The search for artist Ken Haag: a rabbit hole adventure

haag trays
souvenir Haag trays
Two souvenir trays with illustrations by Ken Haag.
ken Haag trays
Detail of trays showing Mr. Haag’s signature.

I have a penchant for vintage USA road trip souvenirs. These two 1960s round metal trays caught my eye at the local thrift, two retro lovelies nestled in with the ubiquitous Norman Rockwell and other collectible plates. And lovelies they are: Hawaii and Virginia trays in good condition with enthusiastically colorful art and something else I’d never seen on a travel souvenir, a signature. Ken Haag.

I am familiar with Hawaii and Virginia. But who is Ken Haag? And why did his signature rate inclusion on a travel souvenir? Assuming he must be someone of note, I was pretty sure Google would give me an answer in less than a second. I was wrong.

Google was full of images for things Ken Haag illustrated, mostly small decorative state and wildlife trays, but void of biographical information. This seemed so unlikely. How can a man who turns up an unending number of results for people selling things with his illustrations not have a Wikipedia page? Or any biographical information? You can find anything on the internet. Information about Ken Haag had to be out there…

It was at this point that my to do list got shoved to the side and I, with a quizzically wrinkled brow and stubborn determination, went diving down the  internet research rabbit hole. The hunt was on.

Initial searches like “Ken Haag artist” and “Ken Haag illustrator” turned up nothing. Except a Google book excerpt from Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third Series for giant gift tags printed by Peck Inc with illustrations by Ken Haag in the 1960s. Knowing he was an established artist working in the 1960s made me wonder if he might at this point be an older person. Or if he might have already passed away and there might possibly be an obituary. Nope. The only obit result was for a gentleman in Iowa who was clearly not the Ken Haag I was looking for. 

Peck Inc. was a possible lead. The Vintage Recycling blog had a post about a vintage 1950s salesman’s sample book of gift tags from Peck Inc., located in Minnesota.

Minnesota. Hmm. I searched “Ken Haag artist Minnesota” and got a second Google book except, this time from The St. Paul Saints: Baseball in the Twin City. The highlighted reference is for the Johnson High School Hall of Fame where inductee Ken Haag is described as a sports artist.

Searching “Ken Haag sports illustration” resulted in an Ebay listing for a 1992 Lou Gehrig baseball card, with that Ken Haag signature big as life on the bottom. 

At this point, I felt like I was surrounded by snips and snaps of info about Ken Haag but I still hadn’t found anything comprehensive. I knew it had to be out there. I just knew it. Translation: I’m too far into the rabbit hole to quit. Onward.

Next tidbits of info, a Worthpoint listing for a Vegas metal ashtray with this bit in the description: “Artist and illustrator Ken Haag was a Minnesota graphic artist, and his pieces are collectible for the way he combined evocative images of famous people and places.” And multiple Amazon listings for The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine from the 1960s with Ken Haag as an author. Minnesota again!

Ken Haag
Artist Ken Haag, 1960s photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

And then, jackpot. A photograph in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society of Ken Haag. Love his smile, love his jaunty tie. And really love the sign behind him, Haag Bureau of Artistry. Surely that will yield some…search…results…oh…none? Really? 

Here’s a guy who was a prolific artist. Who signed everything as big as life. And I can figure out NOTHING about him? I kept plugging away with different search combinations based on what I knew and finally things started going my way.

First, a link to St. Paul’s Eastside Heritage Park. On the “They Came from the Eastside,” a huge leap forward. 

Ken Haag (1932-1996) was a talented and prolific sports and wildlife artist, writer and newspaper and magazine illustrator. He was a frequent volunteer for Eastside projects. The preservation of Minnesota wildlife, especially birds and their habitats was an important focus of his adult life.

And then the breakthrough, a Facebook post by Minnesota’s Angling Past with a decent amount of biographical information. Including the fact that Mr. Haag passed away unexpectedly in 1996 at his Eastside home. And that Rep. Bruce Vento spoke warmly about Mr. Haag’s contributions to his community from the floor of the US House of Representatives a month after his death.  From the record of that speech with the appended obituary, I finally found out just who Ken Haag was. “Ken was a constant and joyful volunteer. He lent real meaning to the role of citizenship, working as an artist, but deeply involved in music, education, environment and housing activities. He was a modern day renaissance man.” So said Rep. Vento. 

