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Spinning the Dogs

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Spinoff pieces from any book are good publicity. By publication time, the research and writing are complete, so new uses for the material are welcome. Perhaps a magazine article derived from the book will bring a bit of coverage for that “forthcoming title,” or an excerpt published after it’s out will celebrate the “newly published book.” Either way, such spinoffs can help sales.

For one of our books, the major spinoff was unplanned and totally unexpected. We had researched and photographed material for Art on the Road: Painted Vehicles of the Americas (1988) in Haiti, Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia. We had met artists and taken pictures of their work on buses, oxcarts, and trucks. Once the book was in print, we sold articles to the UNESCO Courier (and were able to see our words in Urdu, Esperanto, and other UN languages) and Natural History, and photographs to Reader’s Digest. Reviews were positive, but one photograph led us on a trail all its own.

About a Famous Anonymous Artist

The story began when a friend who was looking through the book came to a back-of-a-truck photograph we’d taken near Medellìn, Colombia, and said, “Oh, the Coolidge dogs.” That meant nothing to me until he explained that the painting on the truck was based on calendars from Brown & Bigelow, a St. Paul, Minnesota, company that had published thousands of calendars using paintings of dogs playing poker by an artist named Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. That seemed like an interesting subject to research, so I began to see what I could find out about the artist.

Coolidge, it turned out, had done 16 paintings for the calendar company. The Coolidge dogs were large–Great Danes, collies, Weimaraners, and the like. His best-known work showed six dogs around a card table. Four large dogs sit looking at their cards, while one small bulldog passes an Ace of Clubs to a neighboring bulldog. The painting’s title is “A Friend in Need.” I wrote a brief piece about the Brown & Bigelow paintings and what I had learned about the artist.

The article appeared in Antiques & Collecting. Soon after that, I came across a Coolidge painting of dogs and poker chips that had been used on a brewery tip tray. Another article went off to a magazine. By then I realized that, although many people recognized the dogs and their favorite sport, few knew the artist. I began to think of Coolidge as America’s most famous anonymous artist.

The last piece I did was a reflection on the Coolidge paintings as a source for parodies and an inspiration for commentary. Other animals at gaming tables appeared in paintings apparently inspired by Coolidge’s dogs. Coolidge’s own paintings were shown in television sitcoms, movies, and commercials. His “Friend in Need” painting had been used on clothing and ties. Paintings by Coolidge were appearing at auction, each time realizing a higher sale price. After that article, I put my Coolidge pen down.

The Media Move In

Others, however, weren’t finished. Dan Barry, a New York Times reporter, called me to comment for an article he was writing on Coolidge, as did a writer for an Ohio paper. Jake Austin, a Chicago writer, was assembling an anthology of poker stories and asked if he could use the Antiques & Collecting article. The Chicago Review Press published his book, A Friendly Game of Poker, in October. Coolidge art appears in the book and on the cover. And, because of Jake’s book, Jim McManus, author of Positively Fifth Street: Murders, Cheetahs, and the World Series of Poker (2003), asked me to be part of a panel on poker during the recent Chicago Humanities Festival.

What a spin the Coolidge dogs gave me! If it hadn’t been for the Colombian truck artist and my friend Hank, a former Brown & Bigelow employee, I would probably never have explored and mined the rich context of a picture in our book, and for sure nobody would ever have thought to tap me as an expert on poker!

Moira Harris’ most recent book is Fire & Ice: A History of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, published in October 2003.

 

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