Dowagiac native aviation painter returning for Dogwood
Published 10:45 am Wednesday, May 4, 2016
From soaring above the skies above the World Trade Center and Pentagon following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to riding alongside fighter jets deployed into active combat during the Iraq War, acclaimed aviation artist Rick Herter has traveled many miles, around and above, the globe following his passion.
Later this month, the painter will touchdown upon the Dowagiac Area History Museum as he returns to show off some the labors of his nearly 30-year career in art to a very special audience — his hometown.
Herter will close out the 25th edition of the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival with the presentation of a new temporary gallery showcasing his aviation-themed works at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 14, at the Dowagiac museum, located at 201 E. Division St. The opening and lecture will be offered free of charge.
Herter grew up just outside Dowagiac, on a farm located between Indian Lake and Sister Lakes. He developed a passion for art from his mother, an amateur painter, while also cultivating a love for flight and aircraft.
“Our farm served as a kind of turning point for local aircraft pilots,” Herter said. “I grew up watching planes flying constantly over my head, so I was always daydreaming of flying instead of concentrating on my work out in the fields.”
After graduating high school from Grace Christian, Herter enrolled in classes at Southwestern Michigan College before transferring to Spring Arbor University, where he graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in art.
In spite of his love for airplanes, at the time Herter launched his career he had no idea that aviation art was even a genre, much less a path he could pursue, he said.
In 1987, he discovered otherwise.
While working as an illustrator with a billboard advertising firm in Kalamazoo, the artist decided on a whim to volunteer his time to create a poster for the popular High on Kalamazoo airshow, he said.
“I really just wanted to get my name and artwork out there,” Herter said.
However, his work turned out to be a massive hit, as it went on to win a national award that year. Shortly thereafter, Herter was commissioned to create artwork for various airshows across the country, from Pittsburg to Denver. His popularity grew to the point where to quit his job in advertising to pursue aviation art fulltime in 1991, he said.
He received his biggest break when he was asked to join the U.S. Air Force’s prestigious art program. Receiving basic combat and aviation training, Herter was given the chance to fly in the cockpit with Air Force pilots on actual missions — including ones in active combat zones — to document them in order to recreate moments in aviation history through his artwork.
“I have to be part technical engineer, part historian and part artist,” he said.
In spite of the dangers presented by the job, Herter said he always felt a sense of responsibility to travel with these pilots, to use his paint and canvas to tell their stories in an accurate and compelling fashion.
“You want to be out there,” Herter said. “As an artist and a historian, you want to be where the action is happening. To have the opportunity to be at one of those places— to capture and chronicle it — is a tremendous honor and privilege.”
In addition to his works commissioned by the armed forces, Herter is often creating paintings for airplane manufacturers such as Airbus or Boeing, he said.
Perhaps his most famous work, though, is his mural located inside Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo museum depicting the history of aviation. Measuring 32 feet high and 900 feet long, the artwork is the largest indoor hand-painted mural in the world.
According to the artist, around 15 to 20 of his paintings will be on display at the gallery opening later this month, on loan from his personal collection as well as from private galleries and governmental offices such as the Pentagon in Washington, Herter said.
Herter’s presentation at the Dowagiac Area History Museum is especially important to him, as the museum is located in the same building as the former Behnke Paint Store, where he visited as a kid to buy his painting materials, he said.
“It feels like I’m coming home,” he said. “I’m coming back to the place that gave birth to my career. I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.”’
Herter’s gallery will remain open to the public through the end of May.
The 2016 Dogwood Fine Arts Festival takes place May 5-15. For information or tickets, people can contact the festival office at (866) 490-2847.