Art of aviators: Former Carson resident specializes in painting WWII pilots, plane
John Shaw has spent the past 16 years chronicling his childhood heroes: World War II pilots and the planes they flew into battle.
And for his efforts, Shaw, 48, a Carson City native who now lives in Florida, was awarded the R.G. Smith Award for Excellence at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla. The May ceremony included a speech from Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
His paintings have included depictions of the Flying Tigers, Doolittle Tokyo Raiders and Tuskegee Airmen. Many of his paintings were signed by the pilots who flew in those squadrons missions.
When he starts on a new painting, Shaw meets with the men who flew the missions. He said they usually tell him stories that are seldom included in history books.
“Sometimes they would see the sketch and they would remember,” he said, adding many former World War II pilots are reunited when Shaw gathers them to recall their experiences.
“That’s really cool to see, these two guys who were 20 years old, here’s the first time they’ve seen each other in 60 years and they’re in tears and then you really hear some great stories,” he said.
But that opportunity is quickly changing.
“The sad thing is these guys are dying,” Shaw said. “It’s a national treasure that’s fading away right now.”
So far Shaw has worked on about 30 paintings and has painted scenes of the 101st Airborne for HBO’s World War II miniseries Band of Brothers. He was also commissioned to paint portraits of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Shaw said his career as an artist started in the 1980s in central California, working on commercial design for clients like the California Raisins and Major League Baseball.
In the mid-1990s he tried his hand at drawing a military aviation scene after seeing similar artwork that included the signatures of the men flying the planes depicted in the painting. He said he’s been a long-time World War II history buff like his father,
“They really captured my imagination, it looked like pieces of artwork had become a historical document,” Shaw said.
After his first painting, Shaw decided to focus on military aviation for his inspiration.
“I just enjoyed the process and doing the research so much that I thought I’d love to do this full time,” Shaw said.
Sixteen years later, Shaw runs Liberty Studios in St. Augustine, Fla., with his wife, Keli. They have three children.
Shaw said he will be in Reno the week before the Reno Air Races to display some new paintings depicting the F4 Phantom, a Vietnam War-era military plane. The event will include pilots who flew the plane during the war.