Local artists recreates iconic Santa painting

A Springfield Santa who has been ho-ho-hoping to find a specific Norman Rockwell magazine cover featuring Father Christmas is instead the subject of a recreation of the image by a local artist.

John Fleeger Jr. has made appearances as Jolly Old St. Nicholas for about 30 years, so it was no surprise that he wanted to find a copy of a particular Farm & Fireside magazine. The cover of the December 1922 issue features an exhausted Santa dozing in a chair in an image entitled “The Day After Christmas.”

“I’m constantly looking for things from the history of Springfield,” Fleeger says. The national magazine was based in Springfield as part of the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company.

Although that search is ongoing, his friend Gary Blevins offered to recreate the image with Fleeger at its center. Blevins has recreated a number of Rockwell paintings, met some of his former models and has had artwork displayed at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The recently opened Gary W. Blevins Art Gallery, at 145 W. High St., has another connection to these efforts since it is across the street from the former Crowell-Collier complex, Fleeger says.

Blevins, who last year became the first artist to paint in Rockwell’s studio since Rockwell himself did in 1951, has aimed to modernize the cover in several ways.

Instead of a paper calendar surrounded by a wreath as in the original painting, Blevins plans to add a digital clock in his take. There also will be a tablet on the floor with names and a checklist for this modern Santa.

“All of Rockwell’s paintings tell a story,” says Blevins, who adds that it will be especially important to get the facial features just right.

Fleeger sat for the painting for about an hour as Blevins prepared. The final product will be acrylic on a 3 foot by 4 foot canvas.

Blevins will show the final painting to the curators at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and he expects it to be on display at Rockwell’s studio in Arlington, Vt., before it returns to Blevins’ own gallery in downtown Springfield.

He also plans to have the final recreation scanned, with prints made and available in his gallery.

Fleeger, 62, says the combination of Rockwell and the magazine’s Springfield-centric nature made him interested in this particular image.

“It’s the whole connection. I’ve liked Rockwell since I was a kid,” says Fleeger, a former scout who notes that Rockwell also contributed many illustrations to Boys’ Life magazine.

Fleeger himself first appeared as Santa in the 1990s, when he was working for the Air National Guard. At the time, several active-duty pilots had come from a previous unit in which Santa arrived in the backseat of a plane. Fleeger was tapped to do the honors locally.

“I don’t remember how it happened,” he says. “But it happened, and it went well.”

Fleeger’s Santa not only has made flying appearances, but he has delighted children – or “littles” as he calls them – throughout the local area.

Since then he also has been booked as Father Christmas at churches, restaurants, Holiday in the City, the Heritage Center, private parties, fundraisers and more. He’ll be at no fewer than a dozen events this holiday season.

“I have made it a point: If I get paid to do a Santa appearance, I don’t keep any of the money. It’s always donated back to some cause,” says Fleeger, who owns https://www.homecitytent.com.

He is also a mainstay at the local SantaCon event, where each year he comes up with a different theme. Santa, Fleeger says, is a big part of both his life and his basement, where he keeps Santa’s flight suit, baseball uniform, Ohio State gear and other costumes.

Of course, Santa has his standard jacket, suspenders, boots and hat, as well as a 3.5-inch leather belt. Hanging from that belt is often a set of “Santa’s Magic Keys” to be used when there isn’t a chimney. The beard and the belly are all real, he says.

Fleeger says that becoming Santa is his way to give back. He enjoys the “warm feeling” of distributing toys and making others smile and giggle.

“These are memories for the littles, memories for the families,” he says.
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Read more articles by Diane Erwin.

Diane Erwin is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Springfield News-Sun. A graduate of Ohio State University, her articles have appeared in a number of publications in Springfield and Dayton. In addition to her journalism background, she has worked in marketing and written copy for businesses throughout the country. In her spare time, she likes to read, dream about Schuler’s donuts, and travel near and far with her husband and two children.