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Arts & Life

From small-town Michigan to national stage, the futurist illustrations of Arthur Radebaugh

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Courtesy of Tribune Media
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Contemporary innovations like virtual school, wristwatches that are televisions, and genetically modified foods are pretty familiar concepts to us today. But back in the 1950s and ‘60s, Michigan artist Arthur Radebaugh dazzled millions of people every week with illustrations of inventions like these, as well as other outlandish visions of the future. His work appeared in a syndicated Sunday comic strip called Closer Than We Think, which debuted at a time when the expansive potential of technology captivated Americans’ attention. And while some of his art still looks like science fiction now, some of his creative, futuristic designs aren’t fantasy anymore — they’re reality.

“I think the term that gets kicked around for him is ‘Imagineer,’ so, the engineer that imagines things,” said Rachel Clark, education specialist at the Michigan History Center. “He was more of a consumer products designer. He really did look at a problem of the day and think about, how are we going to address this problem in the future?”

Radebaugh grew up in Coldwater and worked as a commercial sign painter for the transportation industry. Then, as the nation entered the second World War, he began designing vehicles and artillery for the U.S. Army, an experience that — out of necessity — further developed his creative thinking, Clark said.

“He looks at existing either technology or vehicles, and he sort of betters them, in a way,” Clark said. “He designs a control panel in a fighter plane that uses fluorescents instead of actual backlight, so you can't see them from the ground. So it's very forward thinking, but it's just to sort of solve a problem.”

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Credit Courtesy of Tribune Media
Transportation innovation often played a prominent role in Radebaugh’s futuristic art.

After the war, Radebaugh worked with New Center Studios in Detroit, which focused on designing for Detroit in order to make the city a better, more efficient place in which to live. Radebaugh’s own art career took a bit of a pause when he first started at New Center Studios, but he continued to expand his thinking and design, Clark said.

And then came Sputnik.

The U.S.S.R.’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957 had a dramatic impact on American culture, from its politics to its science to its art.

“It really changes the trajectory of this country. We are no longer number one. We aren't the first,” Clark said. “Less than a year after the launch of Sputnik, [Radebaugh] puts together this cartoon. And part of the reason it's a cartoon is the medium is sort of — he's used to that, but also because we are appealing to a younger group. We want teenagers to get into science. We want them to be the leaders of what eventually becomes the space race.”

That cartoon, which became the syndicated comic strip Closer Than We Think, depicted what our future might look like someday, and it featured striking illustrations of how we might adapt to our changing world.

“Many of these concepts were just issues of a growing population, especially within cities — what do we do, and how do we fix it, and what's it going to look like in the future?” Clark said. “That is why I think his designs are just so fascinating to me. They weren't science fiction. They were realistic possibilities for a future time.”

Though the bat-winged helicopters and towering, spider-legged vehicles found in the strip aren’t part of our lives today, things like meat substitutes and curbside delivery definitely are. Clark said there's one image that she finds especially relevant right now.

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Credit Courtesy of Tribune Media
Radebaugh’s illustrations boldly imagined fantastical futures. But some of his works might be eerily familiar for contemporary viewers. Here, students take part in what he calls “push-button education” — or, virtual school.

“It is essentially a student sitting at a desk, and they have a video monitor that has their teacher and their homework assignments appear on a screen, and they answer the homework assignments and get immediate feedback. And that was in 1960,” she said. “The [comics] that stick out to me are the ones that we use today, the ones that are familiar to daily use in our world in 2021.”

Radebaugh’s work, fueled by the culture of rapid technological growth and competition in the U.S. and abroad, is eye-catching and visionary. But, Clark pointed out, Radebaugh’s illustrations are also shaded with Cold War-era fear about the risks of technology and anxiety about the way in which the future is taking shape.

“There's a lot of survival [in his art]. Like, are we going to have to live on the moon? Are we going to mine on the moon? Are we going to live under the sea? Because there's a clear thinking that we've done something to the planet. There's something wrong,” she said. “He sort of portrays that there's a bigger problem that we are facing with this technology, and that is this issue of just destroying ourselves, whether through nuclear war or just the nuclear capabilities that we have.”

For more, listen to the full conversation above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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