by Irwin Chusid

Vintage music buffs and eBay trawlers have long been bedazzled by bizarre, cartoonish record sleeves tagged with the signature "Flora." In the 1940s and '50s, James (Jim) Flora designed dozens of diabolic cover illustrations, many for Columbia and RCA Victor jazz artists. His world pulsed with angular hepcats bearing funnel-tapered noses and shark-fin chins, who fingered cockeyed pianos and honked lollipop-hued horns. In the background, geometric doo-dads floated willy-nilly like a kindergarten toy room gone anti-gravitational. Jim Flora wreaked havoc with the laws of physics, conjuring up flying musicians, levitating instruments, and wobbly dimensional perspectives. As he reflected in a 1998 interview, "I got away with murder, didn't I?"

Jim Flora jazzed up the world of commercial art in countless ways: magazine covers and interior illustrations; newspaper graphics; sales lit; ads; 17 children's books; and a catalog of unclassifiable artifacts. Jim Flora had fun making a living, and that sense of fun sizzles in his creations.

While Jim Flora was prolific in his commercial work, he created art privately in equal measure -- sometimes with more fiendish pleasure. His style evokes childhood nostalgia and dereliction of adult responsibility. There are clowns and kitty cats, grinning faces and beaming suns. But Jim Flora did not restrain his darker impulses. His early montages are crammed with bullets and knives and fang-baring snakes. Muggers run amok, demons frolic with rouged harlots, and Jim Flora's characters suffer -- that is, are afflicted by the artist with -- severe disfigurement. The banal and the violent often coexist within inches of each other on the canvas.

Jim Flora continued painting, illustrating, and making woodcuts and prints until his death in July 1998. The work from his later decades displays a fascination with marine life -- especially boats, steamships, and harbors. A secondary artistic theme was his passion for Mexico (where he and his family lived in 1950 and '51), including that country's architecture, festive traditions, and savory culture.

Here at, the Flora family is offering for sale many of their father's later original works and prints, along with merchandise based on his art. This site serves as a virtual "storefront" for Jim Flora fans. In the not-too-distant future, they plan to offer archival prints of key early works, along with new lines of merchandise.

A related site,, concentrates on Jim Flora's more outrageous early work, including album covers, 1940s-50s Columbia Records graphics, and seminal Little Man Press images created in Cincinnati in the late 1930s and early 1940s. That site serves primarily as a visitor's gallery for Jim Flora's eye-boggling treasures, and as an outlet for news about Jim Flora book collections, reviews and print merchandise.

The album cover art and music-themed works were cataloged in The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora (Fantagraphics, Oct. 2004). The rarely-seen private works, along with a further array of commercial novelties, are featured in The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora (Fantagraphics, Feb. 2007). More anthologies are planned, along with over a half-dozen facsimile reprints of Flora rarities.

Jim Flora once said that all he wanted to do was "create a little piece of excitement." With much of his work, he overshot his goal.

Click here to read commentary from fellow artists.
Irwin ChusidIrwin Chusid is the author/editor of The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora and (with Barbara Economon) The Curiously Sinister Art of Jim Flora. He also authored Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, and has been a WFMU radio host since 1975. Chusid has produced landmark reissues of the music Raymond Scott, Esquivel, The Shaggs, and the Langley Schools Music Project.