Sunday, March 4, 2012

Artist Profile: Peter Aschwanden

Peter Aschwanden: Illustrator and Pioneer of the D.I.Y. Movement
By Rich Dana and Deborah Reade

This article originally appeared in OBSOLETE! #2

Recently, I found myself perusing the book tables at a sustainable living fair and came across a copy of The Septic System Owners Manual. Granted, it's not a title that would attract most readers, but if you live on a farm with an aging septic system as we do, it might. There was something about the cover of this book, with it's playful turn-of-the-century fonts and the tightly drawn pen and ink cartoon that made me pick it up and start leafing through the amazing illustrations.

I remembered immediately where I had seen this drawing style before. In the early 80's, I was living above George Herget's bookshop on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  One of my roommates, George Morrissey, had undertaken a complete rebuild of his VW Rabbit (to the dismay of the neighbors and landlord) on the sidewalk outside, as well as on the living room floor and kitchen table. Ever-present was a copy of How toKeep Your Volkswagen Rabbit Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for theCompleat Idiot. The illustrations in the Septic System book were in the same meticulous yet quirky, humorous style.

PeterAschwanden’s work was ingrained in my memory - the "compleat idiot" series of VW repair books were omnipresent among DIY'ers of the 70's and 80's, and were the predecessors to an entire genre of informal "how-to" books. His illustrations adorned t-shirts and posters of VW nuts across the world.

With the launch of OBSOLETE! Magazine earlier this year, I decided to look into the work of this guy whose skill with a pen rivaled that of other better-known 60's illustrators like R. Crumb and Spain Rodriguez. I wanted to meet this guy. Unfortunately, Peter had passed away in 2005. I’m indebted to Deborah Reade and Francisco Aschwanden, who very generously helped me put together this profile of Peter, his life, and his work.

Peter Aschwanden was born in Los Angeles in 1942. He was drawing and painting from a very young age and in high school he illustrated the yearbooks and drew cartoons for the school newspaper. At Pasadena City College, he studied under Leonard Edmondson, an influential California artist and teacher. During this time he also worked on floats for the Rose Parade. It was a period of change in America, with car culture on the rise and social upheaval on the horizon.

Aschwanden spent the period after Pasadena City College hitchhiking around the country, living first with friends in New Mexico, then in a loft on Fulton Landing in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.  His travels then took him to the center of 60's counterculture, San Francisco, where he painted faux finishes in houses that were being renovated and studied for a time at the San Francisco Art institute.

Peter returned to New Mexico in the late '60s where he eventually bought land and built a house. While living in Santa Fe he worked construction, as a barista at the Three Cities of Spain coffee house, and as a sign painter. It was because of Peter's carved and painted signs that John Muir chose Aschwanden to do the illustrations for the now legendary VW books and many other Muir publications.

JohnMuir was a quintessential American icon of the 1960s. Muir, a descendent of the naturalist with whom he shares the name, had "dropped out" of his life as a missile engineer for Lockheed Aerospace to become an auto mechanic in New Mexico. According to Phil Patton's book Bug: The strange mutations of the world's most famous automobile, "...His wedding was attended by 500 people, including Wavy Gravy and the entire Hog Farm Commune." He became legendary for his hippie philosophy and his view of the VW as a metaphor for life.

Muir decided to write a how-to book on fixing VW's that focused on "listening" and "feeling" - concepts strangely common to both gearheads and hippies. In 1969, at age 51, Muir self-published the first spiral-bound edition of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot with illustrations by Peter Aschwanden. Most agree that it was the perfect chemistry of Muir's homespun Zen approach and Aschwanden's illustrations that made How to keep you Volkswagen Alive one of the biggest selling, self-published books of all time. Muir publications grew to include not only automotive books on VW Rabbits and vans, Subarus, Hondas and Datsuns, but also books on midwifery, greenhouses and the "Peoples Guide" series of travel books.

Peter spent a lot of time in the mountains of northern New Mexico during the late 60's and early 70's, living "off the grid" while illustrating Muir's publications by the light of a kerosene lantern. The drawings for the Velvet Monkeywrench, Muir's musings on subjects both political and philosophical, were done mostly while Peter was living in Mexico.

Deborah met Peter in 1980 when she arrived in Santa Fe and started working at John Muir Publications as a typesetter and one of three artists working on the Honda book. Deborah remembers, "We would layout the drawings in pencil and Peter would erase them over and over again until we got them right. Then he would refine the pencils and ink over them--changing the drawing again and again until he was satisfied."

According to Deborah, Peter never actually owned a VW bus or bug himself although he drove a Rabbit while illustrating the Rabbit book. Muir includes a story in that book about when Peter fell asleep and rolled the car and walked away without a scratch to show how safe the Rabbit was. Aschwanden was a talented mechanic and would partially or completely disassemble the cars that he was illustrating. He had a 51 Ford Panel Flathead Strait 6 after which he named his company, “Flathead Graphix.” A friend is currently in the process of restoring the truck. Starting in the 80s he drove Subarus, which he told Deborah was "like having a VW with a water jacket".

Peter and Deborah have two children, Francisco and Sophie, who are attending college in Chicago and Portland, Oregon. The whole family works on different aspects of Flathead Graphix where they sell T-shirts and posters with Peter's designs at They also maintain a gallery page on the site and a Facebook page, which highlights different examples of his art.

In our correspondences, Deborah provided me with most of the information incorporated into this piece, but in conclusion, I would like to quote her directly- she sums up Peter's work in a way that as a mere fan I never could. In Deborah's words:

Peter's poster of the "Exploded Beetle"
"Peter absorbed many artistic influences both in formal training and also from his wonderful curiosity about the world. Black & white line art of the 1880s that developed into steel engraving and woodcuts and eventually the cartooning of the 1920s and '30s were the roots of Peter's style. Using that 19th-century style but making it modern was what his illustration style was all about. As the "king" of perspective, he could turn a simple drawing of a carburetor into something that looked like it was flying through space. I think Peter was able to incorporate the 60s feel so easily into the rest of his influences because he WAS that scene–or at least a part of it. All the influences that made that scene were his influences as well–where he lived, the people he knew, the lifestyle he lived. The Southwest influenced him because of the art, the quality of the light, the cultural influences and the landscapes–which he painted a lot. Art was his life and pushing himself to create the perfect line, the perfect perspective and in the most beautiful way was what it was all about. "

Read more about Peter and see more of his work at:

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