Adam Ugolnik

Sep 12th 2020

Top Secret Art: Yes, It’s A Thing


Not only is top secret art a thing, it impacts our world more than you may think. Every day, security-cleared artists spanning the globe sort through the technical details of our nation’s most closely guarded secrets. Through writing, illustration, coding and CGI, they translate complicated engineering specs into comprehensible stories to aid our government’s decision-makers in understanding and implementing these cutting-edge technologies. I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Northrop Grumman’s classified artists and reflect on his work, where he finds inspiration and the challenges and advantages of this chosen career path in top secret art.

Adam: So, where did you grow up?

Artist: Kind of the South Bay area — Harbor City and then Palos Verdes. I went to a local high school here, and then I went to college and got a degree in art.

Adam: What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?

Artist: I’m active in my church. I’m also a mentor on a robotics team. I’m in charge of strategy and teaching systems engineering, despite my background. I used to play a bunch of sports but I’m old now.

Adam: When did you realize that you had artistic talent?

Artist: I can’t remember a time that I couldn’t draw well. When I was young, I was into tracing coloring books. Not the silly ones, but I remember there was a series of books that were illustrations of horror movies … ‘Wolfman,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ all that kind of stuff. I would color it in, trace it and then I’d color it again a different way. I just loved drawing. Later on, I enjoyed Maxfield Parrish. I was interested in photorealistic rendering — painting with gouache and watercolor and airbrushes. So when I was in college, I went down the path of illustration. I thought I was going to do children’s books.

Adam: How did that lead you to a career in aerospace and defense?

Artist: When I was in college, my parents used to have breakfast with an engineer and his wife who lived down the street from them. My mom was always trying to find an angle to get her kids a job somewhere, so she asked if they ever hire artists for summer hire positions. He asked the guy who was in charge of the tech illustration area, and the guy said, “As a matter of fact, normally some vice president’s kid gets this, but the kid that was doing it last year has decided that he doesn’t want to do it … ” That’s how I got in the door. My dad was a Marine, so I had an inclination toward military stuff. So when I got here and I started drawing satellites and airplanes, it was a good fit.

Adam: I bet your dad was psyched too.

Artist: Yes. My mother thought I was going to starve as an artist. She was sure of it. Turns out there are a lot of engineers who are good at math and science but can’t communicate worth beans, so they paid me to paint pictures of what they wanted to communicate.

Adam: Can you describe some of your current responsibilities?

Artist: My title is oxymoronic — I’m lead Public Relations for Restricted Systems. I produce and direct classified presentations, briefings, artwork, movies … I write a lot of scripts … I work with executives to pull out storylines to communicate Northrop Grumman’s differentiators. We do this for everyone … the president, agencies, the military, congresspeople … My job is translating engineering into human.

Adam: Can you describe the positions of some of the people on your team?

Artist: Being in a classified area, you have to do a wide range of things with the limited set of people who are cleared and are talented, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats. This is good in the sense that everyone gets to try a lot of different things, unlike the entertainment industry, where you can get stuck being the person who creates urban background plates for early 20th century “period” shows. Sometimes, though, we have to do things ourselves, which we’d prefer not to. For example, my senior animator is also a genius in computer systems. He designed and set up our network and render farm. It’s comparable to high-end networks that are out there. But it puts a burden on him. He’d rather be animating than doing networks. But he has to wear multiple hats. And that’s OK. Benjamin Franklin said, “Variety is the spice of life.” So in our area, you always have variety.

That said, we do have specialists. One our folks is particularly good at 3-D modeling, another two are movie editors. Some do narrations; some create unbelievable graphics. The scope of the software packages that we use is tremendous. There’s just nothing that we don’t do.

Adam: Can you talk to the value that you bring through pen and paper and how that translates into the software packages that you’re describing?

Artist: Many years ago, I had to transition from 2-dimensional art, where I was painting a still image, to dynamic art, where things are moving in 3-D space. I can remember that being a crisis point in my life, where I knew I had to transition spatially into the 3-dimensional world. But as soon as I did … I could see what it was we were going to do animations of. It flows for me — I can visualize what I want to see, and I have the ability to take what’s in my head and draw it. A lot of guys can say what they see in their head, but if you don’t have the skills to draw it, you’re kind of stuck waving your arms, and that’s when you need someone like me.

Adam: Can you describe the ways that your art has played a role in the development of any spacecraft?

Artist: To a lot of people, the things we do are magic. We have the technical expertise to do them, but explaining how they’re done can sometimes prevent us from getting the contract because our guys and gals are too technical. They are so technical that when they’re talking to customers, the customers are like, “I don’t understand what he said.” And we had that happen. There was a technology that was years in the brewing. We had done a video about it, and the acquisition guy was impressed, but he said, “I technically don’t understand how the thing works. Can you go back and animate it so that I can understand x, y and z?” It took us a while, but it was very understandable, and we took it back to him and he said, “Oh … I get it.” And he signed a contract based on his understanding of the animation.

The CGI stuff conveys a level of maturity. I can draw things, but you see that they’re rough — that they’re sketches. CG these days — we can make things look real. Whether people realize they’re being affected by it or not, I think that they’re moved to think that we have a mature concept.

Adam: I’m going to transition a little into the impact of working on the classified side. Can you describe what it feels like to be investigated?

Artist: I was in college. I was working summers, like I said, and they knew they were going to put me in for clearances, so they sent the investigators to my fraternity house.

Adam: *Erupts into laughter*.

Artist: I know. You think, “Recipe for disaster,” right? My fraternity was a Christian fraternity, but still … it’s a bunch of guys living together. They sat down in the kitchen and talked to anybody who walked through.

