Former Astronaut On Artistic Voyage

Artist Alan Bean became 4th person to walk on moon

One of an elite dozen astronauts who have walked on the moon, artist Alan Bean set out on a new journey.

The mission: To share his explorations through his paintings, capturing splendors of the moon that are difficult to express in words alone. For nearly three decades Bean has made that voyage as he mines his own memories and delves into new artistic realms.

"They're not like Earth paintings. They don't look like Earth paintings," Bean said. "They're paintings from another world."

The 76-year-old Bean was part of the Apollo 12 crew in November 1969 when he became the fourth person to step foot on the moon.

Scenes from that trip -- along with depictions of fellow astronauts' moon visits and occasional fantasy elements tossed in -- comprise his collection of paintings. Bean's art is on display through April 25, 2009, at the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas and coincides with the museum's exhibit "To the Moon: The American Space Program in the 1960s."

Bean always had a creative streak.

As a kid, he cared about how his model airplanes looked. Early in his military career, he proposed aircraft paint designs and built furniture for his home. Later on he took evening art classes as his pilot and astronaut schedule allowed. Bean began his artistic career in earnest once he left NASA in 1981, after he'd been a Skylab commander and as he was training to be a space shuttle commander.

"I said, 'You know, there's a lot of young men and women around here that can fly this shuttle as good as I can or better. ... Maybe if I left the space program, which I dearly loved, and painted some of my experiences that I could leave a legacy for future generations that somebody might care about,' " Bean said.

Over the years, Bean found unusual ways to incorporate bits of space equipment and lunar dust into his Monet-inspired acrylic paintings.

A friend who ran a Kansas museum provided tiny pieces of the Apollo 12 command module heat shield which was charred at 5,000 degrees as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Bean also used of fragments of foil from the hatch between the command and lunar modules.

One day he realized the threads in the framed, dirty patches from his NASA space suit contained moon dust. So he cut up the patches and worked them into his art.

To create texturing, Bean uses the metal geology hammer he used on the moon, part of a circular core tube bit he kept from his trip and a replica of moon boot soles to create "footprints."

"The moon is a rugged place, and it's beautiful in its own ways -- Buzz Aldrin said magnificent desolation. It's gray, it's rocky, it's dirty. The sky is black," Bean said, explaining his foray into textures and away from colors that he considered too gentle. "It dawned on me I could do this."

Bean said the question he is most often asked is what it felt like to walk on the moon. He answered in a 1986 painting titled "That's How It Felt to Walk on the Moon."

Describing the piece, he recalls seeing Earth as a small, bright, beautiful sphere. He felt a long way from the people and places he loved and felt that the experience was unreal and impossible. Gradually, he said, he injected happier, more exhilarating emotions into the painting until he knew it was just right.

Another painting, "The Fantasy -- Conrad, Gordon, and Bean," shows all three astronauts of Apollo 12 having fun together on the moon, though in real life Dick Gordon orbited 60 miles above.

One of his favorites is "Tracy's Boulder," in which astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt are completing some work on the moon's surface. Cernan told Bean he wished he had thought to write his daughter Tracy's name in the dust on the side of a boulder that's in the painting, so Bean completed the work by placing her name there.

Bean, a graduate of Paschal High School in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at Austin, left his own marks on the moon. He planted an American flag there. A Paschal alumni Web site still boasts about the school flag he took to the moon; Bean said he brought that flag back to Earth and gave it to the school.

One of the biggest benefits of going to the moon was the heightened awareness it brought of what humans could accomplish, he said.

"I think so many times people say, 'We can do that. If we go to the moon, we can do that.' They say it in kind of a funny way, but I think it's true," he said. "This is one of the great explorations of all time."

Bean often mentions his admiration for the U.S. space program and the thousands of people who worked to make moon trips possible.

LBJ Library director Betty Sue Flowers said the opening of the art show Wednesday occurred on the 50th anniversary of the creation of NASA. Then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson co-sponsored the bill that formed the space agency.

"He continued to support that agency and its programs for the rest of his life. He was truly, truly interested in space," Flowers said.

Bean got together with Johnson several times when he was president. He recalled Johnson as a friendly guy who got a kick out of showing visitors the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House and the cattle on his Hill Country ranch.

These days, Bean paints in sessions each morning and afternoon at his Houston home and studio, though he said it was difficult to devote time to his art work after Hurricane Ike left him without electricity for two weeks in September.

Finding open gas stations and stocked grocery stores occupied much of his energy after the storm. He said the conditions made him more appreciative of simple modern-day conveniences.

Bean talks optimistically about humans returning to the moon or venturing to Mars or beyond. He said when people travel to planets around distant stars, perhaps 500 or 1,000 years from now, he hopes they pick a place where there are life forms.

"They won't be exactly like us, but something like that," he said. "These are the great adventures that await humans of future generations. We just began the trip."

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