by Michelle Greysen
Randolf Hearst printed the first known American comic strip in his November 1902 New York Journal, in 1938 the Superman comic book arrived on the scene, and the rest as they say is history.
For Clarence Simonsen, an only farm kid in the small rural farming village of Acme, Alberta in the late 40’s and 50’s, the highlight of his week was Saturday. Following the morning farm chores, armed with allowance in hand he would head six miles into town for his hard earned comic book.
His drawing ability and re-known artist status of today, came from both an obvious natural talent coupled with his self-education in his formidable years as he poured over the pages of his war comics of the day. Doodling on anything and everything, Clarence trudged his way though his young school years dreading the daily forty minute school bus ride and hating even more the farm talk among his peers all the while he sketched in his head day after day rushing in the door to put it all on paper.
When he was 16 he was allowed to purchase his first playboy magazine and he jokes that it changed his life but not in the way most teenage boys could imagine. For Simonsen the September 1960 issue featuring the ‘paint a playmate’ and the art of Vargas was a life altering experience as he learned that these were indeed the very same images of those plastered on the world war two aircraft of his comic book education.
At graduation Simonsen attributes his life-altering decisions and his career that led to his nose art, to his teacher in Acme, Mr. Ralph McCall. Wanting to be a policeman and the devastating realization that he could not join a force until aged 21, it was Mr. McCall that encouraged Clarence and his buddy to ‘see the world’, to join the army and become military police.
Still today, Simonsen attributes his life’s work back to McCall and his gift as a teacher to influence Simonsen’s art and his entire life. As Simonsen today visits school children to share his nose art passion he always thinks of his Mr. McCall and shares with the eager children that it was a teacher who changed his life. Shortly before McCall’s passing the two, teacher and student, were able to meet once again and Simonsen shared with McCall how significant he had been to his successful future. Simonsen says with earnest “McCall touched his life. McCall touched nose art.”
Back in 1965 as a United Nations military policeman, Simonsen found himself turning twenty-one on the island of Cyprus in a world far beyond farm life in rural Alberta. He began to see the power of art and cartooning in the military as he doodled his spare time away often getting asked for his work to hang in lockers or on mess walls.
His art led to him drawing large wall murals in barracks and the mess halls creating life size images such as those of hockey night in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, and Canadian football. These images sparked many a conversation among the men and women from all over the world cut off from everyday life who would often for their entertainment, come to watch this Canadian who could paint.
For this farm boy on the other side of the world life suddenly went beyond tractors and pigs and grew to an appreciation of his talent as an artist and a self-realization that military visual storytelling was a cultural art that had tied weary soldiers to their lives back home and had carried many soldiers through the isolation and horrors of war time.
For Simonsen the reality of the military past and the heartfelt losses of World War Two became very vivid along with the grasping of the psychological affects back in the day when some nights 3000 or more men did not come back to the mess hall for dinner. It was his drive to understand the devastation and personal loss amid the ability of these front-line war-time soldiers to head out the next day on the next bomber knowing it could be them not back at dinner, that led to his inspiring knowledge of how nose art played an important role in the connection to both home and to that very aircraft and the crew that made each day a harsh reality.
Simonsen’s connection to military art was first hand and his young comic-book love of nose art and Varga girls brought it full circle. Back home a year later as a young Toronto Policeman he joined the local legion, started his research on nose art, and launched what was to become a 40-year and counting lifestyle.
Over the years Simonsen has battled his own fight back in Canada as he struggles to earn the recognition for these many lives lost along with the lost art form that brought them a comfort and a purpose in the mayhem. His urgency to record the history seems as strong today as when he started the project realizing these stories and the people who lived to tell them are fast passing.
Now a renowned recreation artist, a world historian on the subject, and an author of two books on nose art, Simonsen shows no sign of slowing down. He has painted over 500 recreated works in tribute all on original skin of salvaged significant bombers. Each piece is heavily researched, many passed on in respect to their significant squadrons or players, and all including his signature silhouette of the bomber and a squadron insignia.
© Michelle Greysen
originally published in Canadian Aviator Magazine Sept/Oct 2005