MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Minneapolis artist Dave Geister can trace his inspiration to becoming a painter of historical events back to when he was a kid, and he’s hopeful the talents he has honed over the years can forge that same interest in someone else.
Geister created the illustrations for “Surviving the Hindenburg,” a children’s history book based on the experiences of a cabin boy that survived the airship crash that happened 80 years ago Saturday.
“As a little boy, I fell in love with the battle of Gettysburg,” Geister said. “Since then I’ve drawn and painted it countless times. It sort of formed who I since became.”
Geister believes lots of kids have a fascination with traumatic moments in history.
“You never quite know what seed you’re going to plant with a youngster when they pick up a book,” he said. “Maybe they fall in love with a particular point in history. That’s sort of one of my goals as a history painter, to spark that enthusiasm.”
The book was written by Larry Verstraete and published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2012. Geister’s artwork graces the cover, showing the remains of the Hindenburg burning on the ground in front of a startled bystander.
Inside the book, he shows 14-year-old Werner Franz washing dishes along with other kitchen workers, making a delivery by walking on the keel gangway inside the 800-foot-long airship, and soaking wet from a burst water tank while grabbing a rope with the ship burning around him.
In many published interviews about the ordeal, Franz recalled that he was clearing tables in the officer’s mess area when the Hindenburg began to burn, and credits the dousing of water with helping him survive the intense heat from the flames.
“I had to kind of immerse myself in that 30-odd seconds of terror Werner Franz and the other passengers felt,” he said.
Geister says he looked to the teachings of American illustrator and author Howard Pyle for guidance.
“About a hundred years ago, he basically said if you’re painting a battle scene, sometimes you want to open up the doors to the studio and let the gun smoke roll out,” Geister said. “That’s kind of what I felt like when I was working on the Hindenburg. Pretty intense every now and then, very unique experience … one that one doesn’t normally have.”
Geister scoured the internet for photographs of the Hindenburg before the crash, and was able to talk with several historians about a few small details.
“Sometimes the history gets in the way of certain artistic impulses,” he said. “I worry about how many buttons need to be on coats, or what direction the sun was coming from on a particular day in history. I’m just happy to be associated with it.”
Franz was one of 62 people on board the Hindenburg who survived the crash on May 6, 1937. There were 36 fatalities, including one person on the ground who was killed.
Franz made four round-trip, transatlantic voyages on the Hindenburg before that fateful day. He died at the age of 92 in 2014, two years after the book was published.
“I wanted desperately to get in touch with him, but by the time we started this he was in declining health,” Geister said. “I sure would liked to have sent him a copy of the book. It would have been a very special moment for me, certainly.”
Geister is working on illustrations for a book about Alan Page. It is the third time he’s collaborated with the former Vikings defensive star and Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
He’s also working on a project at the Minnesota History Museum, where he allows museum visitors to add their own brushstrokes to his paintings.
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