WWII 'ghost army' vet now an art institution at Harper
There's so much more to Bernie Bluestein than the undisputed claim that he's taken every art class offered at Harper College in Palatine.
"Bernie's got to be the only (current) Harper student who served in World War II," says Jason Peot, a Harper art professor. "I've been here 16 years, and Bernie's been enrolled in my sculpture class every semester."
"That's because he won't pass me," quips the 90-year-old Bluestein, a fixture at the school. The artist's presence is felt around the clock thanks to a display featuring a larger-than-life bust, sculpted in 2006 by classmate Chris Reiber, of Bluestein's head sporting his trademark white sailor's cap pulled down Gilligan-style.
A lifelong artist and member of a legendary top-secret artists battalion during World War II, Bluestein took his first Harper class in March 1989, and this spring will celebrate his 25th anniversary as a college student.
"All this keeps me young. Otherwise, I'd be sitting in a rocking chair like the proverbial old man does," says Bluestein, who drives to the Palatine campus from his home in Schaumburg.
Born in Cleveland, Bluestein began his art career by drawing characters he saw in the Sunday funny pages.
"I was pretty good at Popeye," says Bluestein, who longed for more challenging art projects. His dad, a modest tailor, obliged.
"My father got pretty daring," recalls Bluestein, who was maybe 9 years old at the time. "He brought home some calendars from the barber shop. They had nudes."
At an age when most boys would have stashed such booty in a secret hiding place and charged buddies for a peek, Bluestein honed his art skills by drawing those naked women. "Then my father brought me Esquire magazine, and I copied the Petty girls," Bluestein says, referring to the scantily clad pinups made famous by artist George Petty. The young Bluestein spent Saturday mornings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, drawing pieces on display.
His talent earned him a spot studying art at Cleveland's East Technical High School, one of the nation's first trade schools. The predominantly black school also produced Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens.
"I had to take two trolley cars to get there," Bluestein remembers.
As a teen, he took a figure-drawing class at nearby Huntington Polytechnic Institute. "I sat in the amphitheater, and this gal came out in a robe and took it off. As a kid, I just drew," Bluestein says. "I figured it was art."
The portfolio he built during his high school art classes ("I worked my tuchas off") was good enough to land Bluestein a full-ride scholarship for his freshman year at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), saving his financially poor family the $250 annual tuition. The following year, he supplemented his scholarship by working as a janitor at the school. When attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, it made all able-bodied men subject to be drafted into the military.
"I didn't particularly like the idea of shooting somebody and having somebody shooting at me," says Bluestein, who enlisted after being recruited for a secret military program designed for artists. He enrolled in a camouflage course, where "we learned how to disguise a building with shadows and overhangs," Bluestein recalls.
He still has his blueprints for a "Camouflage Airfield," with 16 planes and 14 buildings, that was made "to look like a farm" to fool the Nazis flying overhead.
During his stateside training, Bluestein made wooden frames in the shape of jeeps, tanks and trucks, covered them with canvas or burlap, and made them look like the real thing to attract the enemy and distract them from the real troop movements. "When you took an aerial photo, it really was convincing," Bluestein says.
"I was just a kid among those artists," says Bluestein, whose fellow soldier-artists in the 603rd Engineers Camouflage Division included fashion designer Bill Blass, revolutionary abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, bird and wildlife painter Arthur Singer, and photographer Art Kane.
His company arrived in England just in time for Bluestein to sit under a tree and watch as "the whole sky was completely filled with airplanes" on their way to the D-Day invasion in France. Bluestein spent much of his time in Luxembourg, in an old seminary where a painting on the wall told the story. One side of the painting featured a nativity scene. The other side was a picture of Adolf Hitler. "They switched the pictures depending on who was coming through at the time," Bluestein says.
Practicing the "art" of war, Bluestein's company served as a traveling stage show. In addition to erecting inflatable rubber tanks, planes and artillery equipment, giant speakers played the sounds (including swearing) of soldiers building bridges and preparing for battle. The men even made phony uniforms and pretended to be high-ranking officers inspecting the troops. To throw off the Nazis, some hit the local watering holes and leaked information about their phony battalion of 30,000 troops rolling into town.
"We were eleven hundred guys faking it," Bluestein says of the entire Ghost Army unit, which included 80 men in his company and completed 20 campaigns across France and into Germany. "My parents didn't even know where we were or what I did."
Declassified in 1996, the battalion's story is told in a PBS documentary called "The Ghost Army."
Not wanting to be on either end of military fire, Bluestein appreciates the irony of pretending to be a member of a mighty fighting force. "Here I am. Hey, Germany, shoot at me!" Bluestein says with a chuckle.
"It was convincing," Bluestein says of the artists' fakery. "We knew that because I got up and went to the mess for breakfast, and 20 minutes later we were shelled. One of my friends got hit by shrapnel."
The real Allied companies crossed the Rhine River in secret because the "Ghost Army" impersonating it was miles away, drawing the attention of the Nazis. Bluestein still has his commendation letter from Army Gen. William H. Simpson.
After the war, Bluestein used the G.I. Bill to pay for his last two years of art school. He graduated in 1947 and worked as a packaging designer for Montgomery Ward, before moving to better jobs. Married, with a son (Keith, who now lives in Buffalo Grove) and a daughter (Aleyce Lacy, who now lives outside New Orleans), the industrial designer worked for large firms and started his own design business. He worked on a wide variety of products from American institutions such as Zenith and Schick before ending his career with Sunbeam.
Retired and eager to get back to the fine arts he loved as a boy, Bluestein began taking every art class offered at Harper. The grandfather of three has worked in wood, stone, bronze, welded steel, rope, fabric, ceramics and other materials. He still loves figure drawing, which "is like therapy for me," he says. He created a wooden headboard for his bed that includes the front view of 20 nude women he drew over the decades, and the back view of one naked old man wearing a white sailor hat. But he spends most of his time on a sculpture series based on the tailor needles he remembers from his childhood.
"He just continues to grow. There's no decline or settling," says Perry Pollock, chairman of the school's art department, which hosted a show of Bluestein's work. In addition to his growth as an artist, Bluestein gives his fellow students a different perspective in critiques, Pollock says.
Bluestein's needle series includes small, intricate pieces as well as needles with eyes large enough to walk through.
"I had to go out to a boat yard to get that rope," the artist says of his "thread" running through the eye of a needle that would stand 150 feet tall if he hadn't chosen to just show the top of it sticking out of the ground.
Up at 7 every morning, Bluestein works out at a gym before arriving at Harper by 9 a.m. almost every weekday. He generally stays until at least 3 p.m. "I don't even take lunch. I work straight through," Bluestein says. "If I could come here Saturday, I'd come then, too. It's like my second home."
The dozens of hours he spent sanding one piece of art makes other students wonder how long each sculpture takes him. "Everybody asks me, and I don't keep track of time. I just do it," Bluestein says. "This is so much fun. This is really my life. This is my fuel for living."
Constable: 'This is my fuel for living,' Bluestein says of his art