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Sunday, February 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Artist Irwin "Cap" Caplan drew from his humor, imagination to find success

Seattle Times staff reporter

From whimsical circus animals to comic couples to Northwest landscapes, Seattle artist Irwin "Cap" Caplan's imagination and work ethic enabled him to share his sense of humor and love of nature in some of the nation's most popular magazines and museums.

The award-winning cartoonist, illustrator, graphic artist and creator of the Saturday Evening Post's "Famous Last Words" cartoon died Thursday from complications related to Parkinson's disease. He was 87.

In a profession known for big personalities and unconventional work habits, Mr. Caplan never missed a deadline, his colleagues said. He also never stopped making people laugh, whether as the auctioneer at charity events, with his family or on the tennis court, playing doubles with friends every Sunday.

"This is a guy with a superb sense of humor, a guy who really cared about his art," said Bob Cram, a longtime colleague who worked as KING-TV's cartooning weatherman in the 1960s. "He did the very best he could on every job he ever tackled."

"Cap was always entertaining, he was terrific. He was a walking dictionary of jokes," said Gloria Rand, wife of the late Ted Rand, with whom Mr. Caplan worked for more than 20 years.

Born in 1919, Mr. Caplan grew up in Seattle's Madison Park neighborhood. His parents noticed his knack for drawing in grade school and enrolled him in art classes. In his teens, Mr. Caplan won $10 in a citywide poster contest and at Garfield High School also created expansive murals in which elephants prance and Paul Bunyan brandishes an ax.

Son Robert Caplan remembers that his father enjoyed trying different art techniques. Rather than tackle large classroom walls with a paintbrush, Mr. Caplan poured his paint into an insecticide sprayer to fashion his own "airbrush."

After graduating from the University of Washington with a fine-arts degree in 1941, Mr. Caplan served in the Army during World War II as an illustrator for several military publications. He made lifelong friendships with fellow artists while stationed in Kentucky, Robert Caplan said. One suggested Mr. Caplan's work was good enough to sell in New York. When his service was complete, off he went to seek his fortune.

In the late 1940s through the early 1960s, he drew two nationally syndicated cartoons, "Famous Last Words" and "48 States of Mind," and frequently contributed to Collier's, Life, Esquire and other national publications. In 1972 the National Cartoonists Society named him cartoonist of the year in its advertising and illustration division.

One undated cartoon from the Saturday Evening Post shows an angry wife seated on a couch, flanked by scowling portraits of her relatives. Her husband, hunched in an armchair across the coffee table, grumbles "Can't we have an argument without you dragging your family into it?"

After returning to Seattle in 1948 to marry his wife, Madeline, Mr. Caplan teamed with fellow graphic artists to form Graphic Studios, a Seattle-based business through which they collectively tackled advertising jobs, corporate logos and other commercial art.

Mr. Caplan added painting as an avocation and traveled with fellow artists around the state for inspiration. His work is part of the permanent collection at Seattle Art Museum and exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in Washington.

He went on to teach at the University of Washington School of Art and at Seattle Central Community College, and he continued drawing and painting until recently.

In addition to his wife, Madeline, of Seattle, and his son Robert, of Redmond, Mr. Caplan is survived by son Steven Caplan of Issaquah, daughter Joan Clarke of North Bend and five grandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today at Butterworth Arthur A. Wright Chapel, 520 West Raye St., Seattle. Memorials can be made to the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Painters Scholarship Fund or to the Kline Galland Home, 7500 Seward Park Ave. S., Seattle 98118.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

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