Bill Heavey is an editor-at-large for Field & Stream. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Men’s Journal, Outside, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
Jack Unruh is one of the greatest illustrators in the country, revered by his peers, magazine art directors, and millions of readers. A smaller group — his many friends and admirers — also know him as a great and gentle soul. I have never met anyone who combined so much raw talent and disciplined skill with such warmth, humility, and love.
Jack began drawing extremely unflattering caricatures of me in 2003 for my monthly back-page column in Field & Stream. My mother was incensed. (It’s true that I rarely wear that much blue eye shadow or put lipstick on my nose. Also, my eyeballs are not yellow and bloodshot. Other than that, he’s got me down pat. With the possible exception of the pantyhose.)
Over the years, we’ve become close friends and have gone on many hunting and fishing trips. We’ve chased pheasant and quail in North Dakota and Texas. We’ve fished for trout in the Wind Rivers of Wyoming and smallmouth bass on the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. He even won over my mother, who baked him a memorable sour cherry pie.
I remember watching Jack take a break from fishing one afternoon in the Winds, sitting down on a rock in his waders, and pulling out his journal to draw and make notes. He didn’t know I was watching. What I saw was a man doing exactly what he was put on earth to do and whose delight and surprise that he got paid to do it never ceased to amaze him. To hunt and fish with Jack was also to know that you were with someone who saw things you didn’t, in ways you didn’t. It was only later that you’d understand how beautiful the boulder you’d been fishing next to was, how it was not a rock at all but a living thing. How many important details you’d missed — a plant, a bird, a bug — were part of what made the rock a live thing. And that Jack had seen them all. Such is the power of art.
Jack Unruh’s journal contains his favorite selections from a lifetime’s worth of hunting and fishing. It’s a book by a great illustrator with a vivid awareness of — and thankfulness for — the gift of being alive. It’s an honor to be included in it. It’s an even greater honor to count Jack as my friend.
Lefty Kreh is perhaps the best known and most respected fly-casting instructor and fly-fishing author in the world.
Jack Unruh is a nationally recognized artist. Just as important, he is an avid fly fisherman and hunter who had the wisdom to keep a journal of his time outdoors.
His journal is full of adventures — with friends and alone, some joyful, some recounting the frustrations that all outdoorsmen know. Its pages are filled with his talented illustrations and interesting notes about his personal journey.
At my own advanced age, I deeply regret not having kept a journal of the fascinating places and friends who shared the outdoors with me. Perhaps Jack’s journal will bring back vivid memories from the reader’s life.
Richard Bartlett, past International Chairman of The Nature Conservancy’s Campaign for a Sustainable Planet and Chairman of The Texas Nature Conservancy wrote in an article, The Weed File, An Artist’s Inspiration.
To understand the art of Jack Unruh, one of America’s leading illustrators is to first understand his weed file, a thick manila folder of photographs and sketches — a lifetime accumulation of noticing. The weed file, the fence post file, the wildflower file, minutia to many are essential visual resources Unruh keeps at hand in his studio. Unruh prefers to work from life whenever possible. His studio is a comfortable habitat reflecting a deep, personal involvement with his world as a sportsman and naturalist. Objects used as life studies — flowers, antlers, leaves, feathers, lures, mounted fish and animals adorn his workplace. An animated visual delight, the studio reveals Unruh’s capacity to observe the intricacies of nature.
Sam Fox School Professor, Washington University in St Louis, wrote in the University Magazine.
Membership in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame has a truly legendary roll call. Norman Rockwell, Al Hirshfeld, Dean Cornwell, Maxfield Parrish, Al Parker, N.C. Wyeth, and Robert Weaver are just a few members of this hallowed fraternity of master pictorial storytellers.
“I love drawing, it’s that simple. I’d enjoy drawing this tree out of my window. It may not be art, but it will be interesting.” His images incarnate this whimsical and unabashed love of drawing. Jack is quick to tell you that his passion for image making runs parallel to his love of the outdoors, and of course, fishing. It takes only a few moments of wandering through his portfolio to notice his affection for drawing nature and its inhabitants. He has taken many exotic location assignments, shadowing reporters through caves in Europe, flying in helicopters over the Valdez oil spill, floating remote rivers in Alaska and even visiting the L.A. Dodgers Fantasy Baseball Camp.
Underneath those spatters of ink and meticulous hand lettered typography are thousands upon thousands of fluttering ink marks. Each one made with a flash of his Gilotte nib (carefully honed with a fishing hook sharpening stone) and the whole herd carrying a calculated visual weight. And then you see how much of the space he isn’t using at all! The frame can barely contain the kinetic hum of mark making (like a Durer engraving hit by a Mack truck) and yet, in the midst of this inky explosion is beautiful white space. In the illustration industry, there is no one who puts more work and poetry into a quarter-page spot than Jack Unruh. There is a particular kind of honor reserved for one who will often spend three days on a small spot for Field and Stream. Perhaps that humble work ethic came from his heartland upbringing.
