Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cece Bibby: The Mercury Artist

If you search hard enough every once in a while you will find a true gem of a person and with them, a story. Cece Bibby is one of those gems. As a graphic artist performing contract work for NASA in the early 1960's, Cece had a ringside seat to the beginnings of manned spaceflight.

I had the pleasure of accompanying Cece to the Astronaut Hall of Fame inductions at the Kennedy Space Center in April of 2005. I took this photograph of Cece while relaxing prior to our flight out of Orlando.

Cece was an employee for Chrysler Corporation, which was a sub contractor for NASA. Cece worked as the only woman artist in the graphics department while at Cape Canaveral. Cece worked on everything from instruction manuals to artistically interpreting scientists' and engineers' ideas for presentations.

The above drawing of an optical tracking system is from Cece's portfolio. This particular piece shows the quality of Cece's work as a draftsman. Cece told me that she worked on instruction manuals that included a drawing, such the above work, for equipment that was used in tracking missiles launched from the Cape.

In addition to her duties of providing artwork for NASA publications, Cece was also assigned to design and paint the mission insignia for the space flight of John Glenn. As Cece would tell it, she was assigned the job because her boss figured that, as a woman, Cece had the best handwriting in the art department. There is more to this story which can be found at the following links at Collectspace or

John Glenn wanted a different mission insignia rather then the stenciled and spray painted logo that was done for both the Shepard and Grissom flights. Cece was assigned to assist Glenn with his request for a different insignia. Once Glenn approved her design, then he requested that she paint the design on the capsule and thus Cece became the first woman to work on a rocket gantry.

The famous "Naked Lady" pictured about came about as the result of a dare and almost resulted in Cece's being fired. Gus Grissom was watching Cece design and paint the mission insignia for John Glenn's capsule. One day as Cece saw Gus at the astronaut office in Hangar S, Gus told Cece that she should really "paint a naked lady on the Boy Scout's capsule." Cece said that she could get fired for such a prank. Gus called her chicken. As an orphan, Cece learned that a dare was a serious matter and not to be taken lightly. From that beginning came the "Naked Lady" drawing. After Cece drew the picture, Sam Beddingfield helped install it in Glenn's spacecraft. Although Glenn saw the drawing and enjoyed the joke, Cece's superiors didn't find it humorous at all and attempted to fire her. The Mercury 7 astronauts stood up for her. Cece told me that Gus Grissom told Rocco Petrone that he put her up to the practical joke. In the end, Cece stayed on the job.

The first drawing was done for the initial launch attempt in January. After the controversy caused by the first drawing, Cece drew another lady shown above. The drawing was placed in Glenn's capsule for the next launch attempt which was successful and launched Glenn into Earth orbit on February 20, 1962. John's launch was the same day as Cece's birthday.

Scott Carpenter asked Cece to design the mission insignia for America's second manned orbital flight. Scott had picked the name Aurora for his flight. Cece used a design of multi colored rings to depict the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. She designed the rings with jagged edges to imitate the movement and electric feeling of the Aurora Borealis.

The insignia was also an experiment. It was decided to try various different brands of paint when Cece was applying the word "Aurora" to the capsule's shingled shell. The objective was to see which paints would survive the heat generated by reentry of the Mercury spacecraft. Cece told me that only the two "A's" and the symbolic ring design survived the mission.

After the sensation caused by Glenn's "Naked Lady," Scott Carpenter kept asking Cece if she was going to draw a naked lady for him. As Cece tells the story, Scott had a way of pronouncing naked as sounding like "nekkid." Cece decided to draw a "Nekkid Lady" for Scott too.

The story behind the above drawing is that Scott was a guitar player and one of his favorite songs of the time was "Yellow Bird." The song, with a tropical flair, was very popular in the early 1960's. It was Scott's signature song, which he played frequently to the point where Wally Schirra complained that was all he sang. Cece gave Scott his "Nekkid Lady," but included a guitar along with a jab about always playing the song.

Scott would later express his appreciation of Cece's work on his mission logo.

The third and last mission logo that Cece designed and painted on a Mercury spacecraft was Wally Schirra's Sigma 7 insignia. Wally had come to Cece with the name "Sigma" which is a mathematical term meaning the "sum of." Wally felt that these flights were the sum of all the engineering, designing, testing and contruction that encompassed the entire Mercury Project. Wally wanted to honor all the people that helped him make his flight.

Cece made up a couple of designs for Wally's review. One of those designs was the famous design that included the Greek symbol for Sigma. Wally really liked the fact that Cece came up with the Greek symbol, which is used frequently in the engineering world, instead of the actual spelling of the word. He felt that Cece's design best represented his mission goals to make his flight a most precise flight.

There was no "Naked Lady" on Wally's flight. It turns out that just before Wally's mission, NASA contracted out a job to write and produce a manual on gantry safety. The manual was completed and several hundred copies were produced and distributed to members of the gantry crews. Unbeknowst to NASA, an artist from that art department had airbrushed a topless buxom blond beauty into the middle of a group of serious looking men standing in a gantry elevator demonstrating the proper techniques of riding an elevator. Naturally, the bosses initially suspected Cece as the culpit, but luckily for her, the contract had been given to another company and she was absolved of any wrongdoing. After that incident, Cece gave up the "Naked Lady" tradition.

Cece also volunteered to create the logo for NASA's employee magazine titled Spaceport News. The above cover is from Cece's art portfolio. The cover also shows the design she did for the Christmas edition.
Cece also did some of the artwork for individual articles in the Space News Roundup newspaper. If you were to look closely at the above artwork, then you will see Cece's name on each of the works.

