Space Case

John Berkey paints the universe

Just up from a nap, John Berkey looks a bit like a cyborg koala. "Before I went into the hospital, I'd usually work until midnight," the painter says as he crosses the living room, careful not to disturb the transparent plastic tubing that runs from both nostrils and a hole in his throat to a large, stainless-steel oxygen tank near the stairs. "Now I usually quit around 10:00." While none of the science-fiction art for which he's best known is in sight, Berkey's paintings--portraits, nature scenes, a large, mysterious-looking abstract oil--are everywhere.

At 73, Berkey is frailer than he'd care to be. Only a few months have passed since he returned from a seven-month hospital-and-rest-home ordeal, brought on by a bout of pneumonia that came with complications galore. Now he's back in the sprawling home near Excelsior that he and his wife have shared for 42 years. While he's feeling much better, recovery comes slowly. He settles into a motorized chair on the staircase, tubing trailing all the way, and we descend to his studio, which houses dozens of spaceship paintings (aha!), stacks of books, and scads of audio and video components neatly arrayed along a room-length shelf. The spacious L-shaped room seems half nerve center, half lair. A maze of mirrors and speakers hangs above us. "I haven't been able to get all that stuff to work together ever since I came home," he says of the speakers, taking a spot behind his work desk. "Not that it makes much of a difference. Even with all the speakers working, the thing still sounds like a glorified stereo."

The mirrors enable the artist to paint portraits while stationing his model anywhere in the room he chooses. Portraits, he says, are his favorite medium, especially when one of his seven grandchildren is sitting for him. "I've never cared much about science fiction," he says. "I have yet to see Star Wars. I suppose I should see it one of these days."

Yet it's his uniquely impressionistic vision of the future that put Berkey's reputation over the moon, years before he started creating poster and book jacket images for the likes of George Lucas (the aforementioned epic) and Dino DeLaurentis (Jaws, King Kong). Sure, "John Berkey Observed," currently showing at ArtOrg's Moving Walls gallery in Northfield, offers a smattering of Terra-based work--including a couple of intriguing nudes--but, in the 50 paintings and 100 paperback covers on display, space is mainly the place.

Berkey's science-fiction art was the big draw for the 300 or so folks who swarmed through the gallery on opening night, for good reason. Berkey's command of light and action--as well as his impossibly complex vehicles--make serious space travel seem real. Unlike most tech-types, he daubs quite a lot in spots, leaving just enough in the way of brush stroke visible to make his paintings seem painterly. With its vaguely reptilian configuration and long trail of smoke, the sinister warship in the oil-and-casein Intrusion, An Unpleasant Visitor seems downright demonic as it blasts through the atmospheric haze of some hapless, nameless, dry gulch planet, opposed by only a single, tiny craft. The planet glowing in various shades of gold in the distance looks more menacing still.

While clearly enjoying the adulation heaped on him at the opening, by 8:00 p.m.--just as the crush of admirers was starting to thin--he seemed a bit wilted. Still, his doting grandchildren provided a welcome buoy, as did frisky sales.

Surprisingly, given a résumé that includes two books (Painted Space, The Art of John Berkey), tons of film work, and cover images for Time, Life, and National Geographic, as well as 16 U.S. postage stamps ("elder Elvis" included), Berkey is a newcomer to the gallery world. The Northfield show is his first solo exhibition. "I just never really gave it any thought," he says.

He probably didn't have time. Born in North Dakota and raised in South Dakota and Montana, Berkey discovered his calling while in high school. "I started with pencil and pen-and-ink. Mainly 'cause I was afraid of the brush," he recalls. After attending the Minneapolis School of Art for a few months and finding out what he didn't want to do, he worked as a courier for Artists Incorporated--at the time the Twin Cities' biggest studio--parlaying the contacts he made into a couple of more hands-on jobs under individual freelancers. In 1955, he joined the staff of St. Paul-based Brown and Bigelow. "It was a great place," he says of the calendar giant. "They had more work than anyone could possibly do. If you wanted a job, you just raised your hand."

He painted mostly historical scenes at Brown and Bigelow, around 500 of them. Paintings were merely an intermediary step in the mid-century illustration process, fueling a cavalier attitude toward original work that left thousands of canvases--his and others'--scattered, forgotten, hither and yon. "I remember there was this closet stuffed with Norman Rockwell paintings, tons of them, stacked on top of one another. Somebody said, 'Hey, we should sell these things,' which they did, very easily. I think they got something like $50,000 apiece for them, which wasn't bad at the time. But can you imagine what they'd go for now?"

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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