From outer space to seaside scenes: James Dean fosters art in unlikely places

We rightly see the Torpedo Factory as a source of local pride, but every once in a while we’re reminded that support for our art extends well outside the Alexandria area.

Case in point: this photo shot by Steve Dean, son of Torpedo Factory artist James Dean, who spotted a stranger sporting a curiously familiar logo. “We went to a Vietnamese sandwich shop in Brooklyn, and look what the guy who made our sandwiches was wearing,” writes the younger Dean. “He said he loved the Torpedo Factory!”

As a lifelong painter of realistic watercolors, James Dean is delighted, but not surprised, to find zeal for art in supposedly unlikely places. Although he’s attracted to sites of great natural or architectural beauty, from the churches of New Mexico to the landscapes of the New England coast, he also promotes the aesthetic and documentary power of painting in places you may not expect to encounter fine art.

“On the Pad,” watercolor

Before serving as the Curator of Art for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Dean was the founding director of NASA’s Fine Art Program. In the 1960s, as he and his colleagues witnessed test flights and historic launches, they soon concluded that photographs and video weren’t capturing the full story.

“We were not experiencing the excitement or significance of these events,” Dean says. “Machinery can duplicate and preserve the cold facts, but the emotional impact of what was going on is within the province of the artist.”

For more than a decade, Dean worked with many of America’s leading artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jamie Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell, to document the NASA programs that culminated in the first manned landing on the moon. In the process, he helped create a collection of work that has been exhibited across the U.S. and around the world for nearly 50 years.

“Lamar’s Walk, Monhegan Island”

Having painted space shuttles, the seascapes of Maine, and Christmastime symbols for U.S. stamps, Dean knows that art can permanently change us—which is why a Brooklyn restaurant worker proudly wears his fond memories of the Torpedo Factory for all to see.

“A good logo in a good format is the best free advertising,” he says with a laugh. “This is what I call ‘impact’!”

Chat with James Dean about painting, space flight, or whatever strikes your fancy. Visit him in studio 306, check out samples of his work at, and follow him on Facebook.

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