Frank Schoonover’s seminal artistic talent was nurtured during childhood summers spent at his grandmother’s home in the rural town of Bushkill, near the Delaware River in Pike County, Pennsylvania. His relentless drawing of bridges and streams there matured into imitations of the illustrations of Howard Pyle, America’s foremost illustrator at the end of the 19th century. Schoonover’s self-taught technique would ultimately attract Pyle’s mentorship. He formed a lifelong friendship with both Pyle and fellow student N.C. Wyeth.
Schoonover’s entry into the profession of illustration fortuitously occurred at the apex of what is considered its “Golden Age.” Technological advances in printing spurred greater use of pictures to enhance book and magazine publications. More and more readers became drawn to illustrated literature’s heightened realism.
Frank Schoonover adhered to Howard Pyle’s suggestion that an artist “live what he paints,” and in his early 20’s embarked upon travel that established his reputation for dramatic authenticity. One of his earliest trips was to sketch scenes of “breaker boys” working in the anthracite coal mines in Scranton, Pennsylvania, (below, right) to accompany an article in McClure’s—five years before Lewis Hine began his famous photojournalism of child labor for the National Child Labor Committee.
Published in 1903, “Children of the Coal Shadow” chronicles the misery that tens of thousands of children endured to fuel America’s industrial revolution. Schoonover drew many of the illustrations while observing the boys in actual working conditions. In 1910, he visited Scranton again for a Harper’s article about young girls working in the silk mills (next page, right) that he would both write and illustrate.
Four years later, Schoonover bought his own studio in Bushkill, a place that since his youth unfailingly brought him peace and artistic inspiration. He would produce well over two hundred paintings of the Delaware River (next page, left). Although these still life compositions belie his signature historical detail of cowboys, Native Americans and Canadian fur trappers in action, they maintain the vitality and individuality with which he imbued his outdoor scenes.
In the early 1960’s those qualities would unintentionally visualize passionate argument against construction by the federal government of a massive dam below Bushkill that would have flooded 37 miles of majestic river valley and destroyed fisheries, agricultural land, and historic sites.
A detailed presentation of archival materials and interviews with family members and diverse experts provides context for Frank Schoonover’s art. Contextual sequences include the social history of the breaker boys and silk mill girls, the cultural history of the Delaware River in the Pocono Mountains and the controversial federal dam project at Tocks Island, Schoonover’s career and his place in American art history, the art and craft of illustration, and the significance of illustration in American culture in the first decades of the 20th century.
Schoonover’s favorite river scenes are recomposed in original cinematography, accompanied by evocative audio recordings of Schoonover and photographs he took that are themselves pioneering efforts in documentary photography.
Art presented in the production also includes rarely represented illustrations of fantasy that Schoonover produced for more than 150 classic books and hundreds of the great illustrated magazines of the day—Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe, Ivanhoe and King Arthur, tales of Treasure Island and the Arabian Nights.
To cinematically render the frontier world that formed the artistic foundation upon which Schoonover pursued his later work, b-roll was shot at the Buffalo Bill Days Festival in Sheridan, Wyoming, and at the Jacques Cartier National Park in Quebec Province. This authentic imagery provides viewers with an entertaining perspective of the action subjects Frank Schoonover loved first—dogsleds and
horses, snowshoes and buckskins, holsters and knives, ice and prairie grass.
The soundtrack resonates with the uniquely American orchestral underscore of Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, created by Copeland to convey bucolic life in Pennsylvania. Transition sequences employ cinematic underscore to accompany long lens b-roll of a studio artist painting and sketching. These sequences open up the film by visualizing the artist in motion and art in process—eyes fixed on pencil and brush meeting canvas and paper.
Just two generations ago, hundreds of thousands of northeastern Pennsylvanians went dutifully into the earth every day to earn a living. Just as many labored the land aboveground. When not in the mines or on the farms, these people were hunting, fishing and communing in region’s expansive and undeveloped mountains and forests. For them, the anthracite mines and the Pocono Mountains represented their shadow and their sunlight, their misery and their magnificence.
Frank Schoonover: The Authentic Artist uniquely honors this regional history through the profound human expression of art. In doing so, WVIA’s original documentary production also reveals an important, but under appreciated, artist’s love for northeastern Pennsylvania, his passion for authenticity and his rapture with life itself.