In the late 1960s, up-and-coming New Jersey painter Phil Weisgerber ventured out to southern California in his twenties and landed a job within one of the U.S. government’s most sensitive and closely guarded industries. Over the next 40-plus years, he would go on to become one of the most influential and well-respected conceptual artists in Northrop Grumman’s history. In October of last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Weisgerber in his studio and discuss his colorful life and career. Following is a transcript of my interview with this talented artist.
Adam: Today is October 31, 2016, and I’m sitting in Phil Weisgerber’s home in Redondo Beach, California. So Phil, I’m just going to start at the beginning and walk through your life and career essentially. There are no wrong answers.
Phil: Good. I don’t want to fail a test or anything.
Adam: I read that you grew up in New Jersey. What was that like?
Phil: I always thought I was going to live there. I love New Jersey. I go back there for three or four months every year. Most of my family is there and my girlfriend Maria lives there. I just like the smell of it. I grew up in a wilderness area known as the “Great Swamp.” I worked for hunt clubs and as a guide out in the swamp until I was about 20 and moved to California.
Adam: I imagine the surrounding beauty influenced a lot of your work.
Phil: Most of the landscapes that you see around us are paintings of the swamps. I paint them for myself but I sell them as well. I tend to paint what I want and not care if anybody buys them or not. They sell eventually.
Adam: You attended the National Academy School of Fine Arts and Design in New York City. Was it a difficult transition to go there from such a wide-open space?
Phil: I stayed in New Jersey because I was only 25 miles from New York. I would take the train in every morning. But yes, I loved walking around in the city before or after class. I had no idea what I was going to do. I had these scholarships from high school so I figured I might as well use them to attend the National Academy.
Adam: Do you have any favorite artists or people you draw inspiration from?
Phil: I studied Rembrandt for so long and I always liked his style. Even though satellites and landscapes don’t look like Rembrandt, I’m always thinking of Rembrandt. When I was at the National Academy, this one instructor (who looked like he could have known Rembrandt) said that he studied under Rembrandt. The Metropolitan had a huge collection of Rembrandt paintings so I would do just like he said and go down and study the Rembrandts. It was only walking distance. I had special access so I could go down to the basements and the vaults and look at things that weren’t on display.
Adam: What was your motivation to move to Los Angeles?
Phil: It was actually an art teacher in high school who prompted me to apply to the Art Center School in Los Angeles. In the National Academy, all you really did was nudes: figure painting in the morning and figure drawing in the afternoon. The instructors were world famous. I had no idea what I wanted to do but my high school teacher said, “I want you to go to California and go to school at Art Center,” and I didn’t even know what for. But I did come out and was accepted.
Adam: After Art Center, what led you into aerospace and defense?
Phil: I think it was because it was the first place that hired me. I called major companies in Southern California that might have an art department. I was ready to go back to New Jersey but needed money to get back there. A guy at Purolator was going to hire me in Thousand Oaks but I never got a degree from Art Center, only a Certificate of Completion. I could have gotten the degree if I’d taken two more classes but the head of the department said, “You don’t really need the degree. Your work will speak for itself.” So, after I filled out the paperwork at Purolator, the receptionist said, “You didn’t put down your degree.” I said, “I don’t have one.” She threw my application in the trash and said, “We don’t hire anyone without a degree.” I called TRW [Thompson Ramo Wooldridge — the space branch of which was purchased by Northrop Grumman for $7.8 billion in 2002] and they asked me to come in, but then the art director from Purolator called me and asked why I didn’t show up for my interview. I said, “I don’t have a degree.” And he said, “You went to Art Center, right?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, I’d have hired you anyway. You didn’t need a degree. ” Well, I didn’t know that at the time. I was 24 years old and didn’t know how the work world worked.
Adam: So describe what it was like to go from Art Center to working at a massive aerospace corporation.
Phil: When I started at TRW, I was in the Presentation Art Department and did speedball lettering for four or five years, which I had never done before.
Adam: Can you describe that process a bit?
Phil: We would produce these 30 by 40-inch flip charts with India ink and speedball pens. They would use these for presentations. We also did pastel work. If there were illustrations on the charts, we always did them in pastels. I won an award for one of those pastels back in 1969. There were five or so established artists at TRW and they did all the color work. Anything painted was usually done by John Desatoff or Frank Warren and a few others. It wasn’t until about 1980, when everybody was so busy that somebody came to me and asked if I could do a satellite painting. I did it in three days and it was very well received. That got my foot in the door and afterward I produced most of the color illustrations. And then my work won some international awards and garnered attention from TRW and customers.
Adam: Can you describe the creative process of how you would work with the customer to come up with a painting?
Phil: A lot of them started as conceptual drawings. Some of the products had no plans, no blueprints, and we’d draw them up; others had engineering drawings. I would do a lot of roughs and that was the fun part — the conceptual drawings and paintings. Sometimes I would do up to 10 or 15 of them with different varieties of painting to choose from.
