Adding color to a dark time

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Clarke Reader
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The 1950s and ‘60s were a time of concern and paranoia about atomic weapons and testing, and the newest exhibit at the Rocky Flats Cold War Museum uses paintings to delve into the time.

“This is Not A Test: The Atomic Art of Doug Waterfield” is at the museum, 5612 Yukon St., Arvada, until May 31. The exhibit is free.

“Waterfield’s exhibit has traveled to many of the nuclear museums in the country,” said Conny Bogaard, executive director at the museum. “There are a lot of photographic exhibits about the nuclear age but not many use oil and acrylic.”

Waterfield is chair and associate professor in the University of Nebraska at Kearney Department of Art and Art History.

His fascination with the nuclear age was born out of a love for science fiction and horror films of the 1950s.

“When you begin to learn the backstory of where the monsters came from, you find atomic radiation as a common denominator,” he said.

Waterfield’s research lead him to the Nevada Test Site, where he learned about the construction of “survival towns” by Civil Defense organizations.

“These were actual buildings that were constructed meant to represent the typical suburban town, in an effort to understand the effects of an atomic blast and how to prepare to survive a blast,” he said. “The buildings were commercial and residential, and were populated by mannequins, dressed in clothing donated by JCPenney, so that they could advertise the durability of their clothing later on.”

The mannequins were posed in daily routine scenes like eating, watching TV and sleeping, which Waterfield said he found particularly creepy, in light of what was about to happen to them. The paintings in “This is Not A Test” are based on actual Department of Energy photographs, and Bogaard said the darkly comic scenes provide a lighter but still affecting look at nuclear testing.

One of the other major themes of the show is famous paintings of the Las Vegas strip with mushroom clouds in the background, which is also based on reality, Bogaard noted.

“Casinos in Las Vegas would have rooftop viewings of the tests, where people were served an atomic cocktail by Miss Atomic Bomb,” she said. “This was one way to domesticate what was going on and make the bomb into a pop culture symbol. It made it more kitsch and less sinister.”

Waterfield said that these paintings are an effort on his part to show some of the stranger aspects of atomic testing and how America dealt with the bomb and manifested it into its culture.

Bogaard said that Waterfield’s paintings provide an alternative to the often more oppressive kind of nuclear exhibits. They feature bright colors and dark humor, while still serving as a critique of what was happening at the time.

“For the museum, since we’re still in development, this is a way to tap into a new audience, so they can learn about the nuclear age,” she said. “We’re looking to get more of the community involved and interested in the museum, and this exhibit can really be used as an educational tool.”

For more information on the exhibit call 720-287-1717 or visit www.rockyflatsmuseum.org.