Art for the Air Force

September 30, 2008

Download Story
Chances are, when you think of Chicago's art scene, paintings of fighter-jets and B52's are not what come to mind. But a current exhibition is showcasing the work of area artists who do just that. Chicago Public Radio's Michael De Bonis has the story.

In the gallery of the Pritzker Military Library in downtown Chicago, you find a variety of artistic styles and mediums: large oil canvases depicting vast landscapes, pen and ink illustrations that resemble the pages of a comic book, and delicate watercolors so precise and detailed they almost look like photographs until you get up close. The one thing that ties them all together is they're inspired by and made for the United States Air Force.

The art world and the military may seem like strange bedfellows, but not to Andrew Edeker, Pritzker's Program Director.

EDEKER: This exhibit really has grown out of a long tradition of artist in the military. So even before there were photographs or when photographs weren't so common that's the way you documented what was happening in the world.  But the United States has a rich tradition of having combat artists in the field documenting what is going on.

The Air Force's Art Program began in 1950 when the U.S army turned over several hundred pieces of art to the Air Force. The works documented the early days of the Army Air Corp—which handled military aviation before the Air Force was established as a separate branch of the military in 1947. Since then, the program has evolved into a collaboration with artists from around the country.

EDEKER: They could be pieces documenting what is happening today in the air force to something from the Vietnam War, WWII—pretty much anything from U.S. history.

One group that works with the Air Force Art Program is the Midwest Air Force Artists—who have 35 pieces from 17 artists up in the exhibition. All the pieces in the show will eventually be turned over to the Air Force. The artists sign over all the rights to their work at a ceremony in Washington D.C. The artwork is donated and the artists receive no compensation, but that doesn't mean there are no perks to being part of the program.

Konrad Hack is co-chair of the Midwest Air Force Artists and one of the founding members.

HACK: We have the opportunity to travel throughout the world, the states.  They give us an honorary rank of bird colonel—equivalent bird colonel. So we're senior civilians when we travel. It's through the Secretary of the Air Force, the auspices of the Department of Defense. They cut orders…

What he means by that is when artists are signed up for a trip, they receive military orders in the mail. This gives them access to bases around the world, and the ability travel with the military, all for the purposes of gaining reference materials for their art.

Hack has two pieces in this year's exhibition. One, is a large oil painting called “The Prodigal Son.” It depicts a World War One pilot returning from a mission. The pilot is in the center of a wide canvass, planes parked on the airfield behind him and flying in the sky above.

Hack says a trip he took through the Art Program was crucial for this work.

HACK: One of the assignments—which was really fantastic—was to go down to Dayton, Ohio to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. This was a WWI fly-in. They had trucked in biplanes and triplanes. They had re-enactors. The pilots actually flew for three days. So we got a chance to really get some great reference.

Though the Air Force provides these generous travel opportunities, Hack insists that artists are free to express themselves.

HACK: There is nothing political. There is nothing pro-war. There's nothing other than a number of artists who are patriotic who enjoy seeing things going places. You know I had an F-16 ride a few years ago.  I've flown in tankers and bombers. I've been to Germany and England a number of times, overseas, Alaska, flown with air guard units, participated with units.

ambi: lake sounds

Another participating artist who's taken trips with the Air force is John Michael Downs. Downs has been working in his lakefront studio in Rodgers Park for over 30 years. For most of that time, he worked as a newspaper editorial artist.

DOWNS: When I got out of the service and started working Daily news and then the Sun Times, Vietnam started. So, I was doing a lot of work for the paper because we had a foreign bureau then and they would send back stories and I would illustrate him.  And I would use reference that would come back from photographers like AP, UPI and all that.

For this exhibition, Downs returns to that source material. And his artwork really stands out—not only because 16 of the 35 pieces are his, but also for his use of bold vibrant color. His work uses mixed media: pencil, pen and ink, acrylic and water color.

One piece shows two Vietnamese men riding elephants in a forest clearing as a plane soars overhead.

DOWNS: It was an area that was difficult to get into and it was supplied by a C130. They would parachute supplies into this area. There is a tremendous time lapse between the elephants and the C130 there.

Another piece shows a large statue rising from a thick jungle with a B52 bomber flying above.

DOWNS: Our bombers were flying from either Guam, eventually out of Thailand. So I thought it was interesting to show the historical Buddha there in Thailand and the B52's taking off and landing.

Downs says he looks forward to his trips to Washington to turn the work over to the Pentagon. For him, it's humbling to see the high quality work of his fellow artists.

DOWNS: Some of the artwork you see is just beautiful. It makes you want to go home and really try, you know, next time better. But I am surrounded by some of the best artists in the, I would say the world.

That's for you to decide, but the exhibition does show that the Midwest Air Force Artists are fulfilling their mission, honoring those who serve, and telling the Air Force story.