Monday, April 25, 2005 | 8:27 a.m.
Fifty-five years ago on a gorgeous spring day in Cape May, N.J., a young Robert Beckmann and his grandmother were bird-watching with a group led by naturalist Roger Tory Peterson.
At one point, Peterson pulled Beckmann aside and mimicked the call of a nearby golden-crowned kinglet. Soon the two were hunkered in nearby bushes, where Peterson (of Peterson Field Guides) made a sharp kissing sound that lured the bird 3 feet down on the limb to stop and stare at them.
Beckmann was hooked. He would become a bird-watcher for life.
Growing up in the small college town of Swarthmore, Pa., his interests in nature flourished. By 12 he was an amateur mineralist. By 13 he had built his own Geiger counter and discovered uranium in autunite ore. Soon, Beckmann was learning about mushrooms and trees.
"I got interested in the rest of it, how it all fit together," the artist said from the living room of his Henderson home, which he built around his spacious studio. "The whole ecology thing was really alive for me."
Man's relationship to nature, and how everything in nature relies on everything else, has been a predominant theme in Beckmann's work.
The themes range from subtle (paintings of landscapes and flowers) to commentarial (mushroom clouds and the destruction of a house during nuclear testing) to poetic (a mural of falling leaves painted on a fire department).
Beckmann has painted more than 200 large- and small-scale murals in Southern Nevada, including work for commercial properties on the Strip, civic buildings and a recent mural celebrating Henderson's 50th anniversary. His fine-art works have been exhibited in mixed and solo shows.
With possibly the highlight of his career just completed a six-mural project for the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. Beckmann is returning to a series of paintings on Cold War-era themes and nuclear testing in Nevada.
From a logistical standpoint, the effort should be less of an undertakin than the botanical garden murals, which represent the world' most economically important plants rice, tea, citrus, cotto, cocoa, corn and the key features of the countries from whic they are farmed.
The two-year project surpassed the typical research, design and paintin that goes into a mural. Beckmann had to be sure the mural, designed to last 200 years, would survive in heat, humidit and ultraviolet rays. To do so, he used panels made o cement and fiberglass, and worked with silicate paint made by a German company or, as Beckmann explains it, "Germany's answer to fresco."
The paint dried (half as dark when applied) and lacked viable colors. To remedy this, Beckmann utilized the help of chemists in New York and Germany. Artist Yolly Torres of Bogota, Columbia, worked with Beckmann on the project.
The work required intensive research, which resulted in stacks of paperwork and time at the Library of Congress. After making several trips across the country, the murals, which weigh 500 pounds each and measure 7 feet by 12 feet, were installed.
"It seems the actual painting was the easy part," said Jeanne Marinak, Beckmann's wife, who is making a documentary on her husband that she began three weeks before the murals were complete.
But in the end, the photo-realistic murals, depicting cotton from Egypt, cocoa from Brazil, corn from Iowa, citrus from Spain, rice from Bali and tea from Japan, serve their purpose in the Garden Court of the nation's oldest botanic gardens.
"Senators go there. Supreme Court justices go there," Beckmann said. "Even if subliminally those guys pick up on that ecology, that harmony of men and nature, then I've done my job.
"Maybe it will have a little effect on people making those decisions. Maybe I'm an idealist."
Beckmann is a Las Vegas staple in the art community. He's been featured in William Fox's "Mapping the Empty: Eight Artists and Nevada" and is frequently profiled in local media.
Jerry Schefcik, the curator of the Donna Beam Fine Arts Gallery, said if someone were to highlight local artists, "They would be sorely lacking if they didn't include Robert Beckmann."
Currently, Beckmann's work is being shown in the mixed exhibit "Bright Light City" at the Charleston Heights Arts Center gallery through May 15.
From May 16 though June 18, six of Beckmann's paintings from his "Vegas Vanitas" series will be on display at UNLV's Barrick Museum in the exhibit "The Power of Promise: Artists Respond in Las Vegas."
