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Swept up by brush with Elvis

John Berkey confronted his anxiety about heights to create promo art for the 1976 "King Kong" remake and found himself in the middle of a Universal Pictures lawsuit.


John Berkey confronted his anxiety about heights to create promo art for the 1976 "King Kong" remake and found himself in the middle of a Universal Pictures lawsuit.

But the roughest episode of the Minnesota artist's remarkable career was getting swept up in the turbulent history of what ranked for more than a decade as the best-selling stamp of all time: the 1993 Elvis Presley stamp, which has sold more than500 million copies.

The Edgeley, N.D.-born artist's rejected image of the older Elvis remains among the most controversial stamp designs in U.S. postal history.

Both works are part of the traveling exhibit "Art of the Stamp," a Smithsonian Institution show just unveiled at the Plains Art Museum. The museum already boasts a Berkey painting in its permanent collection. It features a futuristic spaceship of the sort that fueled the reputation of Berkey the sci-fi illustrator, who once suspended his skepticism of the genre to work on George Lucas' pre-production designs for "Star Wars."

"He's really a fascinating artist," says Rusty Freeman, the Plains director of education and curatorial, about Berkey, who spoke at the exhibit's opening Saturday. "He's one of North Dakota's best-kept secrets."


Berkey, a recent inductee in the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, is known for his science fiction work. He created cover art for major sci-fi novels such as Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot." He painted ad campaign art for "Star Trek," "Dune" and "King Kong." Although he dispatched a photographer to document the view from the World Trade Center for his painting of the ape straddling the towers, he still broke a nervous sweat studying the images. The artist later won a Universal lawsuit challenging the originality of his "Orca" poster.

Berkey got around to watching the "Star Wars" movies some 10 years after their release. "I've had to read so much science fiction for my job, I think I am a little tired of it," he said in a phone interview from his home near Excelsior, Minn.

In fact, Berkey's diverse body of work includes portraits, landscapes - and more than a dozen stamps, including a 1999 California Gold Rush stamp featured in the Plains show. He was one of eight artists the United States Postal Service invited to submit sketches for the Elvis stamp in 1992.

The Service's stamp committee charged him with painting the older Elvis. Mark Stutzman would depict the singer at his career's outset.

Berkey's acrylic take on the white-jumpsuit-clad, 38-year-old Elvis from his 1973 "Aloha From Hawaii" broadcast is hardly unflattering. The artist fiddled with a video recording of the show until he could pause it on the most intense, poignant frame.

"I got goose bumps when I listened to him," he recalls. "He was a hell of a singer."

But at the Hawaii concert, the singer was four years away from his death, and years of overwork and drug abuse had taken a visible toll. Berkey didn't think his version stood a chance against the slimmer, more radiant Elvis by Stutzman.

But the artist didn't foresee the outcry to his painting, pitted against Stutzman's in a nationwide poll. The stamps became fodder for newspaper columnists and members of Congress. Berkey was inundated with hate mail - more than 50 letters, some decrying his irreverent representation of The King, and other railing against his bid to glorify a drug addict.


He was baffled by the hoopla: "If all people had to worry about was Elvis, then we were in good shape."

Berkey, in the midst of a personal crisis that made the jabs sting more, certainly had other things to worry about. His daughter, Sharon, a mother of two, had just died from a heart condition at 34.

Still, he quickly forgot about the mean letters and wasn't particularly disappointed when 75 percent of 1.2 million voters rejected his design.

The Plains show comes a couple years after his first solo exhibit in a Northfield, Minn., gallery. Berkey, now in his 70s, is bemused by the belated attention of the fine arts world. An upcoming documentary promises to bring wider name recognition to the low-key artist.

Looking forward to becoming a big art-world star? "No," says the artist. "I'd just as soon stay a little star."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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