Support at Predawn: The NASA Art Program and James Dean

Posted on Tue, July 9, 2019
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"Space travel started in the imagination of the artist, and it is reasonable that artists should continue to be the witnesses and recorders of our efforts in the field." - Hereward Lester Cooke (1916 – 1973) Curator of Painting, National Gallery of Art.1

Artist Peter Hurd (1904 - 1985) captures an ominous view of Complex 14 at Cape Canaveral (Kennedy Space Center, Florida) in his watercolor Predawn, 1963. The gigantic red hued structure is situated against a deep midnight blue and black atmosphere, illuminated by blurry bursts of gold, yellow, and brilliant white. A soft-edged silvery Moon slips behind a dark cloud, casting a dreamlike effect on the scene. The painting has been compared to a brightly lit Christmas tree, a cathedral, and a display of fireworks.2 The dominant form of the gantry could also be associated with a Mayan temple rising to the heavens in honor of the ancient Gods of the Universe, or a stairway leading to outer space (and of course the song "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin came to mind).

Peter Hurd, Predawn, 1963, Watercolor on paper

Peter Hurd was one of the first eight artists selected to participate in the NASA Art Program – an invitation-only art initiative that allowed artists access to depict the NASA facilities and activities of the early space program.3 The program rolled out with the last flight of the Mercury Program, and Predawn depicts the launch site shortly before Gordon Cooper’s sub-orbital Mercury Atlas (MA-9) flight in May 1963.

James (Jamie) Browning Wyeth (born 1946, son of American artist Andrew Wyeth 1917 - 2009) offers an alternative perspective of the vermillion gantry equipment with both a close-up and bird’s eye view. The section of the superstructure in Support, 1965, resembles the upper portion of the alphabet letter "K" or a bent arm flexing its muscle. Featured at the crux of the form are the details of hexagonal hardware required to suture the monstrous assembly together. The sky is stark and flat, which suggests the overcast haze of a sizzling Florida summer afternoon. The view below depicts a skeletal structure of an obsolete gantry, a patchwork pattern of brown and green earth, and the snaking curvature of the coastline. Far off in the distance are the ignition flames of a rocket launch. A helicopter flies near the launch site at almost eye level from the artist’s view, and reinforces the height of this aerial perspective.

James Browning Wyeth, Support, 1965, Watercolor on paper

Wyeth, the youngest participant of the NASA Art Program at nineteen years old, selected a dangerously high location as his perch to paint the launch of Gemini IV on June 3, 1965. The flight marked America’s first spacewalk performed by Ed White, and it seems the adventurous teenage artist recreated the spacewalk feeling from his towering position. But how did he get access to this location?

Almost all the perspectives by artists visiting NASA facilities came to fruition through the assistance of James Dean, the founding director of the NASA Art Program who coordinated their visits and served as their strongest ally in providing special access for their creative endeavors. A trained artist himself, Dean understood the language of art and often used imaginative measures himself to facilitate artists. Peter Hurd and Lamar Dodd (1909 - 1996), hoped to work in a field at night to paint the gantry lit under huge spot lights.4

Dean recounts, "So I got two huge lamps and they took them and went off into the field and began working. And nobody on the launch pad knew what they were doing there. But [security] saw these lights out there in the bushes, and they were concerned…. So [the security] got in the car and drove out to find out what was going on. And they walked through the little scrubby bushes and they found these two old guys [Hurd and Dodd were the oldest artists in the program] sitting on the ground with little brushes, paint, and some water, doing these paintings." It turned out that a security guard from Georgia recognized Dodd’s Georgia southern accent, and after a friendly conversation, they were invited to the top of the launch pad where they were also allowed to view the interior of the empty space capsule that awaited astronaut Gordon Cooper. While Hurd’s final Predawn painting focused on the initial view of the gantry painted in the field by lantern light, Dodd based his interior of the space capsule for a painting titled Max Q from this experience.5

Lamar Dodd, Max Q, 1963, Gouache on paper

Jamie Wyeth requested to view the Gemini IV launch from a neighboring gantry to the Gemini launch Complex 19, and asked to go to the highest level the elevator could take him. Dean’s initial answer was, "I was told that the Kennedy Space Center had a rule that nobody could be on an elevated platform in case something exploded, it would throw shrapnel through the gantry…" but regardless of the rules, he pursued permission. After a series of requests, they finally obtained approval under the condition that they arrive at the platform and get into position during the early hours of pre-dawn darkness so they wouldn’t be discovered by members of the press (who would also try and request the same access). Dean remembers that Wyeth walked way out onto the narrow metal pathway, and sat down and painted with his feet hanging over the edge – as if he were sitting on the docks over the water in Maine.6

James Dean continued to support artists even after his role at NASA. At the conclusion of the Apollo program, Dean was employed at the National Air and Space Museum from 1974 - 1980 as the first art curator and also initiated and managed the transfer from NASA of over 2,000 artworks from the NASA Art Program into the Museum’s permanent collection. Now one of the world’s most comprehensive art collections on the theme of aviation and space, it comprises approximately 6,000 works spanning the late 18th century to the most recent works by contemporary artists. The Museum shares these original works on loan for exhibitions, publications, and research. A curated selection from the NASA Art collection will be on display in the newly renovated contemporary Flight and the Art Center at the completion of the Museum’s transformation. James Dean has recently rejoined the Museum staff by volunteering his time, memories, and support for an oral interview project on the NASA Art Program.


With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 quickly approaching, now is a great time to explore the artistic representations of the Apollo program, and the range of artistic styles and techniques used, in the Museum collection. The NASA Art Program played an important role in representing the excitement and public interest in Project Apollo. As we look back at key moments from the historic missions, we do so not only through photographs and oral histories, but through the eyes of artists as well. 


Footnotes

1 Hereward Lester Cooke and James D. Dean, Eyewitness to Space: Paintings and Drawings Related to the Apollo Mission to the Moon, Selected, with a Few Exceptions, from the Art Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration 1963 to 1969 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971), 11.

2 Ibid., 122.

3 Note: Peter Hurd was also an art student and son-in-law to the famed American illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882 – 1945), father to artist Andrew Wyeth, and grandfather of Jamie Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth was an early advisor to the NASA Art program and recommended Hurd and his son Jamie, although didn’t participate in the program himself. The early part of the NASA art program collection covers Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and explores the intersection of art and technology to represent human history’s initial challenges and achievements of space travel. The papers of the NASA Art Program are held in the art curatorial files in the Museum’s Aeronautics Division.

4 Note: Lamar Dodd was also one of the original 8 artists invited to the NASA Art Program and was the Head of the Department of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. The initial group was comprised of Lamar Dodd, Peter Hurd, Paul Calle, Robert T. McCall, John W. McCoy, Mitchell Jamieson, Robert Shore, and George Weymouth.

5 Edited from an Interview with James D. Dean on June 21 and June 28, 2019.

 Ibid.

 

 

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