Alan Bean: First Artist on Another World

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Today is the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, which carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into history, as humans took their first steps on the moon. The National Air and Space Museum is celebrating this milestone with the opening of a new exhibition: "Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World."

Alan Bean, now a professional artist, spent 18 years as an astronaut at NASA, where he flew in the Apollo 12 mission—becoming the fourth man to walk on the moon—and later commanded Skylab 3, spending 59 days in space. He creates his artwork using acrylics and adds texture with moon boots, his NASA hammer and pieces of his patches that still have a bit of moon dust on them.

Bean will sign copies of his book, Alan Bean: Painting Apollo, First Artist on Another World, today from 11 AM to 2 PM at the Air and Space Museum. The exhibit of the same title, featuring 50 of his paintings, is on display at the museum until January 13.

You have said that going to the moon doesn’t change a person, it reveals things that are already there. What did going to the moon reveal in you?

Well, it revealed this interest in art that I didn’t even know was this strong. I think it revealed for me, in that I think a lot of times you had feelings toward people and you’re afraid to say it because it might be embarrassing to you or they might reject you. I noticed that since I’ve been back from the moon, it’s given me more self-confidence. Other than that, I still like the same things, but I even like them more.

For instance, I like ice cream. I can remember when I got back from Skylab, it wasn’t the moon, but it was 59 days away. One of the first things I wanted to do was go down to a shopping center and get an ice cream cone and just watch people go by. Because I can remember looking down and saying 'There’s a lot of people down there and I can’t see any of them,' and 'I need an ice cream,' but I didn’t have one. The simpler things in life seemed to please me more.

I’m just happy every day. By the way, I don’t think you have to go to the moon to feel this way, but it helps if you can achieve whatever your dream is. If you do, then I think that completes a chapter in your life somehow and then you can open a new page or you can risk more.

It seems like being an astronaut and an artist are two entirely different professions, but have you found any similarities?

They are very different. Psychologists tell us that flying airplanes, space ships and doing mathematics, those are left brain (analytical) functions. What I’ve observed over the years is people who are successful have to use both sides of their brains. Certainly the people who were engineers and scientists at division Apollo had to use their right brain (creativity) to conceive that they could do this, and then conceive of a spacecraft, how it might look, and maybe two spacecraft, and maybe a big rocket.

They don’t realize—because psychologists all these years have told them they're left brain—that they’re really working the right brain. And then in order to do it, then you have to use your left brain and systematically do this by Wednesday, do this by March, and so on. I didn’t know why I wanted to paint and none of my other pilot or astronaut friends did. It seemed like a good thing to do. It seemed like it was nice. I think it was just a natural, they used their left brain more than their right because they had to, and I did, too, at that time.

What shifts in thinking did you make when you started painting professionally?

One of the things that I decided, was that I’m not going to be an astronaut who paints. I’m going be a guy that’s an artist now and used to be an astronaut 28 years ago. That’s the way I think of myself. I went back to art school. I took courses. I didn’t just say 'Now I’m an artist,' even though it was my hobby. I said 'I’ve got to learn to be that.'

You’ve viewed the moon from many perspectives: as a citizen, an astronaut and an artist. Do you look at the moon differently now than in the past?

Yes, because as an artist you’re more interested in how things actually look. When you’re an astronaut, you’re more interested in how you do it, meaning things like what size it is, what’s the mass, and what altitude am I going to pass above it. You know what the moon looks like, but you’re not studying it. Now as an artist, I am looking very careful at everything. This was true about all the space hardware. One of the reasons that I stayed in Houston. I knew it all, but I didn’t know exactly how it looked, so I had to stay somewhere I could go look at spacesuits, look at the connectors, and rovers. It’s a different skill and you have to go back to square one and learn it.

To learn more about Alan Bean's work as an artist and astronaut, check out this video that is part of the exhibition at the Air and Space Museum.

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