It all went well, but still to this day, I have friends from college that are like, “Hey … you still doing that secret stuff?” It exposes people to the fact that you’re doing stuff that a lot of people don’t. And that’s a little uncomfortable at times. But if you’re living a clean life, it’s really not that big a deal. If you don’t have anything to worry about, you don’t have anything to worry about.

Adam: What did it feel like when you got your clearance and you were first briefed to work a classified project?

Artist: When I got here, I saw a lot of paintings of spacecraft being done in the open area. There were five or six people — all older gentlemen — Phil Weisgerber was one of them, ahead of me. Try as I might, I didn’t get many opportunities to paint much. But there was an expansion going on in the classified area. My management approached me and said, “We want to have you work in the closed area part time.” So I said to them, “I’m willing to go full time if you give me a 10 percent raise.” I was 24 years old, and my boss in the open area went berserk that I did that. But I saw the opportunity and I took it.

Phil Weisgerber conception of the Defense Support Program satellite

Adam: No reservations?

Artist: None at all. I thought, “I’m all-in for the nation. This is our country, and I want it to be a safe place for my family and the future.” So I had no reservations.

Adam: Can you describe some of the benefits and challenges of working in a classified facility as classified artists?

Artist: One of them is, you can’t have electronic devices. Most people look at that as a negative, but watching people live with electronic tethers — half the people are checking their phones … Sometimes they’re mid-sentence and they start typing. I don’t have to do that. So we actually have conversations where we look at each other and discuss people’s needs, assign action items and get stuff done.

The flip side of it is, I don’t know how to operate a smart phone. Even though I’m in this super-high-tech job, I can’t operate one of them. When we go somewhere, my wife has to do all that for me.

Adam: You’re married with kids… Have there been ways in which your clearance has been difficult or challenging as a father or a husband?

Artist: I think it’s actually been helpful in the sense that my wife has always known that I can’t talk about what I do. My buffer time of driving home is spent working things out in my brain, and when I get home, we talk about life. We have our relationship, we have our kids, and I don’t talk about work. I think that has been really beneficial. I’d call her a patriot in that she gives me my time. She lets me do what I have to do to meet deadlines, she knows it’s important and she just doesn’t ask about it.

My kids, on the other hand — I have a son who’s working at a Northrop Grumman subsidiary this summer, as an intern, and he’s working on unclassified aspects of closed-area programs. Obviously, I can’t tell him what it is he’s working on. But it’s hilarious to hear him talk about what he’s doing when I know the reality of what it is that he’s working on.

Adam: Can you talk a bit about what motivates you and what inspires you?

Artist: I firmly believe in this country. If you do a cursory read of our Constitution, it’s impossible to deny that something amazing happened. That nexus in time yielded tremendous freedoms that are linked to responsibilities. Freedom doesn’t come free. I think that we forget sometimes how much it costs. All of us have family members, maybe a generation back, that were in this war or that war. Mothers and fathers gave up sons and daughters so that we could be free. We have really hard-to-express depth of liberty in this land — to think what we want, believe what we want, try things, fail, get back up again to do more — it’s an amazing experiment. There has been nothing like it in the history of mankind, and I’d like to protect that.

Knowing what we do and its impact on world events — that we did this and therefore that happened. That’s very inspiring.

Adam: So you’re seeing things in the news that you know you’ve impacted.

Artist: All the time. And that’s probably one of the hardest things — to know what’s really going on and then hear what’s being reported.

Adam: What advice would you give to other artists who may not consider the aerospace industry as an opportunity?

Artist: Unless you’re a fine artist and you plan to never tell anybody what the reason is for your art — you have to convey stories. So learn to be a storyteller. I also think it’s critical for all artists to be able to draw. If you can’t draw, you’ll sit there and wave your arms around and that’s your differentiator — you can get what’s in your head out onto the paper.

One advantage to being an artist in an engineering company … for engineers, it’s always about being the smartest person in the room. But if you’re the artist, like me or you, they assume we’re not the smartest because we have degrees in art, right? So they tend to open the kimono and tell you the secret sauce. And they realize they have to talk down to us a little bit because we don’t understand, so they end up telling us the key elements of the story. So I think there’s huge advantages to being an artist in a technical field because somebody’s got to visually convey those stories.

Another advantage is I get invited to so many different things that I’m probably one of the few people who have a really big picture of what goes on here. It’s a unique advantage — I bring people together. I’ll tell this guy, “Hey, I was working over here with that guy and we were doing something similar. I can’t tell you what it is, but I can at least get you two together.” And things happen that way. That kind of connective tissue is an important part of what I get to do.

Adam: Is there anything you’d like to add before I turn the recorder off?

Artist: What we’re doing here is really important. I just can’t emphasize that enough.

At a conference one year, I attended a class called “Managing Creatives.” And I do a lot of that, right? I thought it was going to be a panel thing where you had all of the studios there and their mid-level managers would talk to us about what they do … But we got there and they turned all of the chairs in a circle and I thought, “Oh no… We’re going to be the panel.” And they’re like, “You’re the panel!”

So there’s about 50 people and we’re going around the room and people are talking about, “I’m working on Godzilla, I’m working on this or that …” When they got to me, they’re like, “What are you working on?” And I told them, “Well … I’m working on the James Webb Space Telescope. Imagine if you will … the sun … the Earth… now, draw a line from the sun, through the Earth … go out another million miles and there’s a place where there’s just enough gravity that you can orbit around it without drifting away. And now think of this: We’re building a 25-foot-diameter deployable mirror that’s going to orbit there to look into the infrared part of the spectrum to see the origins of our galaxy, the universe and try to find terrestrial life … and that’s really going to happen.” Multiple people responded with astonishment, saying, “What? That’s for real?! I want to go work there!”

So, I can’t tell you what we do in the closed area but … it’s even better than that.