

Groves appreciates the town for all that it has given her in the way of opportunity and because “there is nothing like Tubac.” It represents such a special place in the world. She rattles off some early memories – times when radio station KGVY set up shop in front of her store during the Tubac Arts Festival, along with Elvis, Marilyn and Frank impersonators. In those days the festival ran for nine days. It was also not unusual to see stretch limos in town, huge tour buses, and to have movie stars like Mark Harmon, Pam Dawber and Diane Keaton show up at her shop. “You never knew what celebrity might walk in!

“My store was converted into a movie set for Vanishing Point, which starred Viggo Mortensen. Sam Elliott came to town during his filming of Tombstone. He liked the store and loved Dad’s art, ultimately becoming a patron. Jane Russell was our grand marshal one year at our Cinco de Mayo parade and chili cookoff. Will Rogers and Arizona’s Rex Allen were also favorite Tubac celebrities.

“There are so many stories,” Groves says, and it is her hope that “Tubac continues to thrive and grow; that the community – and the village – continue to attract people who love the valley and its history, and everything we represent. People who appreciate what we have and who want to preserve the Village’s unique character, remarkable old structures and southwestern ambiance,” the guidelines of which are detailed so well in The Tubac Historic Zone Design Criteria.

For Groves and her husband, the move to Tubac from Oro Valley came soon after construction on her father and mother’s house and gallery were completed. The building also included space for her father to continue painting, which he did every day until his death in 2002.

Empie had previously set aside his cartoon art in order to focus his available time on his fine art paintings. But due to the inherent popularity of the postcards Groves put them back on the market in 1980. Inventory space for the cards was carved out in a small warehouse adjacent to Empie’s gallery. Groves immediately saw its retail potential, and that was the beginning of The Artist’s Daughter.

Groves’ prior marketing experience was responsible for the store’s immediate success. Her first career as a flight attendant satisfied her desire to travel the world. But make no mistake, she says, we were called ‘stewardesses’ in those days.

Following that, she turned to retail merchandising, working for a number of years at the Dallas Gift Mart and at the Dallas World Trade Center, where she managed two showrooms, including an art showroom. After moving to Tubac she also helped market the town by working on the advertising committee at the Tubac Chamber of Commerce.

Her expertise on Arizona history and Hal Empie’s art also led to speaking engagements at the Tucson Museum of Art, the National Parks Association in Tucson, the OLLIE program at the University of Arizona, Tubac Center of the Arts, the Gila Valley Arts Council, The First Families of Arizona in Phoenix, and many more. At present, Groves has several talks scheduled including an upcoming one at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon.

The Great Flood

The Gila River had flooded Duncan many times. But several years ago it flooded again and destroyed much of the family’s collection of Empie’s postcards along with some of his original cartoon drawings.

This tragedy kickstarted the work on Way Out West. Groves decided then and there that she would find as many as possible of the original drawings for Empie’s Kartoon Kards and do something about permanently preserving them.

Locating her father’s cartoon art entailed an extensive search of museums, collectors and postcard clubs, as no one person or entity owned the entire collection.  Groves says she also “searched through printers blocks, scrapbooks, hundreds of publications, the internet and more.”

Groves recovered 264 of her father’s postcard images. All of these are included in both the hardcover and soft-bound editions of the book.

The task of organizing the postcards was daunting. But then there were the photographs, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, letters and so much more that added another dimension to Empie’s story. The challenge was to determine what to leave in and what to edit out.

Before the Writing Began

Organizing the work chronologically helped to some extent, but because of the scope of Empie’s work, Groves also needed to separate the art into specific categories.

Empie had created a whole body of cartoons during World War II that focused on the military and America’s efforts to win the war. There was also a large number of drawings and cards that hilariously captured the awkwardness people feel when they’re stuck in a waiting room at the doctor’s office. These eventually found their way into a chapter called Medical Mayo, which contains some of Groves’ “favorite characters.” 

There were basketball cartoons and pharmacy cartoons and ones that put Empie’s cartoon characters in our national parks. More sorting and organizing led to further chapters titled Arizona’s Own, and Just Sayin’ Howdy and an entire section titled Scrapbook Finds. Each drawing is its own entertainment as well as a window into an era where, in Empie’s own words, there was “still time … to toss the breeze with the neighbor or traveler and to taste the full life.”

