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Illustration Brings Recognition : Artist's Life Changed by Painting of Shuttle Crew

June 15, 1986|NANCY GRAHAM | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica artist John Solie expected to be in Washington last week to present his painting of the crew of the ill-fated Challenger to President Reagan.

The presentation ceremony has been indefinitely delayed, however, because the President and others are focusing their attention on the findings of the presidential commission assigned to investigate the Jan. 28 explosion of the space shuttle.

Solie said he was to have been part of a Young Astronauts program last Wednesday, but he believes his presentation was eliminated because the President wanted the ceremonies to be upbeat, with few reminders of the tragedy.

About 100 members of the Young Astronauts, who had asked Solie to join them and present his painting, had their meeting with the President as scheduled.

Tentatively Rescheduled in July

Solie's presentation has been tentatively rescheduled to take place at a black-tie event in July, but both Solie and a Washington spokesman for the Young Astronauts association said the date is not definite.

Solie's painting appeared in the May issue of Reader's Digest, illustrating an article by Malcolm M. Connell entitled "Challenger: Reflections on a Tragedy."

The painting shows the astronauts as they appeared before the launch, smiling and eager for their adventure.

Solie said he did the painting from photographs of the astronauts. He said he tried not to think of the tragic ending to their lives.

Shortly after his painting was published, Solie was approached by representatives of the Young Astronauts, a privately financed educational program that uses the excitement of the space program to encourage elementary and junior high school students to study mathematics, science and technology.

Plan for Farm Shelved

Publication of the astronaut painting seems to have changed Solie's plans for his future. His plan to buy a farm in Wisconsin was shelved last May, he said, when he was deluged with requests for prints of the illustration and the Wisconsin printer who puts together the promotional packets for the Young Astronauts approached him about reproducing the painting.

The farm was to be a part-time home with a huge studio for Solie. For the time being, the Solies and their son, Eric, 21, will continue to live in their combination studio-home near the beach in Santa Monica.

Reader's Digest has released all rights to his shuttle crew painting, he said, and there has even been some talk of putting it on a stamp. Solie said he hopes it might be included in a Young Astronauts Challenger memorial packet printed by LaCrosse Marketing Concepts in Wisconsin. For the first time in his life, the 49-year-old Solie is receiving fan mail.

It is all rather surprising, he said. Although he has been a successful illustrator for years and many people knew of his work, no one ever seemed to know his name, he said.

Previous Work

Before doing the shuttle crew painting, he had done hundreds of illustrations for films, books and the space program. Paintings of actresses Kathryn Hepburn and Julie Andrews ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Eight Solie paintings of actors have appeared on TV Guide covers.

His biography lists Solie works on display in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Fort Pierre, S.D.; the Celebrity Wax Museum in Shingiku, Japan, and the Pentagon Art Gallery in Washington.

When he received the news last weekend that the presentation of the astronaut painting had been postponed, Solie called his travel agent and canceled flight plans for him and his wife, Shirley. He put his new suit, bought one day earlier, back in the closet.

"Now I suppose I'll have to get a tuxedo," Solie said.

His wife added, "I'm not shopping for any formal dresses yet."

The Young Astronauts group was launched in 1984 and has about 250,000 members, according to Edith Westermann of the group's Washington headquarters. It has 500 chapters in California.

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