Alex Schomburg’s Otherworldly Worlds

By Laurie Rosenthal
Staff Writer

When gallerist Susan Schomburg was a little girl in Hillsboro, Oregon, it was always a treat when her grandparents babysat.

Alejandro Schomburg y Rosa, better known as Alex Schomburg, her famous artist grandfather, would encourage Susan and her three siblings to draw.

“He would bring a big piece of butcher paper and just tape it on the family room wall. All four of us would kind of line up, and he would ask each of us what we wanted in our section. We would just spend the rest of the afternoon painting and coloring in the little outlines that he’d drawn,” the Highlands resident said.

Susan Schomburg in her gallery at Bergamot Station.

So, it came somewhat as a shock to Susan when she discovered that not all grandparents did art projects while babysitting.

Now, many decades later, her grandfather’s work is currently on view at Schomburg Gallery in Bergamot Station. The exhibit is part of the Getty Museum’s “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, Latin American & Latino Art in L.A.”

Susan submitted an application and was accepted along with dozens of other institutions (galleries, museums, etc.) throughout Southern California that were chosen to be part of the event.

Alex Schomburg is best known for his work in comics and science fiction, and he basically created the landscape of science fiction art. With 600 magazine covers to his credit, plus book covers and more, “He was one of the most prolific artists of the Golden Age of Comics,” Susan said.

Spaceship Through the Film.
Courtesy of Susan Schomburg

“And he was moonlighting.”

Isaac Asimov and Hugo Gernsback (considered the “father of science fiction”) repeatedly used Schomburg’s images on the covers of their magazines.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1905 and orphaned at age seven, Schomburg went to New York at age 12 to live with several of his older brothers. Eventually, all the brothers would join forces at their own art studio.

While in school, he drew a picture of a flower for a girl he liked. She loved it, and at that moment an artist was born. Schomburg never had any formal training, yet worked steadily for his entire adult life.

Captain America.
Courtesy of Susan Schomburg

“He supported his family as an artist for six decades,” Susan said.

Early on, he even painted a large Sanka Coffee display in Grand Central Station along with his artist brother, August.

The current exhibit spans Schomburg’s entire working life, and includes early jobs from the 1920s as well as what’s believed to be his last picture, Captain America complete with swastika flags, drawn when he was 85. He first drew Captain America many decades earlier, along with other Marvel heroes such as the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Miss Fury.

The two dozen-plus pieces in the show are all on loan from the family, and none are for sale.

Many of Schomburg’s creatures look like the prototypical science fiction aliens that so many people think of when they consider lifeforms from other planets.

Ben-Hur.
Courtesy of Susan Schomburg

“My grandpa slept with little notepads, and often these ideas came from his nightmares and dreams,” Susan said. Psychiatrists in the 1950s blamed comic books for the “social deviance of young boys,” which “basically put the kibosh on comic book publishing in general,” Susan said.

Marvel legend Stan Lee is quoted on an exhibition flyer: “Alex Schomburg was to comic books what Norman Rockwell was to The Saturday Evening Post . . . When it came to illustrating covers, there was simply no one else in Alex’s league.” High praise, indeed.

Fans of her grandfather have contacted Susan, and relayed how much his work has meant to them. She even got a back-lot tour of Universal Studios from an executive who loved Schomburg’s art from the Winston Science Fiction series of books for youngsters.

Schomburg spent over a decade at National Screen Services in New York, where he worked in film publicity, including creating movie trailers. He would also work for Timely Comics, which eventually became Marvel Comics.

Mummy. Courtesy of Susan Schomburg

“Right around World War II, his job with National Screen Services ended because what’s used for making film was needed for the war. The whole art department was laid off, and they were all given severance packages and that’s when he went on his own, really,” Susan said.

Superman creator Jerry Siegel worked with Schomburg on an eight-issue comic book in 1950 called “Jon Juan.” The exhibit features a couple of the original boards, complete with corrections and handwritten directions in the margins.

After moving out to Connecticut, Schomburg soon tired of commuting into Manhattan. Eventually, a train engineer, who sold eggs to the Schomburg family on the side, volunteered to “take grandpa’s artwork and deliver it to the publishers.”

In the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick hired Schomburg to help bring to life what would become the now classic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Nightmare with Black Widow,” known to the Schomburg family as “People Soup.” Courtesy of Susan Schomburg

“He spent a month in New York City meeting with Kubrick every morning, hashing out ideas,” Susan said. “He was the first artist that Kubrick hired.”

Schomburg and his wife, Helen, followed their son, Richard (Susan’s father) to the West Coast when he was in graduate school, and settled in the Portland area. The couple was married for 56 years, until Helen’s death in 1985. Schomburg died at age 92 in 1998.

Susan noted that his imagination was supplemented with the ability to pore through technical journals. When asked to draw something about the Columbia Space Shuttle before it was completed, he spent time studying at the Central Library in Portland, as there were no images readily available.

“He really loved technical things and was really meticulous that way,” Susan said. His carefully drawn details are evident in his work, which was usually created with his favorite materials: airbrushing, gouache, tempera and oil.

Another project Susan and her siblings are working on is deciding what to do with their grandfather’s papers. Their grandmother saved everything, including electric bills and old checks.

“Columbia University has expressed interest,” Susan said.

In addition to managing her gallery, Susan has been an international flight attendant with Delta Airlines for 32 years. With the uncertainty of Bergamot Station’s future, making long-term plans about her gallery is difficult. She may take some time off and focus more on Delta’s upcoming nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Paris and Amsterdam.

For more information, go to schomburggallery.com.

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