Painting a part of history

Atlantis 20x20 painting done during the final launch of Atlantis, STS-135.

As you may know by now, I'm a plein air painter, I paint stuff I like, things that are visually appealing and sometimes tell a story but it's a rare thing indeed that I get an opportunity to capture a part of history on canvas. This is one of those once in a lifetime events. The short version of how I was lucky enough to get a press pass to Kennedy Space Center and paint the final launch of Atlantis is this, I knew somebody. Two of us (Stephen Bach and myself) applied but our friend made sure we got in. Somehow it never occurred to me to do this, but once I started to realize the importance of being there for this end of an era, I knew I had to go.

Photo by Susan Poulton

Why, other than the obvious reason, would this be important to me? I grew up not 10 miles from the Cape, our family moved to Cocoa Beach in '62 because of my fathers involvement with the space program. He was Apollo Operations test manager. When I was in high school, I would come home to occasionally find a fast car or two in the driveway, if it was a corvette, it was usually some astronaut or another. Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, they all made it by at some point. I still have the slides of my fathers fishing trips with a lot of these guys and his buddies from his test pilot days. So I was connected to the space program from a young age, but that's not the only reason, when I was 11 and a budding artist, my dad took me to visit the studio of one of his friends, an artist for NASA. He was working on a painting of an astronaut on the moon with the lunar landing module in the background, and it hadn't happen yet. Right then it hit me, "That's what I want to do". Not become an astronaut like most 11 year old boys but to become an illustrator. This became something of a life circle thing for me.

Atlantis last stand 12x16 painted the day before her final launch.

Back to the present, I've gotten my press pass two days before the launch, it's 4 o'clock pm and I've headed to the press area, the closest viewing zone there is for non KSC people. With a little time to kill, I looked for something to paint, and nowhere near the shuttle I went for something that could tell a bit of a story. Figuring maybe I'd try to document the event rather than make pretty stuff... you know, like in the good old days. So I painted the VAB with some news trucks in the foreground. The next morning I caught wind of a bus going out for the photographers to set up the remote cameras. No one said I couldn't go so I lined up, got on and headed out for the launch site. And it was cool. It was sorta funny, as these guys were setting up their HD 360 view cameras with sat uplink hardware in custom plastic covered boxes, there I was standing with brush in hand painting away. For the next day and a half it was something of a novelty for these people. "Are you painting?", "Why yes I am." The mosquitoes, however, were unimpressed.

Photo by George Murphy

T-ll and counting 8x10

It started raining, hard, but I heard of another bus going right back out to catch the RSS, which is the equivalent of seeing the lovely Miss Atlantis without all of her mechanical clothes, standing naked and proud before me to paint. I'm getting drenched in the line up waiting, finally the busses start loading and Mr. Microphone comes up and says, "if you are not on the list, don't get on the bus!". What list? Apparently I am the only one who complied because I was the very last in line while the bus doors closed in my face. Bummer. Wet but undaunted, I looked for something else to paint. The time clock set to T-11:00:00, the flag and the gantry in the distance. Tells a bit of a story, I think.

News 8x10

With a few more hours to burn and a break in the rain, I did an 8x10 of the news people under their tents with all their equipment hangin out. Standing in the middle of everything, cameras everywhere, I got a lot more of "Are you..... painting? That's so cool." Like it was something they had never seen before. Maybe if I were carving the shuttle out of marble it would have gotten a little more attention. If I had more time, I would have done more of these, their lights blaring under the dark stormy skies made for some really interesting visuals. Time to head to my brothers for a well earned beer and quality family time.

Vertical Assembly Building

The morning of the launch, Steve Bach, fellow artist arrived and we set up. I took a prepared 20x20 canvas with a rough sketch in of the shuttle and ground and got to mixing colors. None of us knew if the thing would even go because the weather was so iffy. But I had nothing to do but wait and paint in the sky and ground, leaving room for the plume to go in at the moment of glory. And it came. I had premixed all the colors that I imagined I would need, lined up the brushes, figuring I had maybe 20 seconds to get something down. I over estimated. The lift off went so fast my heart was pounding at about the same rate... it was all I could do to remember what I was seeing, no time to reach for the camera. I wanted this to be the real thing anyway. Of course, I couldn't hope to get the shuttle in, I did that here in the studio after the fact.

I cried. It was so moving. Afterward, about 6 news stations asked Steve and I for interviews. Sure! Happens all the time. I'm now going to call myself the Painter of Flight.

I don't normally sell prints but after posting some of this on facebook, I had so many requests for prints and some for the originals, I'm going to do it.

Atlantis 20x20 giclee on paper, edition of 250, signed and numbered $150 Atlantis 12x12 giclee, open addition, signed $75 Atlantis last stand 12x16 giclee, open edition, signed $85 T-11 8x10, open edition, signed $75 Set of all 5 paintings in giclee, $450


And, yes, the originals are for sale, price on request. I don't generally keep my paintings, I keep the memories. If you are interested, send me an email at the link upper left.