Director, Office of Public Affairs, California Institute of the Arts wrote in Graphis.
His imaginary work is informed by an ability to see and interpret the natural world, and is characterized by his thorough command of the structural aspects of composition, and masterful rendering technique.
Unruh has an extensive file of his own close-up photographic snapshots of anything he may be able to use in a future drawing — weeds, flowers, grasses and the like. He takes a camera with him whenever he goes out hunting or fishing, two of his lifelong passions away from the studio, both of which took hold in his mid-western childhood. Born in Pretty Prairie, Kansas in 1935, Unruh’s father was of Russian-German heritage and his mother, of Irish-Scottish. The town of 400 (south of Hutchinson and west of Wichita) still stands and Unruh’s 90-year-old mother still lives nearby.
My dad was in the Air Force; he was always building things — motorcycles, bicycles, race cars, and airplanes—one of which killed him,” says Unruh. An Air Force “brat”, he moved repeatedly throughout his early years. By age seven he’d been in four different first grade classes in Kansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida. Two lasting effects he says “are the desire to stay put, and the fact that I’ve got no friends from my childhood days.
He found his first companions on the radio — The Lone Ranger, Captain Marvel, and Sky King are among the many heroes whose action-adventures captured his fertile imagination. Unruh drew what he heard. “Life could be pretty dull in a small mid-western town, and it was a disaster if you ran out of drawing paper on a Sunday when all the stores were closed.” His talent was recognized and encouraged early. Pencil drawings of World War II battle scenes made when he was eight and nine-years-old demonstrate his gifts for visual composition, observation of detail, as well as his need to tell stories through pictures. “I was the one who decorated the classroom blackboards,” he says, “and later, my drawing got me out of a lot of stuff in the Air Force and Army.”
By age 12 his love of the outdoors had sparked interests in botany and biology, and upon graduation from high school he considered a career as a game warden. Thinking his son wouldn’t enjoy the less romantic aspects of that work — like the endless cleaning of cages — Unruh’s father suggested that, “Maybe you could make a living drawing pictures.”
Unruh enrolled at the University of Kansas to study art. On a Christmas trip to St. Louis in his freshman year he toured the Washington University campus where he was struck by an exhibit of work by recent graduate Bernie Fuchs. Unruh transferred to Wash U, where he majored in magazine illustration. Assistant Dean McKay, who taught basic design, “got me interested in structural design, positive and negative space, and shapes,” says Unruh. Illustration instructor, “Bill Fitt taught me how to translate what I saw onto paper.” Both were important influences. “I was one of the four or five better artists in my class, when I graduated in 1958,” he continues, “but I was sure that I couldn’t compete in New York or Los Angeles. I thought Dallas might be the next growth area so with two other guys, I got into a car and headed down there. There was snow and ice on the road when we left St. Louis; when we hit Dallas the daffodils were in bloom, the trees were green - it seemed like paradise.”
His first job was a pro bono assignment for the city, a logo and identity system for the “Help Keep Dallas Clean,” campaign. A bit later, when he received $14 for his first commissioned drawing, Unruh remembers putting his feet up on his desk and exclaiming, “If we can just keep this up, we’ll make a fortune!” Much of his early work consisted of pencil renderings with watercolor washes for aircraft and electronics product advertisements.
Unruh’s work has garnered many awards through the years though he enters only two competitions a year: Communication Arts and the New York Society of Illustrators. In 1998 the Society awarded him its highest honor, the Hamilton King Award for Illustration of The Year.
John Cuneo is an illustrator whose work regularly appears in many national publications including Atlantic Monthly and Esquire Magazine.
For most of us, a commission to illustrate a fly fishing article involves Google-ing the difference between a brown, brook and a rainbow trout, and downloading a whole lot of reference photos of some guy in a stream, wearing waders and a vest and casting a line.
Jack Unruh is that guy in the water. The difference between Jack and most other illustrators is too wide a river to cross here, but suffice it to say that this is a guy, who didn't Google a fish. He caught it.
In a reverse of the typical illustrator life /work paradigm, Jack figured out how to fit some drawing time in between hunting and fishing trips. But also, gloriously, as this journal shows, these passions were inextricably linked and often practiced in tandem. Here is a document, a diary, and a testament to that happy duality. Jack took his love of drawing into the wilderness, and brought the wilderness back to his studio. That abiding love for all things wild was always there in the man and it is here in his art and writing. His ability to document and transfer the natural world to paper in a wholly unique and distinctive way is what made him a great artist. But to many of us sedentary, housebound picture makers, it is the life he crafted to accommodate and combine these two consuming passions that makes him a great man. A man in full, the one who figured it out. This is a guy for whom getting back to the drawing board, more often than not meant pissing on the campfire. This journal may not get you out of the house, but you'll damn sure enjoy the trip.