A highlight of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year was the Star Trek art book and accompanying traveling exhibition, “Star Trek: 50 Artists 50 Years”. The collection is a triumph of risky artistic choices that, for the most part, paid off.
“Risk! Risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”
In one of the greatest Star Trek speeches of all time, in the TOS episode “Return to Tomorrow,” Captain Kirk sums up both the strengths and the weaknesses of a great new book out from Titan Books to celebrate Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary, Star Trek: 50 Artists 50 Years. The book was put together to accompany a global art exhibition commissioned by CBS Studios last year. They asked 50 artists from around the world to each produce a piece of art in their individual style to encapsulate the greatness that is Star Trek. The result is a collection that is both wildly creative and oddly provincial at the same time.
The cover of the book is a section from a piece by illustrator and designer Tom Whalen, who celebrates the TOS Enterprise in a bold digital illustration. The celebrated ship leaps off the cover energetically, giving a hint to the vitality within.
Nicholas Meyer, known to Trek fans as the writer and director behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (and now as a writer for DSC) graces the collection with an introduction celebrating the role of the image in exciting the imagination of generations of science fiction fans and authors.
In the pages that follow are a virtual riot of eclectic styles and incredible talent. I got this book for Christmas from my beloved wife, and I couldn’t put it down. Each image merited extended attention, and the artists’ statements about their pieces, though repetitive, gave insight into their creative processes and their love for Trek.
Page after page, I marveled at the element of risk embedded in this project. The art styles are diverse, the talents involved are staggering, and each piece is a triumph of imagination and skill. I had worried that the folks at CBS might have played it safe with these pieces, commissioning bland, corporate-looking pieces of art that stayed within unchallenging boundaries. But the work varied from traditional painting to sculpture to line drawing to digital art, from introspective to whimsical to celebratory to fierce to head-scratching. Each individual piece of art was risky and a joy to appreciate.
As I passed the halfway point, however, I struggled with how narrow the focus of the collection was. I love The Original Series, but filmed Star Trek includes six complete television series and over a dozen movies, most of which have no impact on any of these pieces, and some of which rate only the barest of references. Even within The Original Series, of the 50 pieces in the collection, there are 3 pieces entirely focused on the Kirk/Gorn confrontation in “Arena” alone. Vazquez Rocks (the location where “Arena” was filmed) shows up in one other piece, as well, and the Gorn appears in 5 additional pieces. And of course, there are Tribbles everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Arena.” I love the Gorn. I love Tribbles! But I almost cried out of relief when I got to a piece celebrating the episode, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
I get it, there are certain Trek images that have penetrated the broader culture beyond Star Trek fandom, and the Gorn and Tribbles are two of those images. But I wish someone at CBS had said to some of their artists, “no, we already have a piece exactly along those lines – two pieces, actually. Why don’t you try something else?” While every one of those pieces is great on its own, in a collection like this, the repetition tends to make Trek feel like a greatly-reduced version of the sprawling imaginative universe that it actually is. I would have loved to see pieces celebrating Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, The Animated Series, and the Kelvin Timeline. But while there are little references to some of these series here and there, the focus is largely on The Original Series and TNG.
From an art appreciation standpoint, this book has nice, large pages, lovely thick paper and exceptional print quality. Each image is vibrant, colorful, and printed at a high resolution. Details are crisp, and each piece has the room it needs to be lovingly explored.
Some of my favorite pieces include Dusty Abell and Lovern Kindzierski’s comicbook-style celebration of every TOS episode, Amir Abou-Roumié’s cut-paper style combination of menace and whimsy, Sue Beatrice’s mixed media sculpture of the Enterprise in space made out of old watch components, Glen Brogan’s humorous and literally iconic exploration of the personalities of the original crew, and Marco D’Alfonso’s symbolic and creative evocation of the original Trek trinity.
Dave Merrell, Paul Shipper, and J.K. Woodward each channel their inner Drew Struzan, turning in fantastic one-sheet posters focusing respectively on “Space Seed,” “The Cage,” and some of the most notable Klingons in all of Trek. Contemporary Trek comic artist extraordinaire Joe Corroney turns in two pieces celebrating Trek women, and Juan Ortiz, celebrated designer of a full series of Original Series episode posters, submits a humorous but ultimately disappointing image of a Star Trek cereal box design. Sculptural pieces include Sue Beatrice’s watch-component sculpture of the Enterprise, Calvin Ma’s ceramic version of a clapboard, steampunk Enterprise, Neal Smith’s Borg Cube made out of Hot Wheels cars, Alton Takeyas’ rendition of the famous photo of Leonard Nimoy leaning on his personal car in full Trek costume, and Lynn A. Norton’s Hallmark-ornament-style creation of her own personal starship design.
Also in the sculptural category is the one work that I found upsetting, a piece by Johnson Tsang that consists of a cherubic Vulcan baby reaching for the stars, nestling in the partially-deflated face of an adult male Vulcan head. The piece seems by turns mawkish and disturbing – very un-Vulcan – and it gave me an unsettled feeling in my stomach.
All in all though, it’s a phenomenal book. Well-made, and each piece is worth spending time with. I was disappointed in the extensive overlap of subject matter, but what’s here is gorgeous. I derived more joy from this book than from any other Trek book I’ve owned since The Art of Star Trek, back in 1995. Take the risk! This book is worth owning.
Star Trek: 50 Artists 50 Years was released on September 6 by Titan Books and retails for $39.95. It can be purchased at a discount on Amazon.
Dénes House is a husband, father, artist, and pastor who has been a Star Trek fan since the age of eight. He and his son’s favorite series is Deep Space Nine, but his 10-year-old daughter prefers Voyager, because “the Captain is MY kind!”