The Late, Great Robert McCall

PARADISE VALLEY, Arizona — Even if you haven’t heard of Robert McCall, you are still probably familiar with his work.

You will find his wide-eyed (and just plain wide) views of space — past, present and future — spanning the entry hall of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum; at the Horizons pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT center; in old movie posters for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or in a two-decade-long series of postage stamps depicting space themes (talk about pushing the envelope …).

No, Robert McCall may not be a household name, but his work has household familiarity. An art school graduate from Columbus, Ohio, with a lifelong fascination with things that fly, McCall has illustrated the reality and the dreams the space age since it all began more than 40 years ago.

I got the idea for doing a story on McCall during a visit to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s office. I was thinking of ways of telling the Apollo 11 anniversary story when I stumbled onto my inspiration. Prominently displayed just outside Goldin’s door is a McCall “Mars-scape” depicting astronauts at work on the red planet.

It is vintage McCall. The machinery is intriguing and detailed, the spacefarers seem as if they are part of a heraldic pageant (as a boy, he had a fascination with drawing knights in shining armor) and the terrain is rugged and sweeping.

Actually, those mountains are reminiscent of the range that lies outside McCall’s picture window (naturally) in his roomy studio at his home here. He says he moved to Arizona (from New York) in 1970 after a visit left him artistically inspired and personally enamored with the lifestyle.

Pass through the antique Mexican doors into the courtyard of McCall’s home, and you will be greeted by the other artist in this residence: Bob’s wife of more than 50 years, Louise.

While Bob’s head was up in the clouds (literally and figuratively) for most of his artistic career, Louise has remained well grounded (literally and figuratively). She is a painter of flowers — and a fine and prolific one at that. For years her career was overshadowed by Bob’s success and sidetracked by the demands of raising two daughters.

She served as an adviser and assistant to Bob as his career took flight. But it’s obvious what collaboration they are most proud of. We followed them down the road a few miles to see it — at their church (Valley Presbyterian).

When the congregation decided to add a small, chapel-in-the-round for smaller ceremonies a few years ago, they called upon this artistic pair in their midst to design the stained-glass windows. Standing in the middle of the chapel, the pair guided me through the work.

With a rising sun, a constellation of stars and planets and heavenly symbolism wrapping around above, and of course, some of Louise’s flowers rooted in the panes that rise from the floor, the McCalls’ beautiful glass tells a story of faith and hope and optimism.

Not long after it was finished, and not long after the Challenger disaster, the widow of the commander of the doomed flight, June Scobee visited here. After gazing into the glass and reflecting, she told the McCall’s she knew where her husband was. The McCalls’ eyes glisten as they recount the story.

We spent two marvelous days with the McCalls — seeing them at work — talking with them about life in general. They seemed like a young couple. It is hard to believe they are well into their 70s.

That’s what happens when you have — and share — a passion. You never really grow old.

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