From the Vault: Keith Ferris; Putting the Brush to Air History

Keith Ferris; Putting the Brush to Air History

MORRIS PLAINS— Some artists believe in painting what they see, but that isn’t good enough for Keith Ferris. Mr. Ferris, a 59-year-old aviation artist, seeks out an experience as well, and admirers say it is that attitude that helps to distinguish him from others in the field.

Whenever the opportunity arises, Mr. Ferris can be found behind the controls of a Navy F-14 Tomcat or an Air Force F-111. It is time just as well spent as the countless hours with canvas and paints, says the artist.

Mr. Ferris, a longtime member of the Society of Illustrators of New York, is also well known as a chronicler of history. Using geometric precision, he gives viewers an eagle’s-eye view of flight, whether the scene covers an F-4 Phantom carrying out a strike in North Vietnam or a P-51 Mustang fighter racing to protect American bombers from packs of German aircraft in World War II.

His most renowned work is also his largest and most reproduced one: the 75-foot-long by 25-foot-high mural ”Fortresses Under Fire,” which takes up an entire wall of the World War II aviation gallery in the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum in Washington. It depicts an American B-17G Flying Fortress, the Thunderbird, under enemy attack.

What makes it unparalleled and a classic example of Mr. Ferris’s work is the detail and research involved in its creation. The mural is an exact depiction of a frozen moment in time based on yellowing combat reports and reports by witnesses. The precision of his work can be partly traced to his background in aeronautical engineering, which he studied for three years at Texas A & M University.

Contrary to popular belief, fame has not brought extraordinary wealth to Mr. Ferris. With his wife, Peggy, he runs a modest mail-order business offering prints of his work, in addition to contracting individual paintings. A self-proclaimed Army brat, he spent his early years at Kelly Army airfield near San Antonio, where his father was a flight instructor.

Q. You are considered one of the best artists in your field, and your work is prominently displayed at the Smithsonian and the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. What is it that you try to convey through your work?

A. I guess, more than anything, a sense of feeling what it was like to be there. Growing up at Kelly in the 1930’s, there were aircraft of all types there. I drew my first airplane before I could walk. I’d ask my dad what kind of airplane was this and what kind was that, and he’d ask me to draw it for him. Heck, if I wandered away from the house, my parents knew where to find me, right there on the flight line, wide eyes and all.

The work and the research are both fun, and you become a part of it after a while. It’s not just drawing a picture but a matter of placing things exactly where they happened at a moment in time, as well as capturing the emotion of that particular time, whether it’s fear, dread, anxiety or exhilaration. There’s a special kind of thrill in that for me, and I think it shows.

Q. How did ”Fortresses Under Fire” come about?

A. Well, the Air and Space Museum wanted to depict World War II bomber operations, and they just didn’t have room for it – putting an actual plane in there – so we did the next best thing, this huge mural. Actually, I got a call from the museum asking me if I’d help them solve the problem. That was it.

I wanted to use an aircraft that had completed over 100 missions and returned home in one piece. We researched about nine planes that fit that category, but the nose art on all of them, which shows the airplane’s name and, say, an accompanying drawing, were all X-rated. What I chose was the airplane that my next-door neighbor’s brother had flown as a pilot on his first mission. His name was Frederick A. Stewart, and he was from South Jersey. He’d taken many pictures of that plane, which he made available to me.

Then we had to decide which mission to depict. I wanted something that showed enemy action, antiaircraft fire and contrails. We chose 11:45 A.M. on Aug. 15, 1944, and on that day that squadron was hit by over 100 enemy fighters, and many planes were lost.

If you look at the mural of Thunderbird, you can make out the pilot and the co-pilot’s face, even though they’re wearing oxygen masks and flight helmets. We dug out a shot that showed the crew with the aircraft, and I drew in their actual faces.

A week after the mission depicted in the mural, most of that crew was killed flying in another plane. And there is a story behind that, too.

Q. What’s that?

A. The museum opened on July 3, 1976, a day early. President Ford cut the ribbon, and the next week a young fellow in his 30’s who lived in Washington was visited by his mother. They came to the museum and walked into the World War II gallery. Well, there is this B-17 and the gal said, ”Son, that’s the type of airplane your father was killed in.” She took a closer look and said, ”Son, that is your father right there,” and she pointed at the co-pilot.

It was the family of Bill Robertson; they hadn’t known in advance that we’d used Bill’s plane in the mural. Isn’t that something? So I must have done good.

Q. How long did the mural take to be completed, and where does one begin to draw something on such a scale?

A. Well, altogether, the Thunderbird mural took about 135 days in the planning stage and 75 days of painting. I broke it up into small grids, or squares, and that all came together. I started on one wing and worked my way across, using ladders and scaffold. When you’re working on such a scale and used to a canvas, you find that your small paintbrush used for detail gives way to a paintbrush that you might use to paint a house, but you step back and all the detail is there, just from a different perspective.

There are also times when I never thought that I’d be able to complete it, get it off the ground as it were, but it all came together pretty nicely.

Q. Is there is an aspect of aviation history that captures your imagination more than others?

A. All of it, but more so military flying because it was a part of my growing up, of what I had seen and experienced as a young boy, as a young man. And I also speak the language of the guy who flies a military airplane.

In working with general or private aviation, that’s on par with doing paintings of cars because what you’re doing is painting a pretty picture of an object that’s like a product illustration. In military aviation, you’ve got a lot more going for you than flying from Point A to Point B.

Q. Is your family very supportive of what you do?

A. Sure, very supportive. My wife is the reason that my business is in order. She keeps things running pretty nicely. What I do is not 9 to 5. When my daughter, who’s now 32, was in kindergarten, the teacher asked each of the children to stand up and tell what their daddies did for a living.

One little boy stands up and says, ”My dad’s a lawyer,” and another stands up and says, ”My dad’s a doctor.” Well, my daughter stands up and says: ”My daddy doesn’t do anything. He stays home and draws airplanes.” And she was right!

Q. You’ve flown many types of aircraft as inspiration for your work. Are you disheartened by NASA’s announcement this month that they will no longer carry civilians on the space shuttle?

A. No, not really, because I wouldn’t have time to essentially drop everything that I was doing in order to go into training for three or four months. I just don’t have the time to prepare for a flight into space.

I think that I’ll just stick with airplanes. However, if I were 20 years younger . . .


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Keith Ferris; Putting the Brush to Air History
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