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Decades of Inspiration from Chesley Bonestell

Posted on Wed, March 20, 2019
  • by: Ron Miller, space artist and author
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This guest blog post by space artist Ron Miller explores the impact illustrator Chesley Bonestell had on his life, and recounts 50 years of telling Bonestell's story.

The story of my role in the award-winning documentary Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future goes back more than half a century.

Growing up in the pre-Mercury heyday of the Space Race, I had been a fan of everything space and astronomy from as early an age as I can remember. As soon as I learned to read, I devoured everything in the school library on the subjects and hurried home in time to see Space Patrol on TV. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that there was an artist whose work I was seeing everywhere I turned. He had kind of a funny name—Chesley Bonestell—but that made him even easier to spot. I eventually found myself deliberately searching for his illustrations everywhere I could think of.

It’s safe to say I spent more time drawing spaceships in grade school and high school than studying history and math.

After graduating from art college, I worked at various advertising art agencies in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. After spending a day drawing toasters and designing annual reports, I would go home and try my hand at creating space art. One day, I spotted an ad in Sky & Telescope magazine for genuine prints of Bonestell artwork. I immediately sent off for one (I couldn’t afford two). I accompanied my order with a letter. Was Mr. Bonestell still alive? I asked, and if so would someone please let him know how much I admire his work?

A week or so later I got a reply from Bill Estler, Bonestell’s agent: Yes, he said, Bonestell was alive and well and very much enjoyed my note. “Well, goodness gracious!” I thought. Throwing all modesty to the winds, I sent Estler some photos of my own space art. Bonestell liked them, he told me, and did I know that the new National Air and Space Museum—then still on the drawing boards—was going to have a planetarium? And why don’t I apply for a position with it as an artist?

I did and, to my surprise, was invited to Washington for an interview. It went very well, but perhaps the most memorable thing about the trip was that there was an exhibition of original Bonestell art going on at the same time. This turned my visit into a pilgrimage.

The author at a Chesley Bonestell exhibition in Washington, DC.

Well, I got the job which led to the next step toward the film: I met Fred Durant. Then-Assistant Director of Astronautics, Fred introduced me to spaceflight history, which has been an obsession with me ever since, and to even more Chesley Bonestell. Fred and I eventually became close friends. Bill Estler had passed away by the time Fred retired and Fred had taken over all of the responsibilities of representing Bonestell’s interests. It was an overwhelming task and I gradually became more and more involved in helping keep things organized, such as cataloging thousands of slides and transparencies.

In 1983, we produced the first biography of Bonestell: Worlds Beyond. Happily, it was published while Bonestell was still alive and he was able to see a copy.

Bonestell passed away in 1986 and his widow, Hulda, in 1998. Left behind was almost literally a mountain of materials: albums, photographs, sketches, books, and correspondence. Realizing that it was all probably destined for a dumpster, Fred rescued the entirety of the Bonestell archive, which included the copyrights to nearly 140 classic paintings.

All of this wound up in my home, where it filled an entire room of file cabinets, boxes, and book shelves.

It didn’t take too long for Fred and me to realize that we had the materials for another book about Bonestell, but this time a much larger, much more comprehensive one. I approached a publisher with the idea and it was immediately accepted. I wrote an entirely new biography, based on the resources we now had at hand. Once this was done, the manuscript was passed over to Melvin Schuetz, the author of A Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology, a detailed listing of every appearance of Bonestell in print. Melvin went over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, checking on every name, date, title, and page number I might have referred to.

My book, The Art of Chesley Bonestell, appeared as a large coffee-table volume in 2001. The following year it won a Hugo Award—science fiction’s Oscar’s—at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Diego, California.

A few years passed until, about three and a half years ago, I got a phone call from someone introducing themselves as Doug Stewart. “I have your book,” he said, “and I have always been a fan of Chesley Bonestell. Has anyone ever made a documentary about him?”

“No,” I replied.

“Is anyone making one now?”

“No,” I replied again.

“Do you think it would be all right if I did one?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

And Doug certainly did that.

Scarcely a week went by without at least one call or email from Doug, checking on some detail about Bonestell, looking for some source or another, or perhaps requiring the retouching of some ancient magazine illustration.

The result is a quite remarkable film: Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future. I am very proud to have been associated with it, and to consider Doug a good friend. The only sad note is that Fred Durant passed away before he could see the film, or even be interviewed for it. It is sad because he would have loved it and sad because without his admiration for Bonestell and his foresight in saving the artist’s legacy, neither the book nor the film would have been possible. To acknowledge this, the film is dedicated to three people, all of whom collaborated to preserve the memory and work of Chesley Bonestell: William Estler, Frederick I. Ordway III and Frederick C. Durant III.

Ron Miller is a space artist and author specializing in science, astronomy, and space travel. He is a co-producer of the film Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future.

Checley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future will be screened at the National Air and Space Museum on April 2, 2019. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Ron Miller, as well as director Douglass Stewart and co-producer and Bonestell expert Melvin Schuetz. Get tickets now. 

Chesley Bonestell in his studio (photo by Robert E. David).