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The Loss of a Great Artist: Frank Kelly Freas (1922-2005)

07/01/2005. Contributed by David A. Hardy

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By David A. Hardy. Frank Kelly Freas passed away in his sleep at his home in California in the early hours of Sunday, 2nd January, at the age of 84. He had not been in the best of health for some time, but even so his death will come as a shock to his many fans.

He leaves behind his wife of 16 years, Laura Brodian Freas, a daughter, son and six grandchildren. He was a graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Sadly, I never had a chance to meet Kelly myself, but I did have the pleasure of corresponding with him in 1979 when I was working on 'Visions Of Space' (Dragon's World, 1989) and he seemed a real gentleman, always helpful and, amazingly, he seemed honoured to be included in this book about space art. But he was, of course, a space artist among his other talents and was one of the first artists to be awarded a Fellowship by the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA) in 2000.

After visiting Cape Canaveral, he produced a series of posters promoting the Apollo programme with titles like "We (still) have a choice?" and "Er - suppose Isabella had said 'NO'!" because he was appalled by the cutbacks at NASA and he firmly believed that mankind's destiny lies in space. He also designed astronauts' crew patches, including Skylab, and his work is in the National Air & Space Museum and in other galleries.

Kelly is, however, even better known in the fields of SF and comic art. He started drawing Buck Rogers spaceships in kindergarten at the age of seven or eight and later admired the SF work of Virgil Finlay and Ed Cartier, but also the astronomical art of Chesley Bonestell. His own first professional work was in 'Weird Tales' November 1950 and he went on to produce covers for most of the major publishers - Daw, Ace, Lancer, et al - and famous writers, including Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Van Vogt, Pohl and Anderson. He has won the Hugo Award for 'Best Artist' 11 times! He gave us sleek spaceships, humanoid robots, entertaining aliens, weird landscapes and (lots of!) exotic women.

Kelly has said that he considered himself to be mainly an illustrator, but he was also a fine artist and portraitist and his work is avidly collected. He also worked on TV backgrounds, commercials and animations. One of Kelly's best-known - one might even say iconic - images was a cover for a 1953 Astounding magazine, illustrating a story by Tom Godwin: 'The Gulf Between'.

This showed a giant robot holding a bloodied, dead man in his hand; in 1977 he was asked to re-paint this as the cover for the 'News of the World' album by the rock group Queen, incorporating members of the band. Also well-known is his green 'Martian' leaning through a keyhole, originally done for Fredric Brown's 'Martians, Go Home', but later used as the cover of a collection of his work entitled 'The Art of Science Fiction' (Donning, 1977). A more recent (and better) collection is 'As He Sees It' (Paper Tiger, 2000).

Another string to Kelly's bow was comic art. During the 1950s, he worked on 'Mad' magazine, for which he was the chief cover artist. He produced many brilliant portraits, and helped to make the Alfred E. Neuman character world-famous with his freckles, gap-toothed grin and the phrase, 'What? Me Worry?' In all of these fields his style influenced two generations of artists and designers and he will be much missed. Fortunately, he will live on through his art.

David A. Hardy

January 2004

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