Donald Benson Blanding Biography

Donald Benson Blanding was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory on November 7, 1894. His father was a judge, and the family had participated in the Oklahoma land run, which turned empty prairies into bustling cities overnight. The Blandings would later move to Enid, Oklahoma and then Lawton, where at an early age, Donald showed promise as an artist, drawing portraits of the local Indians on leather, including Geronimo and Quanah Parker.

When Donald was a teenager, he saved the life of the little girl across the street - she would grow up to be the movie star Joan Crawford. In his senior year at Lawton High School, Blanding named, illustrated, and edited the school yearbook, his first foray into publishing. In 1910, at the young age of sixteen, Blanding took some art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. He would later return for full-time studies in the fall of 1913, attending for three years. His instructors were Antonin Sterba, Enella Benedict, and Elmer Forsberg, among others. He worked in a variety of odd jobs to fund his studies, including modeling for life drawing classes at the Institute, ushering in theatre and opera, and acting. He also designed a theatrical set for the up-and-coming playwright Ben Hecht.

Near the end of 1916, Blanding made his way to Honolulu, Hawaii, a place that would forever influence his art and introduce him to another medium, writing. His first job was as a cartoonist for the "Honolulu Advertiser", one of two local newspapers. He joined the army in 1917 and in 1918, was promoted to Second Lieutenant, and transferred to Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. After the Armistice, Blanding was honorably discharged, returning to Chicago for more classes at the Art Institute, and designing posters on a freelance basis. He also became the head of the Rockford Art Guild classes, and was an art instructor at Rockford College.

After some study in Paris and London, Blanding returned to Hawaii in 1921 to work for the "Honolulu Star-Bulletin" as an advertising artist. It was while working for this newspaper, that he was volunteered to fill in for an ill copywriter, and required to write a daily verse for a soup powder ad. It was discovered that he had some innate talent for poetry, and by 1923, had collected enough poems to put together a small booklet entitled "Leaves from a Grass-House", which were followed up with "Paradise Loot" in 1925, and "Flowers of the Rainbow" in 1926. The versatile Blanding also directed theatrical productions for the Junior League of Honolulu, and in 1927, founded the holiday tradition of Lei Day, an annual festival of lei-giving, which continues to this day, his ultimate gift to the Hawaiian people.

"Vagabond's House", his first major book, was published in 1928 by Dodd, Mead & Company of New York, which remains his best-known work to date, lavishly illustrated by him with pen & ink brush work and woodcuts of Hawaiian scenery, flowers and fish. "Vagabond's House" would eventually go into more than fifty printings. With the success of this latest book, Blanding set up a studio in New York, and with fellow artist Earl Cohan-Challenger, painted screens of tropical fish, and murals in the homes of the wealthy. He also published "Hula Moons", a semi-autobiographical book of Hawaii. When the great Depression hit in 1929, Blanding spent some time at an artist's colony near Westport, Connecticut, finishing two more books, "Stowaways in Paradise", a story-book for young readers (later made into the movie "Hawaii Calls"), and "Songs of the Seven Senses", a book of poetry, both illustrated by him.

He then became the Vagabond Poet, wandering around the country, living in Hollywood, Los Angeles, Taos, New Mexico, and Carmel, California. In 1940 he married socialite Dorothy Putnam, the Crayola Crayon heiress who was divorced from the publisher George Palmer Putnam, who in turn had married Amelia Earhart. They stayed in Fort Pierce, Florida, but his marriage to Dorothy was not to last long. They separated in 1942 when he joined the army again, and they were officially divorced in 1947. He continued wandering around the country, South America and Asia. He lived in Bend, Oregon for a time and returned to Hawaii often.

Blanding would eventually publish over twenty books of poetry and prose, all illustrated with his unmistakable style, as well as artwork for the books of author friends. He also designed a line of dinnerware for Vernon Kilns of California in the 30's and 40's, as well as greeting cards, and Aloha-shirts for various Hawaiian clothing designers.

Don Blanding died at the age of 62 in his Hollywood studio, on June 9, 1957, thus ending the prolific career of a multi-faceted man.

Source: AskART; Keith Emmons, biographer of the artist.