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Transcript: Interview with Robert McCall

August 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:55 p.m. EDT (1655 GMT)

Conversation between renowned space artist Robert McCall and CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien on June 24, 1999, in the artist's studio at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

MILES O'BRIEN: Do you recall the first time that you realized you were fascinated by aircraft?

ROBERT MCCALL: Oh yes, a vivid memory of going to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, Ohio, one summer. And I saw the bombers that were on static display at that fair. These were bombers used in World War I. This would have been 1928, I was eight, nine, ten years old. And these aircraft were so incredible in their size. I never dreamed that they could be that big and still go up in the air and fly. So it was that moment that I remember quite vividly. And then following that there were a lot of what they called sham battles that in the air, old by planes from World War II that flew over Columbus, Ohio, sometimes in large groups, squadrons of these aircraft for some kind of an air show, which I witnessed and they flew fairly low over my home, and, and I was enthralled with these loud-sounding, flying machines that were so unbelievable.

O'BRIEN: What do you suppose it was about aircraft that captured your imagination?

MCCALL: The sound. I think the sound as much as anything. Especially when I had the opportunity of being close to the aircraft when they were taking off or landing out of the Columbus airport. And my Dad would drive me out there and we would watch the aircraft land and take off. This is a story that comes from a lot of young boys. I'm sure that even today we thrill to that kind of experience. So it was the sound, but, of course, it was the, the look and the size and the role and the mission of aircraft. And particularly military aircraft, which have a very different mission than transport aircraft. So bombers and fighter airplanes thrilled me in a special way with their machine guns and armament and bombs and all of that.

O'BRIEN: But at that moment did you realize you wanted to paint and draw them -- did you want to fly them?

MCCALL: No, no. At that time I didn't think about such things. I didn't think about flying them. I never dreamed that it would be possible. I never at eight or nine or ten years old, although I was beginning to draw a lot, and knew already that I loved making drawings and I drew a lot of airplanes from those earliest days. But I didn't, it hadn't crystallized in my mind that I was gonna be an artist and that that would be what I would for an entire lifetime.

O'BRIEN: So when World War II came around it seems natural that you would try to sign up and be in the air and fly planes, right?

MCCALL: I did that and I wanted to fly aircraft. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be around airplanes and I have been. So ... I did enlist in the Army Airforce and was accepted, had grave doubts whether I would be accepted, you know, I guess most of us do. Am I worthy? Am I healthy enough? And indeed I was and I then went through classification and intensive physical exams. And low and behold it was found that I was colorblind. Colorblind, that never occurred to me. I was an artist. Already I was an artist making a living. I was at that time about twenty years old and had been working as an artist since I was seventeen. And so this astonished me, and it disappointed me because then they classified me. There were three classifications possible, bombardier, navigator or pilot, and they classified me a bombardier. And that was okay. I was still gonna fly.

O'BRIEN: So you don't need to know colors as well to drop bombs ...?

MCCALL: Doesn't make sense, doesn't make sense. As a matter of fact, you would think that if you had greater more acute color vision that you could define or see the targets on the ground more easily perhaps, but maybe not.

And by the way, one of the things about being the bombardier in B-17s at first and then later B-29s, was the position and the visibility that I had in the nose of that aircraft. I can remember thinking I can hardly wait to get in that crystal bubble in the nose of the B-17s. At that time they had eliminated a lot of the metal straps or supports for the nose and was now a single, wonderful crystal globe that I can even climb out into and be surrounded with visibility as we took off (and) landed. And then, of course, when we were up there. So it was, it was a wonderful spot to be in and I loved it and I made sketches and so forth.

O'BRIEN: So I guess it was a natural progression then when your time was up in Air Force to start looking even farther ...

MCCALL: Well, aircraft and spacecraft are very similar, of course, and the kinds of individuals associated with designing and building and flying spacecraft are the same people that make the aircraft. And I've always admired pilots. And I admire and wished to be one, but more than wishing to be a pilot, I wished to be an artist depicting pilots in their wonderful environment of the sky and space. So this transition was an easy one from aircraft to spacecraft and, and it was also more dramatic seemingly. I guess that's maybe not fair, but in my way of viewing it, flying in space was more dramatic, more adventuresome, more hazardous. It had all of the elements and then that sound that galvanized me in my earliest days was the sound of a launch, which is probably one of the most incredible sounds in the world, of energy pouring forth (with) such power. And so it was the that excitement that comes from observing and witnessing those events, the launches, and I've watched many of them from the earliest launches of the Mercury spacecraft with one astronaut to the Apollo and, and then now the shuttle. It's all so powerfully visual and dramatic and theatrical, theatrical I think is very appropriate.

O'BRIEN: Your paintings I think attempt to show that sense of power and really your paintings, to the extent that paintings can, tell of noise and movement. But do you feel, in a way, limited by your medium based on what you appreciate about flight?

MCCALL: No, no. I think a really fine work of art can capture so much, even the sound and the fury and the excitement and the color, the drama, all of those things can be captured visually and graphically rarely, but it can happen. I think great art does this. And ... achieves those ends of touching the human spirit. And that's how it's done. It's a subliminal or subconscious kind of appreciation for those things I've just described that a great painting can elicit.

