December 22, 2011

Almost forgotten 1980s original Kaiser Permanente holiday posters rediscovered

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Artist Jonathon Nix took real life as his inspiration. This 1984 poster depicts Nix's wife and children (and friends) following the birth of his son. Click on image for larger view.

Thanks to Sue Odneal, a Kaiser Permanente information security employee, I recently was turned on to a series of holiday posters from the 1980s that are amazing gems from KP’s past. Sue, who has worked for KP for 36 years in Vallejo, Oakland and Walnut Creek, found three of the posters among her things and wanted to donate them to the Heritage archives.

I was thrilled to hear from Sue, and I emailed her right back and said: “Please send them!” Once I saw three of the full-size posters,

published from 1982 to 1988 in the KP Reporter, I wanted to find the rest of the six-poster series.

Looking through our archived KP Reporters, Heritage writer Laura Thomas and I found the rest of the six and were completely charmed. Next, knowing that Molly (Prescott) Porter, director of KP International today, was the employee publication’s editor in the 1980s, I contacted her to jog her memory.

“It’s so funny to be reminded of these things,” Molly wrote. “Yes, I remember; and I hired Jonathon Nix, a talented illustrator. I guess we (Molly and Gretchen Gundrum) made a decision to publish and insert these into the internal magazine as a holiday present to (30,000) Northern California employees and physicians – perhaps to put up in their cubes or take home.”

Sue Odneal was one of those employees: “We really enjoyed having these as part of our office holiday decorations,” she recalled.

Poster artist reminisces about holiday project

Artist Jonathon Nix was not hard to find. I got his email address from his Web site and jogged his memory too. “Yes Virginia, there really is an illustrator,” he wrote back. “Um, sorry about that. Couldn’t resist.” (Apropos since my email name is Virginia.) He continued: “Yes, I am the illustrator of those posters . . . I’m tickled to hear that you’re thinking of writing about

them. . . To be honest, I don’t remember every one of them, so it will be fun to see them when you send them.”

My colleague Lincoln Cushing scanned the posters and we sent the PDFs to Jonathon. A few days later I had the chance to talk to the artist, who now lives on the East Coast. “I was fairly surprised to see there were six of these,” Jonathon told me. “Before you

got in touch I would have said that I did, maybe three. It was really fun to see these images again and be reminded of the project. . . .Molly used a very light hand in directing these,” Jonathon recalled. The artwork was meant to feature children and each poster to promote one very simple idea.

As it happened, the years during which Jonathon designed the KP holiday posters made up a crucial period of his life. Living in San Francisco with every intention of moving back to his hometown of Tucson, Jonathon was sidetracked when he met and married his wife, Andrea, in the late 1970s. The couple had their first child, Olivia, while living in the Bay Area.

Dolls and teddy bears need to exercise too. Click on image for larger view.

Illustrator finds inspiration in real life

Looking at the rediscovered posters, Jonathon felt the memories of his young family flowing back. “What comes back the strongest is that the little Japanese doll character, which appears in all of them, was modeled on my daughter Olivia who is now 31 and is a mom,” Jonathon told me. “She was definitely that character although we never put up her hair like that, thank goodness. I always considered her a pivotal character in all of the posters.”

Jonathon made illustrations for the Kaiser Permanente publication for several years before deciding in 1983 to move to western Massachusetts. The poster created immediately after the move reflects the inspiration Jonathon felt from Norman Rockwell who had lived and worked in the Berkshires where the Nix family settled. “We actually knew someone who had been a model for Rockwell when she was a kid,” he said.

That poster shows a hospital scene where a red-headed girl with long braids, in a wheelchair and her leg in a cast, leads a parade of toys down the corridor. A startled nurse resembling a Rockwell character looks on in horror. “(From the nurse’s point of view, things like that) “are not supposed to happen in a hospital and she’s expressing that,” Jonathon said with a laugh.

Norman Rockwell's work influenced artist Jonathon Nix in his creation of this comical hospital scene. Click on image for larger view.

The red-haired girl, inspired by Jonathon’s niece Sarah, creates a jovial holiday atmosphere in an often cheerless place – a hospital ward. “We were thinking about children’s wards and creating something that would reach out to families who had children hospitalized at that time of year, which is always a very poignant thing,” he said.

In 1984, Jonathon got his inspiration for the holiday poster from the birth of his son, Edward. The artwork shows Andrea, his wife, his newborn son nestled in her arms and Olivia sitting at her mother’s side on the hospital bed. Peering over the bedrail are Olivia’s teddy bear, another recurring character in the series, and an amiable Pinocchio.

At the foot of the bed is Pierrette, the female Pierrot character that originated in Commedia dell’arte or Italian Comedy. Dressed in flowing diamond-patterned trousers and a layered harlequin collar, Pierrette also appears in many of the posters. Young Olivia had a Pierrette doll among her toys, and Jonathon found the chic yet sweet and cute character added a little sophistication to his creations.

This 1982 poster suffered at the hands of someone who punched holes in it for filing. Click on image for larger view.

Healthy lifestyle themes illustrated

In posters presented to KP employees during the holidays from 1985 to 1988, healthy lifestyle messages were integrated into Jonathon’s whimsical scenes. In 1985, it was all about exercise; in 1986 and 1987, the message was automobile safety; and in 1988, it was about healthy eating.

Jonathon says the 1986 poster with the car on the checkerboard road was influenced somewhat by a 1951 Plymouth that he drove in Massachusetts at the time. The obvious yellow seatbelts everyone was wearing and the “healthy and safe” message illustrate Henry Kaiser’s early interest in the 1950s in highway safety.

“It was such a happy collaboration with Molly (Prescott Porter). I really enjoyed working with her, and I think her boss (Gretchen Gundrum, director of communications) was also influential in providing direction on these.”

Jonathon said the posters were meant to represent KP’s diversity and to avoid references to any particular faith. However, reflecting on the imagery of the 1980s posters, he sees how some of the symbols, such as Santa Claus driving a car and the wreaths and pieces of holly sprinkled throughout, would not be considered strictly secular in today’s world.

Eating healthy is not a new idea, as shown in this 1988 KP holiday poster. Click image for larger view.

Although Jonathon didn’t remember all the posters, he didn’t forget his first. “The watercolor artwork for the earliest one, with the Peace on Earth theme, was framed and hung in Olivia’s room the whole time she was growing up. That room is a guest room now, and the illustration's still in there,” Jonathon reported.

So what has Jonathon been up to for the past 30 years? He has had his own graphic design business in Massachusetts and continues to paint and sculpt on the side. He’s won many awards and participated in many exhibitions. Currently, Jonathon designs full time for the Met Life insurance company in Boston. You can learn more about Jonathon Nix on his Web site: