"Woik!" Cartoon For Seabee Pictorial History Book by John Stermer-Cox

John Stermer’s Early Years*

Formative Years, through 1946*

This is part one of a series of articles about John Stermer’s life and development as an artist.  This article gives a brief summary of the early years, that is from childhood through to his Navy years in World War II.

The narrative of this series of articles is based largely on research done prior to the 2021 retrospective of his work.  Mixed in are memories of John Stermer as told to his daughters.


Born in 1920, John Stermer grew up in Elmira, NY.  He was the eldest of ten children.  His father John worked for the railroad and his mother Grace took care of the home and children.  Some of his fondest memories were of his summers spent nearby on his grandfather’s family farm.

Photo of John Stermer as a boy with parents (John and Grace) and siblings.
The Stermer Family: A young John Stermer with parents and siblings. He is the boy second from the right, standing.                         

And, John liked to draw.

Like many artists, John’s interest in art began with early and humble roots. John’s mother, realizing his interest, encouraged it as one would expect for a four-year-old: with crayons and drawing paper. This nurturing would expand later into his boyhood, where regular visits to Elmira’s Arnot Art Museum provided him ample exposure to a range of styles, media, and artists. 

Teenage Years.

At age 15, John was recruited to work as a muralist, which led to other opportunities.  For example, sign painting.  To explain, some of John’s potential clients assumed that because he could paint murals, then he could also paint signs.  Hand painting signs was not so simple.  With the help of local professionals, John learned the needed skills and craft to eventually start his own sign-painting business.  

This was a pattern that would serve John well.  Not only did he learn how to paint murals and signs, he learned cartooning, illustrating, lettering, and framing.  By expanding his skills, he was able to support himself.  

Late Teens and Early Twenties.

Upstate New York before WWII was an idyllic time to be an emerging artist.  John found a flourishing and supportive art community near the city of Elmira. On Artstorp farm, for example, Swedish-born painter Lars Hoftrup hosted gatherings of artists in the area. 

"Artstorp". Painting by John H. Stermer of "Artstorp" - Julius Lars Hoftrup's Farm/ Art place

It was also an opportunity to paint and exhibit with Hoftrup, Arthur Abrams (who owned the Elmira Art Shop)**, and other established artists from New York. A budding portraitist, John sought to capture the likeness of an individual, and he was inspired by the bucolic beauty of homes, barns and countryside.

I surmise that this period of time with Elmira artists was important to John’s development.  That is sense of community and support among his fellow artist became a part of who he was.  In his later years, again, we see John seek out and become involved in the local art community.

World War II.

Back to John’s early life.   As you might expect, everything changed, with the outbreak of World War II in 1941.  

John volunteered for service with the Navy. With his experience of painting and operating heavy equipment on the farm, he was assigned to the 101st Naval Construction Battalion.  Known as the Seabees, they were deployed in advance of combat units to establish the infrastructure necessary for military operations in the Pacific.

Drawing by John Stermer while assigned as an artist/painter to the 101st Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees); World War II. Sailor, pup tent and mosquito

Within the service, John’s artistic expression was not interrupted.  His title was “Navy Painter” and he was charged with the production of illustrations in Navy publications, including artistic renderings of navy life.  

And, when needed, John served as a bulldozer operator.

John Stermer was honorably discharged in January 1946, at which time he returned to his parent’s home in Elmira.  And, he was ready for the next chapter of his life.


*Excerpt from John Stermer Retrospective, Western New Mexico University, Silver City NM; 2021.  ©John Stermer Estate/ Stermer Art LLC.  Research and Writing Team:  Dorothy Stermer, Maria Jensen, Paula Geisler, and Margaret Stermer-Cox.

** We would like to extend our congratulations to the Arthur Abrams family.  Mr. Abrams served in the “Ghost Army” during World War II.  The Ghost Army recently received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.   They were a top secret unit that successfully carried out deception operations, such as creating inflatable equipment, or using radio trickery to fool the Nazi forces.  And, when the service members came home, they kept the details of their service a secret.  It is so special that their extraordinary service is recognized by their country. The link above include Arthur Abrams biography.  Congratulations!


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