Groves takes time to explain the multistep process involved in producing an Empie postcard. It began with the artist’s original pen-and-ink drawing done on a large sheet of paper, sometimes measuring 12” x 19.”  The drawing would then be transferred – using an acid process from a photographic negative – to a print block or letterpress cut, printing die or plate. The print block was then used to produce the final product, the 3 ½” x 5 ½” postcard. The amount of detail retained in the process is remarkable.

Family Ties

Groves gives credit to her brother, Joel, for helping her make sense of some of the materials she had collected. He was able to fill in certain gaps in the family’s story.

During their conversations, and in moments of visualizing her childhood, Groves says she came to realize what an amazing childhood she had. Bits and pieces from the past jumped out at her.

“I grew up in a valley filled with people whose families had been there forever. Duncan was a local hub and while it didn’t rely on tourists for its livelihood, we did have lots of tourists stop by because we were on the highway (US 70). It was small town USA. The telephone operator still used a plug-in manual switchboard. We had a 10-cent movie, and a 5-cent Coke. There was the local drugstore (my Dad’s) and a gas station. There was no TV, and the radio reception was so bad my Dad and I would have to drive to the top of Graveyard Hill and fiddle with the dial to get the baseball score. We made our own fun and our friends were lifelong. I live in Tubac now, but I have to say that Duncan still means home.”

Groves also recalls that the thread of her parents’ 73-year marriage was laughter and seeing the bright side of things. Both her father and mother had a great sense of humor. They also had a certain sense of mischief. In fact, most of the local people in Duncan enjoyed playing jokes on one another.

“Everybody was always in on it,” Groves says recalling one instance involving a Greyhound bus driver. “The bus station was right across the street from Dad’s drugstore. Whenever the bus pulled into town, the driver came into the store and bought a 7-Up, but he never brought the bottle back. So, one time, Dad took a 7-Up lid and placed it atop a laxative bottle he had on hand. Everyone had a good laugh when the bus driver left the store with his new bottle of 7-Up. A short while later, someone came into the store and said they’d seen the Greyhound bus pulled off the road between Duncan and Safford and wondered what might be up.”

What Makes an Empie Kartoon Kard Unique?

There’s a great deal of pleasure in reading Way Out West for purely nostalgic reasons. But what truly stands out in each of the postcards is Empie’s ability to look inside each of us, to make us see that humor may be the very best approach to tackling life’s predicaments and challenges. This alone can be an antidote for stress – as well as a happy alternative to taking oneself too seriously.

Way Out West also connects the artist and the people of Duncan with the outside world. Empie provided memorable insight into the people and the towns, the trials and tribulations and accomplishments and small victories of those places.  “Everyone knew everyone, and people took great pride in caring for one another,” Groves notes.

That Empie’s cartoon art remains popular today and is sought after by collectors is also a testament to his ability to connect to others, to capture something about the people and places of the Southwest that resonates with people everywhere.

To ensure that Empie’s cartoons would be preserved beyond her own work in producing Way Out West, Groves and her brother, Joel, recently donated the surviving cartoon drawings and printers blocks to the world’s largest cartoon museum in the world – the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Although she had planned to do this for a long time, and says the work is now “in a better place,” the donation also represented a loss. “There was a sense of finality to it,” she says.

Some original pen and ink drawings of the cartoons can also be found in the permanent collections at the Special Collection Research Center at Syracuse, University Library, New York. A selection of Empie’s actual vintage Kartoon Kards postcards are also archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In summing up what she hopes for her book, Groves says: “I want this book to be enjoyable to read, to educate and to document the humor of the times. What I also hope is that it plays a role in recording the life and times of Arizona and the country, through the eyes of my Dad, the guy with the smile from Way Out West.”

Copies of Way Out West are available at the Hal Empie Gallery in Tubac and may be ordered through its website at www.halempiestudio-gallery.com.

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Nancy Fitzpatrick is an award-winning journalist who formed her earliest impression of the Southwest thanks to one of Empie’s most famous Kartoon Kards published in a national magazine, most probably Life. She’d never seen such a horse! Swaybacked and exhausted, all alone in the desert. The caption read: “Hello. Had a hard trip. I’m in no shape to talk.” Two years ago, during a visit to The Artist’s Daughter, she spotted the same horse in the store’s postcard rack. It was like meeting an old friend after a long, long time. The writer now lives in Tubac.

WWII Empie Kartoon Kard