His obituary listed his affiliations. He served in the Navy. He was a member of the St. Paul Swedish Mens Chorus. He was the president of the Minnesota Bird Club and the local elementary PTO. He was dedicated to education and the enviroment. He was the father of four daughters and a son. He was a husband and a grandfather. And, he was a talented creative illustrator.

So how does knowing this make me better able to sell Ken Haag’s souvenir trays. It doesn’t. But it does give me the satisfaction of finding out just who Ken Haag was. From now on, when his work passes my way, I will smile knowingly and say, “Ah yes, Ken Haag. He was quite a guy.”



Owl andirons at long last

owl andirons
Vintage Victorian owl andirons cozy and snug in their cardboard nest.

The 16 year quest for a proper pair of fireplace andirons has finally come to an end. I have my holy grail. A pair of late Victorian or early 20th century cast iron owls with glass eyes.

This has not been an urgent andiron search; I wasn’t sure what I was looking for but I knew I’d know it when I saw it. I flirted briefly with a newer hammered iron set, but that didn’t seem right for our eclectic vintage meets cottage meets Ikea by way of Pottery Barn decorating style. I tried out a pair of entirely respectable Victorian brass andirons. They were the equivalent of Mary Poppins at a Ramones concert. Clearly out of place and definitely confused.

And then I saw my first pair of owls. And their big yellow eyes. At an auction. The bidding was competitive and I was short on nerve. After they were gone to someone else, I had immediate regret. It was then and there I vowed that the next pair of owls would be mine.

It was three years before I saw owls again. Another night, same auction house. These owls were like me, a bit shabby. One broken eye, one missing bit of connector, an overall coating of soot. Functional and soon to be mine. Mwah-ha-ha. 

The bidding move known as raise-your-number-in-the-air-with-an unwavering-straight-arm is not a move I execute often. It’s only used when a bidder wants to make it absolutely clear to all competitors that they are not planning to back down. There was a straight arm standoff between two women a few months ago over a particularly succulent vintage Barbie lot that had the entire room transfixed. On this night, the owls were announced and displayed. My arm went up. There was some competition, but not much, because I was so clearly stating that I was not leaving without those owls.

I gave them a brushing and cleaned the eyes. I’m sure I could have fancied them up with more elbow grease and some stove polish. But as far as I am concerned, they are practically perfect in every way just the way they are.

owl andirons
Brushing some of the soot and ash off with a soft brush.
owl andirons
The casting mark.
owl andirons
Two imperfect owls that are practically perfect in every way.

The Auction Bidding Tipping Point

I have two strategies to prevent me from crossing the auction bidding tipping point from good price to “what did I pay?!?”

One: look everything over carefully and make of list of what I’m after with a stated dollar amount above which I shall not bid.

Two: bring handlers who know that there there is a 1 in 5 chance that I will let either my all consuming desire for something or my competitive streak run wild and free. Their job is keep my arm from bobbing up, by any means necessary, if I rocket past the tipping point into extremely poor choice territory. Their auxiliary task is to anticipate and prevent me from spontaneous mercy bids on items not on my list. This is usually a handmade thing, like a piece of art or a handmade plaster cast of an eel from 1954. (Note: My eel and I do not hold my handlers responsible for things that happen when they are stretching their legs or taking a snack bar break.

This Victorian wall art of three cherub heads with glass eyes and a wing on each side (yes, it’s even more astonishing than shown) definitely spoke to me. It said, “I am something you don’t see everyday.” And I said, “Yes, yes, yes. You are definitely unscripted and I shall put you on my list.” The bidding surpassed my tipping point by nearly double, so handler intervention was not needed. Some things are simply not meant to be.

victorian cherubs
The eyes of these Victorian cherubs have it, alright. But I don’t have them. From Gina’s Antiques in Millbury, MA.