For someone who lived almost his entire life in a small town in Minnesota and seldom traveled far from his home, Illustrator John Berkey has shown the world a unique vision of a future in time and space way beyond our wildest dreams. He is most well-known as a science fiction artist, specifically for his paintings of huge graceful spaceships of multi-faceted shapes adorned with many intricate details, soaring through outer space.
Starting in the nineteen sixties, John was commissioned to do illustrations of the astronauts involved with NASA and the space program as part of their efforts to go beyond the earth’s atmosphere and eventually to the moon. In 1972, John caught the attention of science fiction fans the world over with a series of dazzling paintings for Ballantine Books’ STAR series. Following the publication of this work, there was a great demand for more space ships to appear on science fiction book covers. By the time of his induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2004, John was called the most innovative and influential futurist painter of his time.
Early in his career, John spent eight years as a staff artist at Brown and Bigelow, where he produced up to seventy calendar paintings a year. Ironically, a major portion of this work was historical in nature, portraying the pioneers in their quest to find a life for themselves in the unknown territories of the west. Many of these calendars had themes of road, bridge and railway construction and related industries of mining, shipping, milling and farming, all of them requiring a great deal of research so that these images reflected accurately the methods, machinery and dress appropriate to time and place. This body of work told an amazing story of the past through John Berkey’s skillful interpretation. As well as using his imagination to illuminate the past and the future, he was painting contemporary scenes on every possible subject matter.
His art appeared on book and magazine covers, in ads, on movie posters such as King Kong, Star Wars, and the Towering Inferno, and on U.S. postage stamps, most memorably, the Santa Claus Christmas Stamp in 1983 and again in 1991. He painted beautiful women of all ages, cars…classic and innovative, disaster scenes, landscapes, seascapes, sporting events, festivals, airplanes, monorails …whatever he was asked to do. With his ability to see things from a different perspective, John’s illustrations depicted the full spectrum of life-past, present, and future. This quiet, contemplative genius will not soon be forgotten.
Berkey died of heart failure on April 28, 2008. Many of his original paintings are periodically on display at ArtOrg in Northfield, Minnesota.