John Baeder, the great American photorealist painter with a focus on roadside America (notably diners), has gone from having his feet firmly planted on the ground to soaring high in the heavens. In recent years he put aside the documentary art of vernacular eateries for the runways and hangars of World War II. His latest oil paintings are of vintage aircraft that recall his “aircraft mania” as a child. I talked with Baeder about the new book John Baeder Takes Wing on a Higher Road by Jay Williams, which doubles as the catalog for an exhibit of the same name at Fort Wayne Museum of Art (Nov. 12–Jan. 29) featuring glorious evocations of these sculptural machines.
What transformed your work from roadside to airborne culture?
I had the aircraft ideas when still [an] advertising art director. They weren’t developed, and at the same time I was collecting roadside-oriented postcards, seeing them as minuscule paintings, wanting to enlarge to see what would happen. After departing McCann-Erickson, they eventually became my first exhibit. I was painting while still there. At the same time I was also photographing diners for the fun of it—they reminded me of temples from a lost civilization—not knowing they would later be subject matter for hundreds of paintings.
I painted black and white and sepia postcards to give the exhibit more scope and depth, enjoying the idea of one color and white, plus they were more realistic, thus the beginning of painting “photorealism.” About a year and a half into full-time painting, my art dealer, Ivan Karp [OK Harris], asked me to paint an aircraft for a specific exhibition of only aircraft. I saw the request as an opportunity to fulfill the earlier ideas and [utilize] my boxed collection. I chose a WWII torpedo bomber (the SB2C-4 Helldiver)—the shape, predatory stance, graphics, black and white was appealing. For an unknown reason the painting was returned. A good omen, through the years always haunting me. Later, it became a muse of sorts sitting above my computer—always looking at it, and the painting looking at me.
You reproduce a photograph of the boxes filled with airplane reference. Where did these come from?
My interest in aircraft, mostly ’30s civil and WWII, started when I was around 6. At that time the jet age became forefront. Around 12 I’d have weekly sojourns to book stores for any new book; the library was also an important refuge for books and magazines. The subscriptions to Skyways, Flying, Air Trails, Air Progress and Aero Digest weren’t enough to feast my curious eyes. From one of the magazine’s ads, I responded to an aviation historian who sold his personal photographs through a small catalogs.
Then another appeared, and another photo service. I’d purchase several, then more and more. The collection, all same size and negative format, grew and grew. Elixirs for my spirit. I needed another “temporary” box to replace the official wooden treasure chest. They stayed with me through many lives and many moves for a reason. My interest didn’t wane, there was a sudden abundance of more magazines and publications. I’d purchase many, still to this day. I was always curious and fascinated with the esoteric graphic language of not just U.S., but also foreign WWII aircraft. It’s huge and mesmerizing. A separate study within itself. Now many books deal with this subject matter. [It’s] an arena addressed by very serious aircraft aficionados, including many historians, scale model builders, and above all, the plethora of brilliant vintage aviation artists who I dearly admire and respect, yet I am way removed from their sensibilities.
Your art is admired greatly for its precision and exactitude. I’m sorry to be so pedestrian with this question, but how long does it take to complete an image?
Compared to past diner or various roadside images, I’m presently painting smaller sizes. The reason being that the simpler image of an aircraft fits more comfortably in a smaller format, plus physically they’re less demanding. However, they can take the same amount of time as a regular earlier work—about a month. I don’t have a rigorous schedule. Some images are more complex than others. Painting in one color and white, occasionally two and white, is far more difficult than full color. Growing up with black and white documentary photography in my face, and various sepias from rotogravure publications, always enamored my visual consciousness. Being first generation TV, and a love for black and white film, added to the passion and derived glee.
There are many kinds of World War II–era planes. Some are familiar to me, others have the experimental, aerodynamic Modern Mechanix magazine cover quality. What were the reasons for doing any particular one?
The love of a specific aircraft also goes back to the early days. I didn’t process the sculptural qualities, yet I recognized each specific design has a separate personality. On the ground there’s an attitude. Side views give off a shape I’m drawn too. Three quarters front, or rear, the shape moves, It is no different than experiencing a fine piece of sculpture.
When ordering the small photos, I always favored side views, similar in feeling to my many “frontal” diners. Some aircraft appear more handsome and appealing in flight; a good example is the P-38 Lightning. Oddball, experimental designs have another quirky look; many of these aircraft never made production. I’ve only chosen a few, mostly because of their design and how their shapes change so drastically. It’s truly astonishing what can happen design-wise with a long cylinder, the fuselage, and how it’s combined with a wing, tails, and engine components joined together in a cohesive shape. Even biplanes (though to the layman they all look alike) have their own design features that are not only alluring, but mysterious at the same time.
Much has to do with light and shadow. I create various cloud formations that are reminiscent of English, Italian or Dutch master landscape paintings. Their mixture adds another component to the image to assist the transcendence of not just an aircraft per se.
Have you ever flown in any of these?
I flew in a biplane primary trainer, a Navy Stearman N3N-3, proper blue and yellow colors,
the same aircraft used by the Army Air Corp (after WWII, the U.S. Army Air Force)—a PT-19. I was doing a freelance job about a barnstormer and needed a biplane to photograph.