Alan Bean Posed as An Astronaut for Years; Now He Figures He Has the Right Stuff to Be An Artist

updated 09/14/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1981 01:00AM

It may be the most startling career switch since Paul Gauguin fled a Paris stockbrokerage house to spend the rest of his life as a painter. Alan Bean, pilot of the lunar module on Apollo 12 and the fourth man to walk on the moon, has turned in his space suit to follow Gauguin—at least in spirit. Bean, a 49-year-old veteran of more than 25 million miles of spaceflight, retired in June as head of the NASA astronaut training group to become an artist. "Most of my colleagues were really surprised," he smiles. "My boss asked if I could make a living off art, and I said I didn't know, but I had to find out. It has become my dream."

Despite what some NASA observers may have felt, Bean insists his decision had nothing to do with a case of the middle-age crazies. Without telling anyone, he had decided back in 1978 that he would leave the space program after the successful first flight of the space shuttle. Quietly, he prowled galleries, took art classes at night ("doing flowers, that sort of thing") and began saving as much of his NASA salary (about $50,000) as he could. Now, between his nest egg and the pension he draws as a retired Navy captain, he figures he can survive five years "even if I never sell a painting."

Bean plans to hold a show when he has completed 25 works—probably next year. The six acrylics now in progress at his apartment in a fashionable area of Houston deal with a subject he knows well: the moon. "I'm the only person doing moonscapes who has been there," he says, and happily admits he's no Impressionist. Being a "technically oriented" artist, he works from NASA photos and often calls on fellow astronauts for help in getting details correct.

Moonscapes can be tricky. "It all looks the same there," Bean says. "You can't tell how far away things are because there's no atmosphere to bounce the light around. The surface has much more brown to it than photographs show. And the sky is always black." Bean's goal is absolute realism. "The only license I use is to move people around to make a scene artistic." One fan of Bean's work is his Apollo 12 teammate, Pete Conrad, now a McDonnell Douglas VP. He told Bean, "You know, this is the first thing I've seen where the color of the moon is the way I remember it."

Bean has always been artistically inclined. As a boy, he says, "I wanted to be a test pilot, but it was always more important to me that the model airplanes I had looked good rather than flew well." He grew up in Fort Worth, where his father worked for the U.S. Agriculture Department. After majoring in aeronautical engineering at the University of Texas, he joined the Navy in 1955 and indeed became a test pilot. NASA tapped him for the astronaut program in 1963. Divorced four years ago from his schoolteacher wife, Sue (they have two grown children), Bean is now engaged to Leslie Clem, 33, a personnel executive at Houston's Texas Medical Center. She recalls that when they first met, two years ago, "I thought he had a totally scientific mind—in fact, I thought he was a creep." But the real Bean, she later found, "is a very emotional person."

In his NASA days Bean worked hard at cultivating the prescribed image. "They wanted the ultimate in predictability, so you had to actually become that sort of person," he says. "It was a matter of finding the aspects of your personality they were looking for, concentrating on them and putting the others in the background."

Even on the moon, Bean says, he had to squelch his artistic instincts. "I remember once looking back at Earth and starting to think, 'Gee, that's beautiful.' Then I said to myself, 'Quit screwing off and go collect rocks.' We figured reflection wasn't productive."

Today Bean seems happy that there is room for both in his new life-style. "I think I would like to be remembered in the end as an astronaut and an artist," he says. "I think everyone can do more than one thing with his life. After all, we have a former actor who is now the President."

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