"The Great Moment" by Paul Calle (Photo: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West)
On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins woke up, ate breakfast, strapped themselves into unwieldy costumes, crossed a catwalk and climbed into a tin can perched atop a tower of high explosives.
It would be just the three of them for the next eight days of the Apollo 11 mission, the first to leave human footprints on the moon. But for many more days that came before, right up to the breakfast and the donning of the spacesuits, painter and illustrator Paul Calle was there to document the details.
Like a courtroom sketch artist, he drew the first draft of history.
Mark Armstrong, Neil’s son, is a fan
Mark Armstrong (left), Chris Calle and Tim Peterson at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West. (Photo: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West)
“Good for NASA for having the foresight to bring an artist into the inner circle, because that’s not necessarily an obvious thing,” said Mark Armstrong, son of that “giant leap for mankind” guy, after taking in a collection of Calle’s art, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
The museum will mark the anniversary with screenings of the Smithsonian Channel documentary “The Day We Walked on the Moon” at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. with additional showings at 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through August.
“An artist brings a different level of expertise, a different eye, and it provides for an interpretation rather than just the raw footage that you would get in a video,” Armstrong said. “Paul was the right guy, and I’m so glad they chose him. He did so many sketches. I don’t know if anybody (knows) the number of sketches and the amount of time he was on the road with the astronauts. But someone should do the math.”
Iconic images of explorers
The exhibit, “Paul Calle’s Life of Exploration: From the Mountains to the Moon,” includes large-scale paintings such as “The Great Moment” (depicting Neil Armstrong’s first steps from the landing module onto the surface) as well as intimate sketches and original drawings that became commemorative stamps licked by millions of Americans.
Other works include sports illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post and Western images of cowboys, Native Americans and landscapes that filled the artist’s later career.
"Something for the Pot II" by Paul Calle (Photo: Loren Anderson)
“If you grew up in the ’60s through the ’80s, you know Paul Calle’s work even if you don’t know who Paul Calle was,” said Tim Peterson, a Calle collector who helped put together the show for the Western Spirit museum, where he serves on the board of trustees.
The late Calle’s son, Chris Calle, said his father felt a deep connection between the image of Neil Armstrong’s boot crunching into moon dust and that of mountain main John Colter stepping into the snowscape that would become Yellowstone National Park.
Up close and personal with astronauts
The artist’s style is hyperrealistic, but his vision of the West is definitely romantic, and that extends to his work for NASA as well.
(Photo: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West)
“He always thought of astronauts putting on their spacesuits like knights putting on their armor getting ready for battle,” Chris Calle said.
Calle based his moon-landing images on the live video, of course, but he was intimately familiar with the minutiae of the astronauts’ lives, having sketched for NASA dating back to Project Gemini (the bridge between the Mercury missions, which first put Americans into space, and Apollo).
He even had his own spacesuit to reference.
“He set it up as a still life in our garage,” Chris Calle said. “And when he had to mow the lawn, he would move the spacesuit out and put it in the hall closet” — you know, where a kid could just play with it.
Sons pay tribute to famous fathers
Chris Calle has followed in his father’s footsteps as a Western painter. He even got to stand in for his dad in the 2018 film “First Man,” in the background sketching Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.
Mark Armstrong also had a cameo in the movie, giving the two sons of famous fathers a chance to renew the friendship they had developed over the years. And that led to another reunion at the Calle show in Scottsdale.
“That was a very cool and exciting way for my dad’s Apollo journey to come full circle 50 years later,” Chris Calle said.
‘Paul Calle’s Life of Exploration: From the Mountains to the Moon’
When: Through Oct. 11.
Where: Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, 3830 N. Marshall Way.
Admission: $15 (discounts for seniors, students and active military).
Talk to the writer about arts and culture at email@example.com or 602-444-4896. Follow him at facebook.com/LengelOnTheater and twitter.com/KerryLengel.