Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembering NASM Artist Robert McCall

Artist Robert McCall, who helped illustrate the Space Age for America, passed away on February 26th of a heart attack. He was born in Ohio in 1919.

Every single member of our Silver Wings Fraternity has viewed McCall's captivating perception of space as he or she entered the NASM museum on Independence Avenue. It was completed and waiting to be seen when the great museum first opened on July 4th, 1976. I was working on the premises at the time and watched McCall paint his wonderful larger-than-life mural.It has remained right on the same wall ever since.

Raised on a diet of science fiction, McCall knew he wanted to be an artist when he was 8 years old, but he was also passionately interested in science and technology, especially aviation. After high school, he won a scholarship to the Columbus Fine Art School. While attending school, he worked for a local sign shop, making posters and advertising billboards. He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, but the war ended before he was sent overseas.

McCall and his new wife, Louise Harrup, moved to Chicago, where he worked as an advertising artist, while aiming "to become a first-rank illustrator, like Norman Rockwell or N.C. Wyeth." They moved to New York in 1949, and he continued to work in advertising art, but also began painting magazine illustrations for the likes of Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Popular Science.

With the coming of the space program in the 1950s, McCall writes, as aviation moved from planes to rockets, so did he. "It was visually dramatic. All of the buildup to a manned launch, so theatrical and dramatic. It really inspired me." In the middle of the decade, the Air Force started inviting artists to visit their facilities and paint about the experience; McCall jumped at the chance. "I got to fly in all the aircraft. I'd go to great lengths to get permission to fly in the backseat of a jet fighter." When NASA instituted a similar program, again, McCall was at the front of the line. He also created several mission patches for NASA, including those of Apollo 17 (the last manned mission to the Moon) and the first and third Space Shuttle missions. Many of his paintings have been donated to the Pentagon, the Air Force Academy, air bases, and NASA. - Ron David