The "Vegas Vanitas" paintings feature elements of the Las Vegas Strip placed in the context of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century romantic paintings. The exhibit is a perfect fit for the show, which will be held in conjunction with the national meeting of the American Institute of Architects, said Bob Tracy, a curator for the College of Fine Arts and professor of art and architecture history.
"It fits into the theme," said Tracy, who considers Beckmann a "Las Vegas treasure."
"I've curated two or three shows of Robert's," Tracy said. "For me, he's like a ringer."
"The Hundred Year Flood" is an oil on linen that places the Luxor and its fantastic light beam in a landscape inspired by Nicholas Poussin's 1660 painting "Winter."
"Renewal (After Wright of Derby)" incorporates the Dunes implosion in a darkened landscape.
Hanging in Beckmann's living room is "City Planner (After Poussin)," which features St. John on Patmos in the foreground of a romantic landscape and the Paris Las Vegas and Flamingo hotels in the distance.
"From my perspective, that is the city planner saying, 'What are we going to do next?' " Beckmann said, referring to Patmos.
The old world/new Vegas paintings fit seamlessly together.
By leading members of AIA through the UNLV gallery tour, Tracy said, "I'm hoping that they'll come and see that this is a design lab where architects and artists are responsive."
In small art circles, Beckmann is famously "responsive." He came to Nevada in the 1970s, not long after leaving a teaching career at Northern Illinois University to become a full-time artist.
After working around the country, Beckmann landed in Northern Nevada, where he spent six months in Carson City as an artist-in-residence and painted a mural in Yerington for the bicentennial in 1976.
The next year Beckmann was in Las Vegas painting murals for the city of Las Vegas. His first was an abstract rainbow mural at the Dula Center.
For Beckmann, an artist who had little interest in the minimalist movement, murals provided "immediate opportunity."
"Serious art in the '70s was conceptual art, performance pieces and post-minimalism," Beckmann said. "None of that interested me. But there was a growing interest in murals. I thought, 'This was a way I can paint.'
"They're a very public venue, which can raise consciousness and issues of how we are and how we are with the environment. Even with commercial murals I've done, I've tried to have some stimulation to conscience, to get (viewers) to think, get them to ponder."
"Oriole -- The Golden Bird," a mural created for a VIP reception area at Harrah's in Shreveport, La., includes a blackbird flying across an aspen grove. The bird transforms into an oriole and the aspen leaves become golden.
"The casino offers a gold card," Beckmann said, referring to the gold in the mural, "but my thought was, 'Hey, we can all transform ourselves, be better than we are.' "
Elements of life
The well-read Beckmann, whose home is covered with books, art and African and American Indian artifacts, said murals help justify his research on plants and other elements of interest, which to Beckmann is just about anything.
Officials at the U.S. Botanic Garden selected Beckmann because his work was a perfect fit for the garden's mission of drawing attention to the world's most important economic plants. The murals help interpret the plants displayed in the Garden Court.
"In his portfolio we recognized that he had the ability to merge diverse images and content into an aesthetically pleasing composition," said Betty Spar, administrative officer for the U.S. Botanical Gardens.
The positive, serene and even idealistic depiction of human beings and nature working together differs greatly from Beckmann's apocalyptic "Body of a House" series, in which the artist paints the freeze-frame footage of a house being destroyed during 1950s nuclear testing.
"Sizzle," a 1993 oil on canvas that hung in the living room of MTV's "Real World Vegas," depicts a fiery mushroom cloud above flaming triple-seven slot machine images.
The "Body of a House" series ends with almost abstract renditions of a red mess, which Beckmann said refers to bodily fluids and waste -- an allusion to the Tibetan Buddhist idea about encountering womb doors into the next life.
"It's almost as if my body equals the house," Beckmann said. "My house is an extension of my body."
Also, he added, "The house is a metaphor for social contract, how we meet people. The strength of the body of the house points out how fragile the social contract is."
When someone commissioned No. 9 in the series called "The Day After," Beckmann thought it somewhat dark as a living-room work.
But, Beckmann said, "As it turned out, there were remains. It was hopeful. Survival can happen. You don't finally destroy everything."