Sunday, February 16, 2020

"From The Walls To The Pentagon"...



In May, 2018, through the Air Force Art Program, three long time participants who are also members with the American Society of Aviation Artists (ASAA) were invited to document Air Force life at Edwards, AFB in Rosamond, California. Scott Gandell, Doug Castleman and myself were to meet fellow artist and retired NASA test pilot, Colonel Mark Pestana at the West Gate Visitor's Center bright and early Monday, the fourteenth of May, to receive our orders.

A little bit about the Air Force Art Program, which officially was started in 1953. At that time, the Air Force turned to the Society of Illustrators with it’s headquarters and museum located in New York for assistance in organizing the program. SI/NY had long been recognized as the focal point of illustration since its’ founding in 1901.

Creating a Chair position on the Board of Directors, it quickly organized some of the nation’s most prominent artist/illustrator members for missions around the world, including our nations’ conflicts. Today, there are nearly 10,000 works in the Air Force Art Program and the Society of Illustrators has been joined by other organizations and independent artists to continue documenting Air Force personnel, equipment, locations and activities. 

I've been a member of the program since 1978 and was appointed Chairperson for the Society of Illustrators/ Los Angeles in 2002 and remain the Chairperson today even though I now currently live in Louisiana. 


Earlier that month of May, my wife and I flew into Los Angeles to visit with friends, throw an alumni party, and attend an ASAA seminar where, in Palm Springs, I spent a week learning the finer points of aviation art and where I connected with Mark and Doug. Ten days later, with all that seminar taught us, we were primed and ready to tour all that Edwards had to offer. With sketch books and cameras in hand, we visited flight lines, dry lake beds, F-18 simulators, control tower, museums, a complete tour of the advanced multirole fighter, the F-35, the officer's club, NASA hangars, and test facilities. It was a full tour of the base and its operations.

In our spare time, Mark drove us out to the desert in search of the many crash sites from days when test pilots flew and died by the seat of their pants. We found the crash site and memorial to the four crew members that died testing of one of the two early flying wings, YB-49. The YB-49 was a turbojet-powered flying wing design further developed at Northrop, and the progenitor of today's, B-2 Stealth bomber  The two YB-49s actually were both built after World War II when jet power was still at its infancy. The second of the experimental aircraft stalled during a test flight, went into a high speed nose dive and crashed in the desert on July 5, 1949. Walking the site in silence, there was a slight breeze that created, for me, an eerie feeling. 

In another desert drive, this time with a NASA museum historian, we visited the burned down ruins of Pancho Barnes "watering hole" ranch site. Pancho Barnes was a famous 1930's female aviator who loved being around and entertaining aviators. The mysterious cause of the ranch's destruction is still under investigation and the makeshift "ranch" was a major highlight in the beginning of the movie,  "The Right Stuff."


  

But with all the tours, static aircraft displays, literature, history and talks, I still hadn't found a reason to paint. I needed a real reason that would justify these great four days. To be honest, here is so much excitement in each department at the Armstrong Research Center we visited that it just made my life seem so dull and almost impossible to decide which subject to paint. 

For instance, the research, design and testing of a manned supersonic X-plane designed to fly quietly over the continent with minimal or no sonic booms seemed a great idea, as was the robotic designs for future use in space. Research for the feasibility of growing plants in space at the International Space Station provided me with some interesting ideas. Also, there was the advancement of infrared technology in astronomy, drone and UAV's technology. Mapping the globe, investigating wind and ocean currents at the surface and how it effects the weather, global climate, ocean fisheries, oil spills, and forest fires also brought some cool images to pursue. 

So much going on that it was too much to digest to put into one or maybe two paintings.

Over my "career" as an Air Force artist, I've entered, with or without an liaison, many an air base gate. The guards there are a courteous, smartly dressed, but rather intimidating maitre'd's, so to speak. Usually dressed in camo fatigues, they are bristling with gear strapped to their person. Flak jacket, intercom, holster and pistol, "go to hell" sunglasses, billy clubs, ammo belts, and all kinds of intimidating equipment and topped smartly to the right side of the head a security forces beret... All to welcome you.
And, rightly so!
But, on our last day of the tour, we stopped to show our identification cards and was greeted by a female guard dressed in the standard security forces outfit.
Now, maybe the other guys did or didn't notice, but I sure did.
As the the guard returned our I.D.'s to Colonel Pestana, and crisply shared salutes, I noticed this guard was wearing a bit more makeup. Certainly understated, but noticeable to someone like me who kinda overdoses on all the testosterone that exists among the sights, sounds and smells of airplanes.
I even had to voice my observation to the guys.
"Gee, I guess I should've awakened a bit earlier this morning to apply my face before breakfast," I said with no response!