Adam: So would you establish which rough to start from and then bring it back to your studio and start painting?
Phil: I never did oil at TRW. Everything was done in gouache which is an opaque watercolor. Once a rough was done and approved, I’d refine the rough a little bit or give them a transitional painting. When that was approved, I would paint the finish. The fun part was doing the roughs and solving a problem. A lot of them were a challenge to show what the customer wanted to show. Often the roughs were more dynamic because you could splash a highlight that was bigger than the subject on it and make it look really good.
Adam: Do any of the paintings really jump out at you as favorites?
Phil: Yes. Actually, when President Reagan was in office, I liked a lot of the Star Wars program art. There were all these Brilliant Pebbles and autonomous things flying around in space. It was fun figuring out a lot of them because often you had to go back to the engineers and find out what the orbits were and how high they were to make the pictures right. There were other ones that were fun. I ended up doing a lot of these long pieces that just evolve from one thing into another. Such as this timeline that starts with the Big Bang and ends with AXAF.
Adam: And what is the size of that one, for our readers?
Phil: It’s about 60 inches by 8 inches.
Adam: It’s gorgeous.
Phil: A lot of these have gone through transitions. Sometimes over a 10-year period, I would work on that same piece of art. Instead of doing a new one each time, I would take out the old one and wipe part of it off. That’s one thing about gouache — you can just wipe off what’s on there with a wet cloth and have a clean board to work over. It would save the company a lot of money and me a lot of time. The gouache was the worst media I had ever seen when I was going to art school. Depending on how you used it, it could dry lighter or darker and it would never dry the same color. It took so many years but after working with it for forty years at TRW, it became the easiest paint to use. You could mix your colors up and it would look like it was three values different and you’d put it down and it would dry right up to the same color. I felt really proud of that — that something I hated so much at school turned into my favorite medium.
Adam: Your work has been featured at Northrop Grumman, NASA, the Pentagon and Smithsonian, among others. You’ve been covered in Popular Science, Global Defense Review, Aviation Weekly. Even Steven Spielberg owns some of your work. Are there any specific milestones that stand out to you as career accomplishments, or experiences that are particularly memorable?
Phil: The company travel was fun. I also traveled with the Air Force to the Middle East and Europe as a member of the Air Force art program. One time in Iraq, I remember I was walking to go see the Temple of Ur and a guy telling me, “Remember to stay on the tank tracks.” I asked, “Why?” And he said, “Because there’s live ordnances out there.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t need to see the temple that bad.” It was an experience just seeing a whole other part of life — the way they live in that region.
Adam: Tell me about your relationship with the company’s customers. What was it like for a free-spirit artist working for the military?
Phil: The Air Force would fly you to AF bases all over the country and they’d treat you real nice. My part was to paint something for the Air Force that showed their impact around the world. Over the years I’ve painted a guy releasing a weather balloon … another one was a moose up in Alaska. And I would paint missiles, launch facilities, satellites and space paintings.
The Air Force had a lot to do with the space program. When I was in England at Lakenheath Air Force Base, I did a painting of a distant F-15 at the top with all these flowers in the foreground. The painting, which was called “End of Runway Lakenheath,” went over well.
Even with TRW, I’d go up to Vandenberg to do research for when they were building SLC-6 for the shuttle launches. I was out with this guy and I kept telling him to stop the car because I wanted to take pictures of the flowers. After about the third stop he said, “You seem more interested in the flowers then the buildings we’re going to.” And I said, “To tell you the truth, I am.” So he said, “Well, let me go get the four-wheel drive.” He came back with the four-wheel drive and we spent the rest of the afternoon riding all over Vandenberg taking pictures of landscapes. I said, “I really like this.” He said, “If you ever want to come up again, call me.” And I used to go up and see him and we’d just go out for rides all over the place and shoot the landscape.
Adam: It’s not just the aerospace industry that appreciated your talent. Tell me how Steven Spielberg ended up with one of your works?
Phil: It was a gift from a man that I was doing some freelance for, who happened to know Steven Spielberg really well. He bought one of my prints to take to a dinner party at Norman Lear’s house to give to Spielberg as a gift. I understand Spielberg actually liked my version of E.T. hugging the Earth and said it was one of his favorite versions of E.T. And that’s how Spielberg ended up with my work.
Adam: Well, you’ve accomplished so much over your amazing career, but are there any dream projects that remain to be done?
Phil: I guess my dream project would be to have the incentive to do any of the ones that are already in my head. I have reference pieces that I shoot all over the country when I’m out, and I’d like to do a lot more paintings. I still like painting the swamps; it’s still one of my favorite subjects.
Phil Weisgerber passed away peacefully in his home on January 13, 2017, surrounded by family. His legacy includes four children, three grandchildren, and his art.