Back to the future: Artist’s fantastic career spans space age

PORT TOWNSEND — When Robert Fetterly was in high school, he would sit in class and draw, covering every inch of his notebooks, front and back, with pictures.

Now recovering from a stroke, he is unable to hold a pencil, but he can draw on memories of a 65-year career that ranged from taking aerial photographs during World War II to creating futuristic pictures of space travel that were used to promote congressional support for the space program.

“This is what got Boeing into space,” Fetterly said.

Fetterly, 84, also helped design the Saturn Apollo Control Room at Cape Kennedy.

But when he was growing up in Seattle in the 1930s, he was more interested in drawing movie stars than star wars.

Encouraged by his mother to develop his talent, he took a commercial art class at Edison Technical School, then studied with Leon Derbyshire, a Seattle artist.

Four-year art scholarship

After graduating from West Seattle High School in 1939, he entered a national art competition, winning a four-year scholarship to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, one of the most prestigious commercial art schools in the nation.

“We were taught by continuity artists for the movie industry,” Fetterly said. “They were practicing art right there on the movie sets.”

One of his classmates was a Disney cartoonist, Fetterly said, and he got to work on wartime propaganda films with well-known artists, although he doesn’t recall names.

He can clearly remember the day he walked to a nearby art school to see Norman Rockwell, the famous American illustrator, give a lecture.

“He was very typical of his paintings,” Fetterly said. “He was wearing a tweed suit and was kind of bashful. I used to put him on a pedestal, but I learned that he was just like all of us — just a regular person and very likable.”

Wartime photographer

Despite a draft deferment, Fetterly left school to join the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was sent to Sitka, Alaska, where he took aerial photographs while straddling the bomb bays of aircraft.

After the war, he worked for an agency in Reno that created artwork for the big casinos.

“I did huge etched glass panels, 7 by 17 feet, with scenes of the Old West, for Ramon Smith, the owner of Harrah’s Club,” Fetterly said.

“I also did full-color oil paintings on glass that were lit from behind by neon tubes.

“They’re all gone.”

Back to the Northwest

Moving back to Seattle, he eventually set up his own ad agency in the Joshua Green building.

In 1958, he was hired by Boeing as presentation supervisor of the audio-visual department, and was asked to create pictures of space travel that were taken by Dr. Walter F. Hiltner, the legendary Boeing space scientist, to Washington, D.C., to promote the space program.

Fetterly worked on the drawings of space pods and satellites with Dick White, a Boeing engineer, but said he mainly had to rely on imagination.

“In those days, there was nothing in space,” Fetterly said. “I had nothing to go by.”

He left Boeing in 1962 to become exhibit manger at the Pacific Science Center, and during that time painted a portrait of Dixy Lee Ray that was hung in the Capitol building when she was elected governor.

Two years later he worked on the Supersonic Transport Project as a graphic design consultant for Boeing, then rejoined the company, traveling to Florida to work on the Saturn Apollo Control Room.

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