O'BRIEN: You feel like you accomplish that a lot?

MCCALL: I do, I think I do frequently, and I'm always striving to do it better and more successfully.

O'BRIEN: What are you trying to bring across to people? If you had to come up with a common thread through most of your depictions of space flight, space travel ... Adventure?

MCCALL: The space subject has the added wonderful ingredient of connecting us with the universe in a more complete way perhaps. And I think what I'm hoping to do is to convey or communicate some of my own sense of wonder at the magic of the universe. And it, current technology is, is revealing more and more of these wonders. Wonders that are infinite and that will never be fully understood in my view. Never will we comprehend the universe. But we can come closer and closer and closer, but we're dealing with infinities of time and space and concept and understanding and the limitations of the human mind to cope with and comprehend that it's not a possibility, but what a joy and what a pleasure and what a fulfilling feeling it is to attempt to understand. And, from time to time we comprehend more fully and it is a great joy and delight. So I want to communicate through my work what I feel and it's not a deliberate attempt, I don't think that through and say Bob, let's do something that will really communicate with everybody. I'm trying to pleasure myself in a way with the result of a painting and get that high that comes from successfully achieving an effect or a look or a quality that does inspire.

O'BRIEN: You know it seems to me that an artist has a big advantage over a journalist. A journalist has to play it down the middle and can't be in the role of an advocate or, or let his or her feelings be known. Whereas an artist can have an agenda. You clearly have an agenda, don't you?

MCCALL: I think so. I think the agenda is a simple one though. It's to please myself and through pleasing myself please people and somehow even the hope is that there is some teaching there. Some informing, some transference of knowledge. I think I have a comprehension of the universe like so many other people that dwell on this kind of subject that so many people do not have. I think that the average individual who doesn't contemplate such things is really blind to a lot of the beauty that is there to behold and experience and to understand. They're busy doing other things that has beauty as well. And but, but I think the universe is, is the big story.

O'BRIEN: I guess success for you would be is if you sort of capture that busy person at least for a moment and make them think about all that.

MCCALL: Yes, of course, it would be.

O'BRIEN: Now you're not trained as an engineer. You're not a scientist. You're an artist and, and yet you paint things that have happened with a very keen eye toward accuracy and you paint a vision of the future which perhaps one would believe is technically possible. Not necessarily so?

MCCALL: Oh I think all of those things are fairly true. Certainly the future that I depict in my paintings have to be classified the farther out one goes the, the more one enters that realm of fantasy. And it's not really a projection of currently technology. It's, it's a dream. It's a hope, a prayer even. And at least in my case because the visions that I depict, visions that are optimistic. And I paint a future that is an achievable one, but also an idyllic one perhaps. And I, I think space is a new environment that is going to prove filled with opportunity and it will benefit mankind to, to know it better and to, to explore it more thoroughly and deeper and deeper and, of course, that is an endless epic, an endless journey that we're on and the fact that it's endless is part of the mystery and the wonder and the joy of it.

O'BRIEN: I suppose a critic might look at your work and say it's almost a naive vision of the future. Would you take that as a criticism or a compliment?

MCCALL: It wouldn't offend me ... not exactly a compliment because I'm afraid the individual might be suggesting naiveté that is too naive maybe or too childlike. But that childlike quality I see in all the artists that I've met. The more involved in their art they are, the more naive it seems and the more successful they are. I know in my visits to the Soviet Union back in the '80s where, when I became acquainted with a lot of the artists, I found they were counterparts of American artists. They were so similar in their manner and many of them were sort of childlike. The artists that I've known are so wrapped up in the pleasure of what they're attempting to do. It's not always pleasure, it's agony and ecstasy ... but there is a lot of naive, childlike qualities I think that contribute to a freer expression.

O'BRIEN: What is it you like to paint most?

MCCALL: Well I love to paint landscapes right here on planet Earth. Landscape is my next great love as an artist ... as much as painting spacecraft and aircraft and that space environment and that mystery that I keep speaking of. It's just painting good pictures. You see fundamentally and finally I'm an artist. I'm a person who takes paint and brushes and pigment and attempts to create an image that first of all I like and that other people will like as well and find worth looking at. And it depends on the people who are looking at it as to whether they are going to appreciate it or not. A lot of my images are not the sort of images that I think women, for example, are as interested in the work and the subject matter that I deal with. There are some that are very enthusiastic about it but largely the male of the species that respond to what I do. But that's fine.

O'BRIEN: Who loves your work and who doesn't?

MCCALL: I think people who and mostly men who are involved with, associated with , aviation and space. Young boys -- oh, and young girls too. And I speak a lot to young children in the public schools. And from little kindergarten children who assemble and sit on the floor and look up at my slides and myself as I talk they by the way are so enthusiastic and responsive and demonstrative, and they give me a real great sense of appreciation. But young people I find characteristically are more interested in what I do and almost without exception, they're interested in the future they're interested in space.

