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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


Off The Wall
By Kara Mae Harris

Image: Don Rust  
Pin-up art used to be primarily the concern of middle aged men and subculturists. The men remembered when, as pubescent boys, they would sneak covert glances at the covers of girlie magazines to catch a first glimpse of female flesh. Although the girl was only a painting, she was somehow more real than their own sisters and classmates. Years later, these men gathered those old magazines and smiled fondly at the memories, continuing the search for that one missing issue of Wink.

The subculturists, in contrast, were young enough to be the children of the aforementioned. This co-ed group looked back on a lifetime they had never known. The artwork of Elvgren and Vargas seemed innocent enough—cool and kitschy, fun to read about and collect—and they enjoyed seeing pin-up art splattered across the pages of their favorite magazine, Nuclear, or something like that.

 Image: Don Rust  
Then we all woke up one day to see Kamel™ ads featuring smiling cigarette girls straight out of the pages of those old magazines. Altoids™, SKYY™ Vodka and Chuppa Chups™ lollipops hung up billboards featuring women who would have been scandalous "back then," but now elicit only an appreciative smile. As the old girlie magazines disappeared from attics and used bookstores, publishing houses like Taschen cranked out beautiful volumes of reprinted art for those who couldn't find the real thing.

The dawn of the 21st century finds us in the midst of a pop culture pin-up craze, which may or may not be a good thing for pin-up art as a whole, but is definitely a good thing for artist Donald "Rusty" Rust. He was there for the first pin-up fad, he's going strong for its second wind, and his art shows a consistency, timelessness and skill that won't be effected by any passing trend.

"I welcomed the return of pin-ups," says Rust, who turns 70 next year. "I had accumulated a lot of model photos over the years, so I am now able to use them. Fortunately, fans and collectors still appreciate the vintage style, which I often do today." Rust occasionally creates advertisements or CD covers, and says he is often asked permission to use his pin-ups on trading cards, pocket knives, calendars, postcards and other products.

Photo: Don Rust 
Only a handful of living artists enjoy the same level of notoriety as Rust, but his acclaim is well-earned. Born in 1932, Rust has been painting since he was very young. He has produced more than 14,000 paintings: landscapes, portraits, illustrations, and of course, pin-ups. Although he enjoys the return of pin-up art, he currently works on a lot of landscapes as well. The beauty of women makes good art ("Men will always love girls," he says), but the beauty of nature is just as inspiring. "Being able to do a variety of subject matter keeps me from going insane."

In 1955, when he moved from his home state of Pennsylvania to Florida, Rust got to meet several of his greatest influences, including Thornton Utz, All Buell, Gil Elvgren and Scott Pike.

"They all worked in Sarasota, so we all communicated on a regular basis," Rust remembers. "That was like a college education for pin-up painting."

He may not have achieved the name recognition of some of those artists, but Rust has received critical acclaim within pin-up collecting circles, and his work is part of many prestigious collections, including The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, The Ringling Museum of the Circus and The Norman Rockwell Museum. In addition, his paintings of famous clowns, such as Emmett Kelly, Sr. and Lou Jacobs, as well as portraits of Norman and Emily Rockwell, have immortalized both their subjects and their creator.

 Image: Don Rust  
Not all of his subjects are prominent figures, however. When looking for inspiration for a pin-up, Rust often traveled only as far as the girl next door.

"Nearly all my models during the earlier years were neighbors and friends," he comments. "The blonde next door posed for a Coke ad. The girl down the street posed as an artist, another was a rollerskater, and so on."

Like many renowned artists, Rust also paints not for his ego, but for the love of the craft.

"I'm not really looking for personal recognition," he says. "One man shows, personal appearances, and similar events don't excite me. I would hope my work is recognized for whatever merits it may have. I try to be as creative as possible, which in a way reflects a little bit of me. No matter what the subject, I try to handle it effectively."

The father of five children and manager of his own successful art career for nearly half a century, Donald Rust has hardly grown weary in his golden years. Rather, he continues creating beauty for the sake of it, selling his work at humble prices, and responding to feedback, which he enjoys immensely.

Image: Don Rust  
In that respect, computers and the Internet have been a valuable resource. Although he does not use Photoshop™ or other computer programs to create or modify his art, he relies on the Internet marketplace as a vehicle for exposure, sales, and connecting with fans of his work. Word of mouth covers the rest.

What lies ahead for the current pin-up vogue remains to be seen. It could become trite or forgotten as the next advertising trend moves in, or it could endure as a major artistic movement. Either way, society's newfound love of pin-up art has given Rust a new world of recognition.

"Seldom do I get an opportunity to express my thanks and appreciation to the many who have influenced me over the years," he says, not realizing that every painting is a thanks in itself, revealing all of his influences and his own artistic touch. The works of artists like Donald Rust, Peter Driben and Alberto Vargas will survive any passing trend, and true talent never goes out of style.

Kara Mae Harris is a 20-year-old Baltimoron with a passion for pin-up and burlesque. She is a partner in the online magazine Retrokitten and runs her own Website devoted to exotic dancer Lili St. Cyr at

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2001 issue of ATOMIC Magazine.

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