Feature

Raymond Bruneau Leaves Legacy in Art
05.28.09
 
Growing up in Fall River, Mass., Ray Bruneau always wanted a civil service job. When his sister, Marie Jeanne Roma, landed in Newport News, Va., she got on the phone and invited him down. Plenty of civil service jobs in Hampton Roads, she told him in 1958.

But when Bruneau began to fill out an application, he paused over the question of "handicaps."

"Write crippled, not handicapped," Roma suggested.

Chris Craft and Raymond Bruneau.

Chris Kraft (left) and Raymond Bruneau. Bruneau's link to the Apollo program included portraits of astronauts, graphics of launches and spacecraft and a portrait of mission manager Christopher Craft, who like Bruneau migrated from NASA Langley to the Johnson Space Center.
Credit: NASA

Click image to enlarge
He did, without going into specifics, which piqued the curiosity of hiring officials at Fort Monroe enough to warrant an interview. He got a job as an illustrator there, and shortly afterward Bruneau moved to NASA Langley Research Center as an artist.

NASA had just taken over Langley from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and the space program was in its nascent years.

Bruneau grew up in NASA with the space program, doing portraits of the original seven Mercury astronauts, including Virgil Grissom, who lived around the corner from Roma in Newport News.

Bruneau worked for NASA for 28 years, three at Langley and the rest at the then-new Johnson Space Center in Houston, beginning in 1962. He died in Houston on April 21, 2009, at the age of 76.

Crippled?

"When he was born, both of his arms were paralyzed," Roma said. "He was put into a cast right away, and when he came out of the cast, his arms were crooked."

Eventually Bruneau was able to raise his arms almost shoulder high, but doctors could do little about his hands. The right hand couldn't close, the left hand couldn't open.

What wasn't handicapped was his passion for art.

"I was amazed at his ability to paint with his physical restrictions," says Pat Rawlings, who worked with Bruneau at Johnson Space Center. "Ray was always helpful and encouraging with his comments. He was one of the last 'staff artists.' "

Bruneau painted portraits of each of the original seven Mercury/Gemini astronauts, including Virgil Grissom, who had lived around the corner from his sister in Newport News. Bruneau also did space-related illustrations, including one of flight director Chris Craft and others centered around the Apollo missions.

That he was an artist at all was a triumph of the spirit.

"I got a pencil and would draw a picture for him," said Roma, who was five years older than her brother, who was the ninth child of the Bruneau family. "I can't draw a straight line, but he would watch me."

The mesmerized child grew into a youth who had to deal with his affliction with torn support.

"My mother had more faith in Ray than any of us," Roma said. "She went to St. Onofrio in Canada and did a Novena for him.

"Our father told him he needed to make his living with his brain, not his body. He wanted Ray to be a lawyer, but no matter how much Dad protested, Ray kept drawing."

To watch him do so was painful. Bruneau had to stand and lean over his work. He would wedge a brush into his right hand, between the thumb and forefinger, then move his left hand over the right. Using the left to steady the right, he moved his body to paint, in effect putting everything he had into every stroke.

He honed his skills in art school in Rhode Island.

"He always had an upbeat attitude, despite his physical limitations," said Chuck Biggs, who also worked with Bruneau at Houston. "He had the technique down pat."

Added Colin Kennedy of Johnson Space Center: "He was a remarkable man of great talent. Although his fellow artists at NASA-Houston may have jested about his speed at painting, Ray was always kind in his replies."

Said Mike Gentry: "I remember Ray talking about how astronaut/artist Alan Bean used to come to talk with him about his art when Alan was still an astronaut."

Bruneau painted away from the job, too, in oils and water colors. Roma points to a painting of a sailboat tied to a dock, which hangs on the wall of her home in Newport News. Over time, it faded, and when Bruneau noticed on a trip to Virginia, he repainted the picture. It's signed twice by him, five years apart.

"He did water scenes, portraits, and all for free," said Roma. "He never lost his passion for painting."

And that work is his legacy with NASA and friends who still have paintings signed "Ray Bruneau."

 
 

Jim Hodges
The Researcher News
NASA's Langley Research Center