O'BRIEN: take us back to the Apollo days for a moment you were there chronicling it in a journalistic capacity but at the same time looking ahead. First of all, how what was it like having that front row view of things?

MCCALL: It was a real privilege and one because I was an artist and because the NASA decided to establish an art program they recognized the value of having the artists depict some of these great events besides the cameras. And it was a great experience and one that certainly changed my life to have that front row seat as you say and to be so close to what was happening to become acquainted with the men that were going to be flying and now women and men that are the crew members of our space missions.

In the Apollo days it was just so kind of wonderful to be involved in that glorious enterprise. And the machinery was so big that assembly bay building in Florida where the Saturn was prepared and the Apollo on top of the Saturn and then that great transporter that giant tractor mechanism that carried the assembly out to the launch pad about a distance of almost three miles. That in itself provided me with an enormous inspiration. I wanted to paint it and indeed I of course did. I painted all of these things and the gantries and the launch facilities. Those two launch facilities that are launching now are shuttle but earlier launched the Apollo missions to the moon. And to think that they were going to the moon and then to talk with the astronauts after they had done so and successfully returned that just seemed like an impossibility achieved. And from that moment on from the time we landed on the moon I had the conviction and I still have that conviction that anything is possible that the mind can consider and has the time and the energy and the motivation to pursue and make happen. Miracles are performed everyday and that was one that convinced me that it was possible.

O'BRIEN: Thirty years ago, after that landing, where would you have predicted we'd be in space right now?

MCCALL: I expected (that) we would be much farther along than we are and this is not to -- I recognized we have made enormous progress in many ways. Technology is just booming and in all directions and its wonderful for me as one who appreciates this and recognizes or feels convinced that technology is a way of maybe even surviving and although it becomes a threat there's a down side I guess to every good side. But I expected that we'd be much farther along. I would have expected by now we would have landed on Mars which we will do there is I have total conviction that we will land on Mars probably in the next two or three decades it could be sooner but the conditions have to be just right to make that happen to give us the opportunity to provide the motivation.

O'BRIEN: But what kind of conditions would those be?

MCCALL: Well of course as we know we had a space race with the Russians and the Soviet Union and they were our big competitors. And they did some astonishing things, they orbited the first satellite and they put the first life in space and the first man that orbited the Earth and so with that kind of motivation and the notion that we were the pre-eminent nation in the world. There's all that nationalism that enters into it and continues to and I guess maybe looking at the track record of history will continue to motivate nations and leaders and peoples in the future.

O'BRIEN: So there maybe some sort of competition that lies ahead potentially ... ?

MCCALL: Oh yea of course. It will rear its ugly head and as result it will provide us with the motivation and the reasons for doing things that would not be done otherwise. I don't know looking back on the history that I've lived and then reading history of the past centuries it seems that this kind of story will be told and retold nations competing in one way or another and in conflict. I don't see that we have progressed at all which is a sad comment to make but I wonder -- philosophically, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe the conditions that prevail or the conditions that might even somehow in some curious way be best.

O'BRIEN: Could it be some commercial interest that drives a new space race and drives us farther on -- would that be it?

MCCALL: I think that and that would be the kind, wouldn't it, because it wouldn't involve warfare and that kind of thing. I think so and even competitiveness within our own nation, you know, business enterprises that see the value of that space environment in some industrial way in some business way. And I think great corporations are beginning to recognize that there is profit out there and it's, I think, right on a -- we're on the threshold of great activity of that sort. I hope so.

O'BRIEN: You think it's not too inconceivable in relatively near term future it would be mining an asteroid or back on the moon?

MCCALL: The moon of course is a prime target or locale for that kind of thing. And the thing that astonishes me is that we never anticipate some the major breakthroughs that are going to occur tomorrow. That change our world and in a technological way and I guess in other ways too. But the great incredible technological breakthrough seem to occur unexpectedly and people aren't thinking about them. There are a few that make it happen perhaps, but they come unexpectedly and contribute to our future in every way.

O'BRIEN: So would you say the thirtieth anniversary of the first moon landing is kind of a bittersweet anniversary?

MCCALL: No, because I think that progress is greater than the average person is aware. And that progress of in all directions is moving along a pace not as rapidly as we'd hoped. But no, these wonders will occur I would like them to occur in my lifetime but there will always be the other wonders that I would miss anyway. So, no, I'm just pleased with what's happening in the world and we're living in a glorious time.

O'BRIEN: So it doesn't disappoint you that some of these visions you painted haven't become a reality?

MCCALL: Oh no it couldn't because some of my visions are so fantastic I think that those dreams coming becoming reality or are not likely, and I don't expect them to be.

O'BRIEN: Do you feel in some way that you've spurred along the development of space? Have you inspired some of the people who actually do the nuts and bolts designing?

MCCALL: You know I would love to say yes. I just I don't know that I've done that. I would hope perhaps, and occasionally I am told that I have done that, and I'm always pleased to hear it. But realistically I don't know I don't whether that's happened and I don't know.

O'BRIEN: Life doesn't always imitate art?

MCCALL: Not always.

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