Q&A with Art in the Park artist John Handcock

SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland’s Art in the Park show kicks off for the 33rd time in Mill Creek Park Saturday, and John Handcock of Cumberland Center is one of just three artists who’ve been a part of the festivities from the very beginning. At age 88, Handcock says 2012 may be his last showing. Still, the crisp lines and quirky characters developed from a long career in commercial art continue to draw fans to his booth.

Q: How did your interest in art begin?

A: Well, I always liked to draw and paint and everything. I was in the service and when I got through I was on the G.I. Bill – the government was awful good to us – so I signed up at the Pratt Institute down in Brooklyn. That is a great school. All of the people who teach there are practicing artists.

Q: What did you do in World War II?

A: I was at the officer’s school in Rhode Island when they dropped the bomb. So, I was one of the lucky ones, I guess. I just missed everything.

Q: How did you come to Maine?

A: My wife Thelma and I came up to Maine on our honeymoon in 1946. We didn’t have any money. All we had was two bikes. So, we took the train up to Portland and then went up to Raymond and rode around in that area on our bikes and that was our honeymoon.

Q: Did you move to Maine right after that?

A: No, it was about 15 years later. We thought, gee, that would be a great place to live. We had been around – we tried Chicago, we tried Los Angeles – until we said, this big city stuff isn’t for us. We decided we had liked this up here.

Q: What did you do after graduation from Pratt?

A: I worked primarily in the advertising field – newspaper and magazine ads, TV story boards, annual reports of banks and such, all kinds of things like that.

Q: How did you get involved in Art in the Park in South Portland?

A: Oh, I saw the ads for it and said I’d like to try that, so I signed up and I liked it a lot. After that I kept going back. I went to the Portland Sidewalk Art Show and all the shows around the area, up to Norway and as far away as North Conway. I’d do maybe eight or nine shows in the summer. Now, at my age, I’m lucky if I get out to one or two.

Q: What did you like about the South Portland art show?

A: It’s just a nice atmosphere. Of course, it’s a beautiful spot, and they were awful good to us and they continue to be very nice. The girl who’s in charge, Mary Perry, each year when I apply she sends a note back of some kind – “Glad to have you back,” or something like that – so, that’s a very nice, personal touch.

Q: Do you still work regularly?

A: I do, but not so much. My eyes aren’t as good and my hand is a little shaky – that sort of thing. But I’m still involved. I’ll get an idea and I’ll think, gee, maybe I ought to try that. But I’ve got so much I’ve already produced. I’ve got boxes and boxes, originals and prints. I’ve got so much material, I don’t really have to do any more.

Q: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions, anything you’d like to do with your artwork that you haven’t done yet?

A: No, not really. I just like to have the opportunity to get out and show it. Although, I used to send cartoons to the New Yorker quite a bit, but they never took one. That would have been fun. I haven’t sent one in quite a long time. It’s got so you can’t even understand their cartoons now.

Q: When did you retire from advertising work?

A: Oh, it was 20 years ago, at least. After I worked for the agencies I went out on my own for four years. After that I went into teaching. I taught art at the junior and senior high schools in Yarmouth for six years. Then I actually went back into advertising on my own again for six years because I decided I liked doing art better than talking about it. I enjoyed teaching, but I had had enough by that time. After I really retired from business, I started going to all of these art shows more and more.

Q: Did you like being your own boss better than working for an agency?

A: When I worked for myself I certainly did better then when I worked for the agencies. Financially I did better and it was more fun, I thought. Of course, I was busy all the time. I had to do the accounting, the paperwork, everything. I tried to have employees of my own once, but I found that didn’t work for me.

Q: Do you still enjoy the shows?

A: I do, but it’s a lot of work. You’ve got to bring all of your art and your tent and your displays. I got to the point where I just can’t do all of that, except I have some of my kids who help me out so I can still do South Portland.

Q: Why have you continued to do the South Portland art show, when you’ve dropped some many others?

A: Well, they always treated me good and they’re lower in price than some of them. Take the Yarmouth Clam Festival – when I started going there it was $5 to be in the show, and then only if she remembered to come around and collect the money. Now, it’s $150 just for insurance, plus a couple hundred more. So, you’re in debt more than $300 before you even start. If it rains, you’re not going to do very good. But South Portland is reasonable still compared to some of the others.

Q: Do you find any particular topic most popular with art show buyers?

A: Well, in a general way, the Maine scenes are the things that are popular with the people I’m apt to see. They come to one of these shows and they’re looking for Maine things. But then, my black-and-whites, my characters, they go for everybody, it doesn’t make any difference where they’re from.

Q: How long do you think you’ll continue attending Art in the Park in South Portland?

A: I don’t know. This year could be the end of it here. Physically, it’s too hard for me. I’m apt to fall and things like that, so I’ve got to be careful.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to the folks who’ve visited you at the show over the years?

A: Well, I’ve been going there for some many years, if there’s some of the old timers, tell them I’m still around. Tell them to drop by and say hello. I hope to see lots of people, young and old.

Cumberland Center artist John Handcock, 88, with “Cat Castle,” one of hundreds of pieces he’s displayed at South Portland’s Art in the Park show since the event was first staged in 1979. (Staff photo by Duke Harrington)