Space Case

John Berkey paints the universe

In 1963, he went freelance. "I became interested in science fiction when the work started rolling in," he says. "I was used to going back 100, 500, 2,000 years, so jumping forward in time was easy for me." The cover for a novel titled Starman Jones led to a flurry of work that eventually caught Hollywood's eye. "I worked for all the big companies except Disney," he says.

Working with competing studios and directors generated a few problems over time. "George Lucas called me at 4:00 one morning, from a hospital in England," he reminisces. "He'd been working on a film in North Africa and had kind of cracked up, 'cause he was such a perfectionist. It took some effort to make sense out of what he was saying. I caught right away that he was suing Dino DeLaurentis and me for a million and a half dollars. He thought the poster for Jaws looked too much like the one for Orca. I figured selling the three lawnmowers I had at the time might help a little. But when the case went to trial, the judge threw it out immediately."

The studios stopped calling when his long convalescence took him out of the loop for nearly a year. But he's not at all concerned. Inducted last year into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, alongside Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Frederick Remington, and John James Audobon; revered by countless younger artists; and sporting a more pervasive online presence than most guys half his age, Berkey could be doing far worse--tubes or no. Plus, now it's his paintings that are selling, rather than just some bit of ephemera with an image he created on it. And Berkey does continue to crank them out. He's been casually working on one throughout the interview. It's a bit of a departure for the artist, and a bit of a surprise. You don't see many watercolor depictions of spaceships.

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