Vernon Grant: Early years
Vernon Grant was the son of a blacksmith with a pioneering spirit. The father had taken his family to South Dakota in 1908 to stake his claim in this newly-opened territory.
It was a hard life, hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. Everything they wanted, they had to make themselves, starting with the sod house which Vernon and his brother grew up in. There were few luxuries, and Vernon soon learned to make his own toys from the clay by the river banks. The little figures he molded, dressed as he was, in leftovers from charity boxes, were the forerunners of the colorful, winsome gnomes that later made his fortune.
Vernon’s parents encouraged his early artistic efforts, but the person who made the greatest impact on his life was his teacher. Adventurous and high-spirited, she had been educated at the Art Institute of Chicago and studied art in France and Italy before making her way out West. She gave Vernon a solid grounding in art and design, and supported his belief that he could truly become a famous artist.
The family moved to southern California when Vernon was a teenager. He found that he was way behind in most subjects, and felt out of place in this strange, new environment. His outgoing personality and artistic talent soon gained him the respect of his fellow students, though. He could often be found surrounded by a group of friends, enchanting them with his stories which he illustrated as he talked.
After graduating from high school, Vernon spent two years at the University of Southern California. There were no art courses offered, so he studied business law and public speaking – two subjects he knew would be useful to him, whatever the future held. To help pay for his education, Vernon developed his story-telling sessions into what he called “chalk talks”, and became a popular act on the vaudeville circuit.
A Flair for Fantasy
When Vernon was 21, he fulfilled the dream his teacher in South Dakota had for him, and enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute. Facing competition for the first time came as a great shock. In high school and college he had been considered a great artist, but now he was just another student.
Vernon had always wanted to paint portraits, but he soon realized that it was his doodles – mainly gnomes and fanciful insects – that gained attention and made him stand out. He discovered that his gift was a flair for fantasy and make-believe, and using this gift to the fullest, he graduated with honors.
He then spent five years in Los Angeles as an art instructor, teaching many people who later went on to work for Walt Disney. He also picked up a few commercial jobs, but he knew that if he was to achieve fame and fortune he had to go to New York. In 1932 he left Los Angeles with only $11 in his pocket, plus great determination and a willingness to work hard.
His meager funds had shrunk to just 25 cents when he had his first stroke of luck – a commission to design playing cards illustrated with his gnomes. Commissions for magazine covers, including Judge (which also gave Dr. Suess and James Thurber their first big breaks), Ladies Home Journal, Colliers, and most of the major publications of the time, soon followed.
Vernon was also doing a considerable amount of work in advertising for major companies such as General Electric, Hershey’s Chocolate and Everready. His best-known creations are the Snap!® Crackle!® Pop!® characters which can still be found on every box of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.
Coming Home to South Carolina
In 1936 Vernon met and married Lib Fewell, a native of Rock Hill, South Carolina who was also working in New York. They had two children, a son and a daughter.
After World War II, which he spent with the USO, entertaining troops with his fast-paced chalk talks, the Grants moved to South Carolina. Although he was still working for clients in New York, and writing and illustrating children’s books, he devoted much of his time to establishing a farm outside Rock Hill. Vernon also became active in farming organizations, the Rock Hill Housing Authority, Urban Renewal programs, and the Chamber of Commerce. He was an important force behind the establishment of the “Come See Me” festival, and created Glen the Frog which has been the festival’s mascot since 1964.
Grant died in 1990, at the age of 88 – satisfied that he had seen his childhood dream of “Drawing for kids, millions of kids” come true.