It all came to light when our schedule was a bit adjusted. Greeted by museum curator, Tony Moore, and apologizing for the crazies and being late, Tony mentioned, as two F-15's and one F-16 screamed across the sky, that today, the base was being invaded by a Hollywood film crew shooting scenes for the new film,"Captain Marvel."

It suddenly appeared to me why the front gate security guard was so, so... so feminine!

But the best was the "shakeup" at the base Burger King when two F-16 exploded pass our window and across the runway with their sonic booms. It was all for show, Hollywood style, but having experienced, on our stay in Palm Springs just two weeks earlier, a rather potent earthquake just down the block in Ridgecrest, CA, breaking the sound barrier pretty much broke up our lunch.

Colonel Mark Pestana was barely moved!
Returning home, a bit dejected, I started surfing through my imagery. I stopped at the photo of four folding chairs, some water bottles and clipboards parked out in the shade under a vintage aircraft. The aircraft was historic as I was about to find out in my later research, but so were all the varied aircraft baking in the desert sun. Exiting the NACA hanger after a tour and a presentation of the many tasks UAV's perform, I notice four soldiers now having lunch in those chairs and flying their drones up and down the tarmac. I remember asking if it was okay to snap a few photos of their luncheon activities. I was concerned that there might be some "classified" considerations they might have that they may not want recorded.

It was at that point that I knew what I was gonna paint and how I was gonna present the idea. I just wish my brainchild had occurred when I was out there in the desert instead of at my studio. I certainly would have taken more reference photos, then. The title of the painting evolved as I was researching the plane in between my storyboard business. Though I returned to Louisiana, after thirty years of living and working in California, I continued my freelance art business at my studio in Folsom, LA. But the more I looked into the old bird, the more settled I was with the title and the concept.

I had done this scene once or twice before discovering that certain planes in museums are there for their historic accomplishments and not just a generic display of that design. Sometimes, the Sherlock Holmes type research is as much fun as creating the painting.

On a return trip, years ago, from a USAF gala reception at Andrews, AFB, the military aircraft stopped at Wight-Patterson, AFB in Dayton Ohio for an impromptu overnight stay. To entertain the AFAPO artists before dinner, we were taken to a hangar where aircraft scheduled for reconstruction or refurbishment were stored. I was like a kid in a candy store because the hangar had many aircraft I read about and built models of as a kid.

I spotted, in a dimly lite area, this old fighter with rust spots, weathered metal panels and faded Air Force insignia. I was shooting with film that was being pushed to accommodate the lighting. I was so excited to see this F-84F Thunderstreak because I remember the Revell model that I built and the boxtop art from my then, art hero, Jack Leynnwood. By strange coincidence, I had just about every model boxtop I bought as a kid and later found that Leynnwood taught at the prestigious art school, Art Center College of Design. As a student there, I took every painting class I could get with him.

In my effort to paint perfection from three dark slides, I bought a "walk around" pamphlet on the aircraft. In that book was the details of the jet I planned to paint. Depicted, in one of the chapters, was the very aircraft being dropped from a bomber's bomb bay. This was that exact same aircraft that was being restored for this moment in aviation history. 

Here's the studio painting of the famed FiCon fighter F-84F housed at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Property of the Pentagon. 

Investigating my new project, I found that this bird baking in the sun, was the second prototype, serial number 46-0066 of the B-47 Stratojet. It was designed in 1943 and was the second bomber, designated XB-47 to roll of the production line in 1947. It was the only prototype left that included a plexiglass nose and side windows for the navigator/bombardier. All other models deleted this option.

Before painting the work in color, I created seven or eight pencil drawings to decide how I wanted to tell the story. At lunch with a friend, I discussed my frustration with the angles I had in my head to best tell the story. Here's some of my napkin scribbles:



One of my main concerns was that the most effective approaches involved the twin starboard engine nacelle. A frontal shot showed the engine with a face that resembled Edvard Munch's, "The Scream!"

Once I saw it, I could not stop seeing it...


Realizing that my best view of the aircraft was the frontal from the port side, I redrew the seated soldiers and inserted them under the wing.

I then, enlarged the sketch and the transferred it over to canvas adding the many pieces that needed to be added to complete the story. I decided to paint the scene in grays to solidify the entire work. I wanted to make sure in adding color that I maintained that hot, desert, noon time light.




The finished piece, entitled "Taking Them Under Her Wings" was painted in oils on a 24"x48" linen canvas. The painting, which will be on display with six other paintings of mine at the Christwood Atrium Gallery in Covington through February, depicts what I consider under the watchful eye of the old bird, its approval of the new style of flight as the soldiers take a bite of their sandwiches and fly off with their remote control freedom. 


Copyright 2020/ Ben Bensen III
                                                                  

















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