There was an U.S. Air Force squadron of Lockheed U-2 spyplanes based at Patrick Air Force Base in the early 1960's during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cece even dated one of the pilots of the squadron at the time.

The story behind the above photograph is that the particular U-2 plane shown in the picture was a mechanical disaster. Evidently, the plane had a nasty habit of having a midair malfunction during flights over Cuba. The pilots hated the plane and nicknamed it, "The Olde Lemon." They got Cece to paint a lemon with the nickname on the plane. Every time the plane had a malfunction, it would be shipped back to the Lockheed plant for repair. Lockheed would repair the aircraft and return it, but each time they repaired it they would paint over Cece's artwork. The squadron would call Cece and back she would come to repaint the logo back on the plane.

Nobody knows what happened to that particular plane.

There is a little known story that Cece told me about the U-2 spyplanes out of Patrick AFB. Her boyfriend of the time flew spy photographic missions over Cuba. Upon his return from a mission, he would fly low over Cece's home to let her know that he was home safe after a long night mission over enemy territory. The U-2 jet engine had a very distinctive howling noise that would let Cece know that her boyfriend was returning safe and sound. There was a small problem in that the engine noice generated by the U-2 woke other people up including Alan Shepard. Cdr. Shepard complained to the squadron commander about the noise. The colonel, who knew about the homeward bound signal, advised Alan that this was a national security issue and that there was nothing he could do about it. Cece always enjoyed that little "Gotcha" over Alan and he never knew the real story about the early morning fly overs.

The above letter of recommendation is one of Cece's proudest possessions. The teletype letter is from Gordon Cooper to a prospective employer of Cece's. Just read the letter and you will understand why Cece was so proud of it.

I first learned about Cece from a fellow collector by the name of Bruce Moody, who had found her website that told the initial story of her work. The link for her site is listed below.

I had the privilege of meeting Cece at the Sims and Hankow show in Los Angeles in 2004. I had brought Cece my copy of her painting "Out of This World" to the show for her to certify as the artist. Cece had been commissioned by Steven Hankow of Farthest Reaches to paint a limited edition set of paintings showing the insignias she had designed for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd manned orbital missions flown by the United States. I was able to procure the 15th of a planned 15 editions of the painting. The last five copies of the edition being signed by Glenn, Carpenter and Schirra.

Cece wasn't able to have a copy of her painting at the show, so I loaned her my painting for her display. I was pleased to have gotten a photograph of Cece with the painting during the show. She was pleased to have the painting and that is where our friendship started.

At this time, Cece has completed 12 of the 15 limited edition paintings. It appears that the final number will remain at twelve completed "Out of this World" paintings.

Shortly after my return from Los Angeles, I received an email from Cece. Cece asked me if it would be alright to send my painting to her for reproduction as a limited edition signed print. I mailed the painting to Cece and she had it reproduced for print production. I believe the prints are still available through Steve Hankow.

During the 2004 Los Angeles show, Cece dragged Wally, Scott and Gordon Cooper together for a group photograph with her and the painting. Even though she had left Cape Canaveral by the time of Cooper's mission and did not design or paint his mission insignia, she wanted to get the entire group together. It was the last time Wally, Scott and Gordo were photographed as a group. Gordon Cooper passed away a month later.

In 2005, I drove down to New Jersey for the annual astronaut autograph show. Cece asked if I could bring the painting again. I did. At the end of the show on Sunday, she grabbed Wally, Scott and me for another group photograph.

As this initial sketch shows, Cece researched her work. There are several copies of this sketch with notes and ideas written all over them.

Cece turned her attention to animals. Bears, in particular, because she was living in a seasonal community in Northern Georgia. She sold her art and various crafts at a local artist guild in her town during tourist season.

The above painting is from a proposed calendar that showed bears in seasonal events. The scene depicts a teddy bear offering a carrot to an Easter bunny who is showing some age, since his head has sprung off his body after his stitching has worn out. Cece has an interesting sense of humor.

With the onset of Glaucoma, Cece's eyesight started to fail. She switched from the demanding effort required for painting to mosaic work. Mosaic work still required Cece's skill as an artist.

The above picture frame is one such example of her work. In this particular example, Cece used a wooden frame to serve as a base for the grout surface and space pins that she got from various sources. Unfortunately, this is one of only two space pin themed frames that Cece made before she became ill.

One day last year, I received a package containing the above frame and picture of Cece, Scott, Wally and me together with her "Out of this World" painting at the Sims and Hankow show in New Jersey in 2005.

Cece is pictured here at her signing table at the 2006 Sims and Hankow show in San Antonio, Texas. The two space pin picture frames are shown here along with some of her other work including one of her paintings.

As an aside, Cece is holding a small ketchup bottle that Erin and Francis French thought looked like a miniature Mercury spacecraft. Cece painted the word "Ketchup7" on the bottle. The stories, jokes and "gotchas" that occurred at these shows made it such fun for Cece. She had a great time seeing old friends, renewing old acquaintances and meeting new admirers.

We end as we began this tribute. This last picture is of Cece and me at the Atlanta airport in April of 2005. We were heading in separate directions after attending the Astronaut Hall of Fame induction at KSC. We grabbed some poor woman, so she could take a photograph of us together.

We had a wonderful time driving around the Cape and reliving old stories at places like Bernard's Surf, the Patrick AFB Officers Club and Sebastian Inlet. Cece was amazed at the changes that had taken place since the early days at the Cape. Her comment was that in her time, "it was all sand and Palmetto trees."

The times and places may have changed, but Cece still remains a treasured gem of the early days of America's epic journey into space.