Conversations: Astronaut-Turned-Moon Artist Alan Bean

Bean, whose work often includes moon dust, has an exhibit at the Air and Space Museum.
Bean, whose work often includes moon dust, has an exhibit at the Air and Space Museum. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon (as part of the Apollo 12 mission), is not so much interested in space these days as he is in painting, which he has pursued since he enrolled in a watercolor class when he was a test pilot. The 77-year-old, who listens to Elvis Presley while painting his moonscapes and astronaut portraits, just opened an exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum that runs through Jan. 13. We talked to him while he was in town on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing.

-- Ruth McCann

Is accuracy important to you when you paint moonscapes?

I bring several things to this art. One is: I can make it just like I think it was. Closer than maybe anybody. So you look at a painting -- that's like it was, except for the color, maybe. The lighting is perfect -- all these things are just right.

You often put your boot prints on the surface of your paintings. Are those your boots?

No, they're not. My boots were left on the moon, because we had to leave anything we could leave on the moon so we could bring back more rocks. The only boots that came back were Apollo 17's. [Bean works with authentic space boots that have never been to the moon.]

You often use moon dust and pieces of your spacesuit in your paintings. Are you in danger of running out of moon dust?

Yes, I'm in danger. But I'm trying to conserve, and what I've done is, they gave me the flag and patches from my suit, which are quite dirty. . . . I've got to make these things last, because I like this idea, and I always make sure that I get some [cloth pieces] that are dirty in there. I do the best I can, but I can't run out.

Why paint only the moon now?

Because that's the job I've got! I'm the only artist in all of history that . . . can paint that thing.

Do you ever dream about the moon?

I did have two dreams -- they were the same -- about space. In the dreams, I'm busy painting in my studio, and I get a call from NASA. They've got to go up to the space station, and it turns out this space station we've got has a lot of hardware from Skylab, which I flew. . . . And they've got to go up and repair it, and they don't have time to train shuttle and space station people to do it. They want me to command a shuttle mission to go up and repair space station stuff. I go to NASA. I say, "Look. I don't have time to learn this shuttle software -- you're gonna have to carry me there. I'll fly, but you've got to support me. And we'll get there, and we'll complete this mission."

Then I wake up, and I say, that has got to be the dumbest dream in the world. And I think that's my subconscious ego telling me that I am needed back at NASA. I'm not needed in NASA! Look at 'em! They're doing all these amazing things -- they don't need me.

But I don't dream about the moon. . . . I only think of the moon relative to paintings now. I wasn't an artist to begin with. Art was my hobby, and I was really an astronaut, a pilot. And as the years pass, I'm not that anymore. Buzz Aldrin will call me up sometimes, wanting to talk about space stuff, 'cause he's really into space stuff. And I say, "Quit talkin' to me, Buzz. I don't wanna think about it. I don't know anything about it. I don't wanna think about ways to go to Mars -- I'm not an astronaut anymore. I don't phone you to ask you what colors to paint these things. I love you, Buzz, but I am not gonna think about that anymore."

I'm a full-time artist.

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