For artists, particularly surrealists like Paul Klee, Salvadore Dali, and Joan Miro, painting from dreams is not unusual. But in the early 1970s, when the Columbia artist Blue Sky decided to paint a dream he’d had, it was a bit out of the ordinary. That’s because Blue is a realist, painting what he observes in the physical world.
“I go out and see things, and they interest me and I paint them,” he says. “I paint them exactly as they are, although I might add a few tree branches, or, as I did in a 2012 painting of the State House, some electrical wires, which I used to juxtapose the soft hazy building. Counterpoint is very important.”
Blue’s envisioned painting was unique for another reason; instead of painting on canvas or wood, he wanted to put it on a building. Unlike today, when public art is part of a city’s personality, new murals were rare in the 1970s. But that didn’t stop Blue, who approached the building’s owner with his grand scheme. When he was told they would only support the project if the South Carolina Arts Commission got behind it, he found a member of the commission who was willing to take a chance on his idea and champion it through the approval gauntlet. Blue received approval and spent the next year basically living on a scaffolding that he built so that he could create the 50-foot by 75-foot mural.
“The actual process hasn’t changed much since Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel,” he says. “You sketch it out on paper, hang the paper on the wall, then make a stencil using a perforator and a pouncer, which pushes finely ground charcoal onto the painting surface. The biggest difference between Michelangelo’s process and mine is that he had assistants and I had to do it all myself.”
When the mural Blue called Tunnelvision was completed in 1975, it caused such a sensation that People magazine featured it in a story, and people came from all over the world to gawk at the remarkable scene. It wasn’t the mural’s size that caused the attention but rather its most striking features — a remarkably realistic depiction of a rocky tunnel and, at the end, a setting sun that glowed with such convincing clarity it was hard to look away.
“Blue has been painting in Columbia for so long that it’s easy to forget the influence he’s had in the art world,” says Lynn Sky, Blue’s wife, agent, and the mother of the couple’s adult son Jesse.
“I’m a scientist more than an artist,” says Blue when asked why he paints what he does. “Most artists are more touchy-feely and don’t have a clue about science. I’m interested in the nature of things: why they look like they do. I paint to capture that and hold it.”
Blue has always painted and drawn. As a high schooler he designed Dreher High School’s Blue Devil mascot, which is still used today; however, science was his true passion. He was fascinated by airplanes, often riding his bike to Owens Field to spend the day watching them take off and land. In ninth grade, for a physics project, he used instructions he discovered in a 100-year-old manual to copy Sir Isaac Newton’s reflector telescope, a 17th century marvel that used two mirrors to capture celestial light. “When everyone else was making soap or growing fungus, I made a telescope,” he says with a laugh. “A year later, I began experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells and actually made one for my 1950 Mercury convertible.”
Blue also spent a lot of time creating paintings of cars and trucks, bringing design details to life. “I love cars so much that when I see one that’s particularly beautiful, I can’t help but buy it,” he says. “They’re like sculptures, each with a different style. Right now I have six, and my neighbors are tired of looking at them.”
His two paths, art and science, continued along separate tracks while Blue was in high school and later in college. “I was studying art, but I worked at the Congaree Army Airport, which is now McEntire Joint National Guard Base, as part of the maintenance crew for F104 fighters,” he says. “I loved the work but also the access to their library, where I spent hours reading the jet propulsion manuals for the planes. I learned how to make a rocket from scratch and actually drew up blueprints for a rocket-propelled airplane.” Blue says that at one point, he shared his drawings with a high school friend, who was equally fascinated with the science of motion. “We lost touch, but 30 years later he called me from Seattle, where he’s an engineer for Boeing. He was on the team that designed the 747.”
As he continued his joyful hours indulging the science side of his brain, his creative side was winning awards for art projects that were as creative as they were technically proficient. He had also taken a job at Colite in Lexington, creating scale drawings that would become oversized signs for airports and highways. “I’d always been good at spacing letters on a sign, which turned out to be a very useful skill for a sign designer,” he says with a laugh.
In 1964 Blue, who was still painting under his given name, Warren Johnson, entered a painting called Round Sound in the prestigious Springs Mills art show; Henry Geldzahler, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Contemporary Collection, named it best in show. The award cemented Blue’s place as a postwar artist and secured his position as a student at the prestigious Art Students League in New York. Blue, who at that point had not yet committed to the idea of working as a full-time artist, continued with a job at a Park Avenue industrial design company, taking classes when he could.
But Blue and New York were not meant to be long-term partners, so in 1966 he returned to Columbia and went back to school, completing a master’s degree in art education in 1970. He was also selling paintings like crazy. “Everyone was painting abstract, but Betsy Havens, who owned a gallery at the time in Columbia, put together a show of my beach paintings, which were realistic,” he says. “It was a huge success.”
Lynn Sky notes that while Blue’s painting style was realism, the point of view he painted allowed them to fit into the abstract trend of the time. “If he got super close or created a particularly misty scene, the painting would look abstract because you really couldn’t tell what you were looking at,” she says. “Even mechanical things, like the front of a car, would feel like an abstract painting.”
It was also around that time that Blue began to experiment with adding a scientific component to his art. His first project was an 8-foot-tall fiberglass sea monster, which he planned to drop into Lake Murray. Using a pulley and weights, he would make the monster move when a boat came by and dive underwater if the boater came to investigate. Also, of course, a sound system that would emit loud growls. “I woke up one day and realized I was crazy and dumped the whole thing in the trash,” he says. “On top of wasting time, I’d made a terrible mess.”
After completing Tunnelvision, Blue continued to evolve as a painter, building on themes and experimenting with color and light. “The blacks are never black enough and the whites are never white enough,” he says. “You’ve got to get the color right, then you can begin to work on solving the light. Now that’s where it gets interesting.”
Blue Sky has worked as a full-time artist since 1971. In that time, he has exhibited alongside such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Andrew Wyeth, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, George Tooker, and Winslow Homer at sites that include the White House, the National Academy of Design, and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Sweden. His work is part of the public collection of the Smithsonian Institution as well as private collections at major corporations throughout the United States. Examples of Blue’s work can be seen throughout Columbia, including murals at the USC Visitor Center, the South Carolina State Museum, and Congaree National Park, as well as sculptures such as NEVERBUST, a silver chain connecting two buildings on Main Street.