The passing of Don Ivan Punchatz (1936-2009) is a hard blow, the loss of a fine friend. Beyond his unparalleled talent for science fiction and surreal fantasy illustration, Don will be lovingly remembered as an insightful, enlightened, and compassionate creative talent who mentored and inspired generations of younger artists. Don Punchatz absolutely obliterated the sardonic wise-crack of “Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”
Don grew up in Hillside, New Jersey, and after he graduated from high school he won a scholarship to the famous Cartoonists and Illustrators School in NYC. There, comic strip legend Burne Hogarth took the youthful artist under his wing. When I last saw Don, he reminisced over lunch how much Hogarth’s staunch support and enthusiasm had meant to him. Such warm sentiments, still felt 50-plus years later, must have shaped Don’s own nurturing attitude towards his many students and assistants.
Check the world-wide web or any first-rate reference book on science fiction illustration, and you will quickly recognize the hyper-realistic, magical pieces that Don created. You might even experience a “eureka moment” as you recall the impact they’ve made in popular culture. In his autobiography on askart.com, Don modestly summarized his career, “At first, Punchatz was known primarily as a paperback artist, producing science fiction, fantasy, and horror covers for Ace, Berkley, Dell, Avon, Macmillan, New American Library, and Warner Books among others.
However, as his work became better known, he soon began receiving commissions from many national magazines including Playboy, Penthouse, Esquire, National Lampoon, Time, Omni, Rolling Stone, and Boys’ Life. Many of these commissions were directly related to science fiction and fantasy subject matter.” Among his most celebrated works are his cover paintings for Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation trilogy from Avon Books, the cover illustration for Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology, and the packaging art for the best-selling video game, Doom.
Don’s autobiography continued, “In 1970, he founded SketchPad Studio where a number of young illustrators began their careers. Later, many of them went on to establish their own national reputations. It was also in 1970 that Punchatz began teaching illustration at Texas Christian University and continued to do so for 35 years. He was also a guest instructor for Syracuse University’s Independent Masters Program since the mid-1980s.”
While Don was a frequent guest at our local Dallas comic conventions, I actually met him at the home of comic book artist Pat Boyette in the early 1990s. Before he turned to a career in filmmaking and comics, Boyette had been a San Antonio based TV/Radio broadcaster. Always intensely interested in Boyette’s variegated careers, I was delighted to learn that when Don had been stationed in San Antonio during an army stint in the late 1950s, he had watched Boyette’s newscasts and was a fan. Thirty years later, when he was first introduced to Boyette, Don had remembered him from those newscasts. It’s a small, wonderful world. As visual artists, Punchatz and Boyette had an immense mutual respect for each other. To me, these two kindred creative souls were “cut of the same cloth,” and it was a pleasure to watch them interact.
During Boyette’s slow, sad decline in health, his friends and family were touched by Don Punchatz’s bottomless emotional support for our mutual friend. However it wasn’t just Boyette who was the beneficiary of such deeply felt compassion. Don felt that way about all of his friends, whether new or old. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. After all is said and done, along with his life’s work of awe-inspiring artworks, those who were fortunate enough to know him will never forget the unsinkable spirit and remarkable generosity of Don Ivan Punchatz.
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