- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

Four decades have passed since the first lunar landing, but that glorious event is still fresh in the brush strokes painted by former astronaut Alan Bean. Unlike his colleague Neil Armstrong who rarely discusses his pioneering steps on the moon, Mr. Bean continually celebrates past trips to the satellite through acrylics on canvas.

“I am trying to tell stories that would be lost forever if I didn’t tell them,” he says. “Some people are too young to remember the Apollo missions.”

An exhibition of Mr. Bean’s paintings at the National Air and Space Museum presents scene after scene of helmeted astronauts set against barren terrain and dark skies. His paintings are formulaic in terms of their repeated subject matter and technique, but they still manage to convey the wonder of lunar exploration in a quiet, documentary way.

These nostalgic pictures, their frames filled with men in clunky gear, recall the remarkable program undertaken by NASA from 1968 to 1972 to explore uncharted destinations in space.

Only six of the Apollo missions landed on the moon, allowing 12 men to experience a world far from Earth. Mr. Bean captures those adventures and his own journey as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12. In November 1969, he became the fourth man to set foot on the moon.

On a tour of the museum exhibit, the 77-year-old artist points to a self-portrait capturing the way he “pranced” with his arms at his sides in the low-gravity atmosphere. “I felt I could have run a marathon and not have gotten tired.”

In another picture, he is shown sprinting across the crater-pocked landscape to catch a football thrown by his mission commander Pete Conrad. The episode is imaginary, but “as an artist I can show what could have happened,” he notes.

Mr. Bean took up painting in the early 1960s while working as a Navy test pilot. After leaving NASA in 1981, he devoted his energies to picturing moonscapes through his memories, remembrances of colleagues, photographs and videotapes.

“I used to paint earthly landscapes until my astronaut friends asked me why I was painting the Earth when I had been one of the few to leave the Earth,” the former astronaut says.

At first, his outer-space landscapes were gray and lifeless, faithful to what astronaut Buzz Aldrin calls the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar terrain.

“As time passed, I began to change the colors to reflect how I felt emotionally,” Mr. Bean explains. Inspired by his favorite artist, Claude Monet, he added impressionistic effects and textured backgrounds to his realistic pictures.

The former astronaut now begins a painting by applying acrylic modeling paste to a panel of aircraft plywood. While the paste is still soft, he stamps a moon shoe onto the surface and scores other areas with the hammer he used to break off lunar rocks. The resulting relief appears similar to the surface of the moon after the astronauts left their footprints.

Mr. Bean then adds tiny bits of the patches from his spacesuit that still bear traces of moon dust. “I often wonder if there’s a cosmic ray in my paintings,” he chuckles. He sometimes incorporates pieces of foil from the command modules sent into space.

In creating his scenes, the astronaut-artist typically uses the photographs taken on the moon as a starting point. As noted in the exhibit catalog, he follows in the footsteps of 19th-century artists who explored the nation’s Western frontier. Painter Thomas Moran, for example, relied on William Henry Jackson’s 1871 photos of Yellowstone to create his panoramic landscapes.

To capture specific moments on the moon, such as Apollo 17’s Jack Schmitt skiing down a hill, Mr. Bean often manipulates small figural models to capture the right pose.

“Part of my job is to make the paintings as accurate as possible,” he says.

On view in the exhibit is some of the NASA-issued machinery and equipment depicted in Mr. Bean’s paintings, including a lunar rover, a space suit and a box for moon rocks (for the record, the artist says, he never got a rock to keep).

For his more complicated compositions, he undertakes smaller studies before painting the final version in acrylic paints. Several of his sketches in the exhibit are more lyrical than the more detailed finished works.

These days, Mr. Bean spends six days a week working in his Houston studio to produce about seven paintings a year. The 43-piece exhibit at the Air and Space Museum is the largest exhibition of his work to date.

Over the years, the former astronaut has brightened his lunar landscapes to suggest a desert alive with sunlight. The effect of this soft, Monet-inspired palette — pinks, purples, yellows — is to romanticize the scientific nature of the moon visits with an eerie beauty.

Glowing light also emanates from the astronauts’ helmets. Treating their visors as mirrors, Mr. Bean captures the sun, earth, men and cameras reflected on their surfaces to frame pictures within his pictures.

Twin paintings titled “First Men” portray Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin, each throwing back an image of the other. Mr. Bean had to invent the portrait of Mr. Armstrong since the first man to walk on the moon held the camera during the Apollo 11 mission and no good photos of him survive.

In all of the paintings, the astronauts’ faces and bodies are completely covered up, but their humanity still shines through in various scenes of comradeship. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” a 2008 work, shows Mr. Conrad extending a helping hand to Mr. Bean who had fallen backward after tripping over a lunar rock.

Other paintings proclaim the awe of looking at Earth from nearly 240,000 miles away. “Is Anybody Out There?,” a painting from 2006, best captures the astonishment through a lone figure with outstretched arms looking up to the heavens. The picture serves as a reminder of the magical moment when man stood on the moon, humbled by the vastness of the universe.

WHAT:Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World”

WHERE: National Air and Space Museum, Independence Avenue at Sixth Street Southwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 7; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from Sept. 8 through Jan. 13

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.nasm.si.edu

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