‘I’ll Paint Anything’: A Centenarian’s Legends

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“Whatever you want painted, I’ll paint it,” announced Owen Hughes by way of a conversation starter. Was Hughes joking? No. A sampling of Hughes creations include the familiar pagoda on Chinese food takeout cartons, motorcycle gas tank art, and nose art on World War II fighter planes. If there is anything Hughes, age 103, hasn’t painted, it is likely because no one asked.

Hughes recently moved from New York to live with his daughter and son-in-law, Sue and Perry Scruggs, in Tracy City. An illustration of Notre Dame Cathedral adorning their walls is a Phoenix born again from the ashes. Hughes first sketched the cathedral at age five, sitting at the dining room table. His younger niece dipped her fingers in his oil paints and tracked fingerprints on his drawing. “I had to start over,” Hughes shrugged. His art being destroyed or disappearing marked his career.

In elementary school, the superintendent of schools commandeered a painting of his for display at the high school. Hughes never saw it again. After graduating from high school, Hughes worked as a sign painter. Hughes enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corp when the U.S. entered WWII. He hoped to become a pilot and qualified for flight training three times, but wartime SNAFUs prevented that dream from becoming a reality. Assigned to a ground crew in England doing plane repair, word got out Hughes could paint. Pilots and crews sought out his expertise painting pinup girls on the noses of their fighter planes.

Nose art originated in WWI to distinguish friendly aircraft from foe. Hughes painted what the pilot and crews wanted, almost exclusively pinup girls. With no models or illustrations to guide him, Hughes drew on his imagination, depicting scantily clad young women coyly posed or waving in greeting. He also painted watercolors of planes grounded for repair. A stunning sunset painting of a B17 made it home with him. Much of his wartime artwork, though, vanished into history. He painted a pinup girl on the B17’s nose, and the plane crashed the next day. The photographs of bomber nose art he sent home were confiscated by military security censors.

Pilots paid him for his creations by taking him up to fly, risky business. On one joy ride, the pilot headed for the bushes at the end of the runway to scare the officers riding in the nose. The pilot intended to pull the plane up at the last minute, but crashed into the bushes instead. On another occasion, the pilot engrossed in studying his map failed to notice a bomber that had just taken off was headed straight towards them, until Hughes pointed it out.

When Hughes requested a transfer, the military sent him instead to headquarters and tasked him with painting wall-art pinup girls in the officers’ dining room and on the bar in the officers’ lounge. He spent 10 days at headquarters. When the military sent him on to France, the commanding officer there asked why he had arrived 10 days late. Apparently, he had been detained to do a little painting.

After the war, Hughes went to work for a folding box company designing carton illustrations. His wartime legacy followed him home. A concert pianist, who was also a pilot, sought out Hughes to paint the back of her bombers jacket. Jacket painting became a sideline for Hughes along with nose art on restored planes. When Hughes retired, he and his wife travelled the country attending air shows and taking assignments for nose art commissions. Semitrucks and politician’s touring vans have also made the acquaintance of Hughes’ paint brush. From cartoon art to fine art, Hughes work calls the viewer’s eye to linger. Among the many framed paintings in the Scruggs’ home is weeping, thorn-crowned Jesus, arresting for its intensity.

And what is Hughes doing these days? “What’s your email address,” Hughes asked at the close of the interview. “I’ll add you to my list.” Hughes’ sends out regular posts with photographs of art from his past accompanied by narratives taking the viewer behind the scenes to the creation story. Creating, after all, is what Owen Hughes is all about.

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