CIA Calendar Art Offers A Glimpse Into The World Of Spies Oil paintings on display at CIA headquarters — and therefore invisible to the public — can now be seen in a collection of wall calendars. They depict declassified missions from the agency's past.
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CIA Calendar Art Offers A Glimpse Into The World Of Spies

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CIA Calendar Art Offers A Glimpse Into The World Of Spies

CIA Calendar Art Offers A Glimpse Into The World Of Spies

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A new year means a new calendar. And a man in North Carolina has created some very unusual calendars. In fact, they show scenes that you weren't supposed to see. WUNC's Jay Price reports on the only way most people will ever be able to view the CIA's official paintings of past spy missions.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Yes, CIA paintings with scenes including a spy with a rifle shooting down an airplane from a helicopter and not one but two missions in which planes try to snatch agents off the ground without even landing. Of course, before there could be calendars of CIA art, there had to be CIA art. And there really wasn't any until Erik Kirzinger, a former logger, fly-fishing guide and cowhand, came up with the idea to commission some for the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia.

ERIK KIRZINGER: The idea being that when you looked at the collection, it would tell the visual history of the CIA one mission at a time.

PRICE: It was personal. His uncle was a CIA contract pilot who was killed in a 1952 mission in China. Nearly half a century later, Kirzinger listened as then-CIA director George Tenet spoke at an annual ceremony honoring spies killed in the line of duty.

KIRZINGER: When he was describing what the men and women were up to when they were killed, I had these visual images of their missions.

PRICE: He asked CIA leaders if the agency would be interested in art that told some of its stories. And they liked the idea. He helped pick suitable declassified missions, found private donors to pay for the paintings and commissioned the artists. One of them was Dru Blair, who owns an art school in South Carolina.

DRU BLAIR: This is the "Ambush In Manchuria." I'll pull that out.

PRICE: It's the mission in which Kirzinger's uncle was killed. Before painting it, Blair built a 3-D computer model of the scene to get it right.

BLAIR: So the idea is to figure out point of view, first. And we've decided - in this instance, I needed the plane from underneath and...

PRICE: In the painting, the plane is flying low to yank an agent from the ground while taking fire from Chinese machine gunners. The plane is flying toward two poles with a line strung between them. That line attaches to a harness around the agent's body, and a hook dangling from the plane is supposed to snag the line.

BLAIR: ...And that's the stunt that you see in a James Bond movie, but they actually use that in reality to lift people off to extract them, basically, from a dangerous zone.

PRICE: The plane was shot down. And both pilots, including Kirzinger's uncle, were killed. Two surviving crew members were held in Chinese prisons for decades. After the first few paintings, Kirzinger bowed out. And the CIA now commissions new ones itself. But he got the idea to create calendars, so people who don't get a chance to roam CIA headquarters - meaning most of us - can see them. The idea of CIA art may seem odd, but it's kind of part of a tradition, a genre of art we can call - I don't know - maybe a good phrase is national security art. The Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force - even the Coast Guard have art.

VICTOR YOURITZIN: There are thousands of pieces in these collections. They're huge. That's something, I think, many, many people in this country are not aware of.

PRICE: Few art experts have seen as many paintings with national security themes, says Victor Youritzin. The professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma spent years poring over the thousands of pieces of art in the various collections of the U.S. military and organized a show of some of the best ones.

YOURITZIN: But I was not aware the CIA (laughter) had an art collection.

PRICE: Hardly anyone was. But now anyone can flip to a new CIA painting every month. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Greensboro, N.C.


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