By Bob Shane
On July 14, during an award ceremony at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the National Aviation Hall of Fame presented the 2006 Milton Caniff “Spirit of Flight” Award to the American Society of Aviation Artists. The organization’s president, Kristin Hill, accepted the award, named for Ohio artist Milton Caniff, who inspired a generation of readers with his celebrated cartoon characters, Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.
Less than a month earlier, from June 19 to June 24, the organization held its 20th annual conference in Palmdale, Calif. The prestigious association counts among its members the most prominent and accomplished aviation artists in the field today. Those artists include Robert McCall, whose art has documented the nation’s space program from the early Mercury flights to the space shuttle, and Keith Ferris, who has 55 major paintings in the Air Force Art Collection, and who’s best known for his 75-foot murals in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
The ASAA was founded in 1986 in an effort to bring together aviation and aerospace artists to encourage excellence in this relatively small and very specialized field. Of the five original founders, only McCall and Ferris are still alive. Today, the organization has around 250 members, including recognized leaders in their field, as well as amateur artists. The many artists’ individual experiences, perspectives, artistic talents and styles bring a rich portfolio of art for enjoyment by aviation enthusiasts and the public.
The schedule for the six-day event included a tour of NASA Dryden, where McCall discussed his NASA work, as well as a tour of Edwards Air Force Base and Mojave Airport. The event presented an opportunity to view paintings featured in the American Society of Aviation Artists 20th Anniversary International Aerospace Art Exhibition, which, hosted by the City of Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery, opened June 24 and will continue through August 20. There were a total of 50 paintings entered in this exhibit. The conference also included aviation art history presentations, workshops and art critiques.
Veteran aviation artist and charter ASAA member Hank Caruso was in attendance at this year’s forum. His award-winning “aerocatures” are distinctive. Being a professional aerospace engineer as well as an accomplished artist helps give his images incredible technical accuracy. According to Caruso, the subject doesn’t have to be 100 percent accurate, but it has to be truthful.
“If you find yourself saying, ‘That would be a great piece if only, then the art is not truthful,'” he said.
Caruso feels these annual forums provide the artists with an opportunity to grow. On the academic level, the attendees are exposed to the technique and style of other professional artists. Talking to them provides an opportunity to find out why they saw it that way, making it possible to gain insights that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. He was impressed with the spirit of the event.
“Everyone was just having a good time! I enjoy the atmosphere of being with people who are as passionate about a subject as I am,” Caruso said.
He also enjoys the tours of various aerospace facilities, set up for the members during the event. The tours are behind-the-scenes opportunities to experience aircraft and support personnel that otherwise might not be possible.
On the NASA Dryden tour, Caruso was impressed when the opening address given to the group by the director of the facility talked about how Bob McCall’s murals greeted the NASA workers every morning when they came to work. It was uplifting, at the start of the day, to see something positive, inspirational and fun.
“I was surprised to learn what Bob’s art could do for people.” Caruso said.
The tour of Mojave Airport provided Caruso with further revelations.
“I was surprised seeing some of the grass-roots activity, particularly grass-roots engineering going on out there,” said Caruso. As a result, he now plans to include an XCOR aircraft in his 2007 calendar.
Caruso thought the ASAA International Art Exhibition hosted by the City of Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery was stunning.
“The City of Lancaster probably gave us the best TLC, making a conscious effort to make every piece of art display well,” he said.
For Michelle Rouch, who specializes in aviation art and became an ASAA member in 2003, the conference was inspirational.
“I couldn’t believe I was standing among these great artists,” she said.
Perhaps one of the most telling moments of the conference came following lunch with Burt and Dick Rutan, on the flight line at Mojave Airport. No doubt the artists recognized they were in the presence of two giants in aviation.
Before the artists departed on the rest of their tour, Burt Rutan told the group, “We would like to thank you for visiting our airport. I recall a painting Keith Ferris did that had me frothing at the mouth. I remember being extremely captivated by a phenomenal portrayal of an aircraft that never went into production.”
The aircraft Rutan was speaking of was Ferris’ concept of what a Republic entry in the F-15 competition might look like, based on Republic’s F-105. It was a nice tribute to Ferris.
Dick Rutan, addressing the group, told them, “Your art blows me away. It’s an honor to be in your presence. Thank you for what you do for aviation and humanity.”
The message the Rutans were sending was clear: You guys capture the spirit and personality of what we really do. That the beauty of aviation is best captured by the artist using oils, acrylics and watercolors cannot be challenged. In summary, Rouch said it best: “Pictures just don’t do it, that’s why we will always need artists.”
For more information about the American Society of Aviation Artists, visit [http://www.asaa-avart.org].