“Greatest painter of nose art of all time”, “the Michelangelo of WW II aviation art”….just two of the impressive statements made about Sgt Sarkis Bartigian (often misspelt as Bartigan).
Bartigian was born in 1906 in Chelsea, Mass; he studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and went on to work as a commercial artist painting murals for restaurants and movie theaters. He joined the USAAF a lot later in life than most, at the age of 36 (possibly 37) and was initially stationed at Lowry AFB. Not long after his joining he married his one true love Mabel who would later become the inspiration for many of his impressive works of art including ‘Mabel’s Labels’ the beautiful portrait of his bride which is depicted on the side of a 43rd Bomb Group’s B24 along with several nudes and well positioned pair’s of luscious red lips.
(Mr and Mrs Bartigian http://www.usaaf-noseart.co.uk/plane.php?plane=bartigian-mabel&code=404R#.VHzr6tKsX1U )
He was trained to use the Sperry bomb-sight and later when training others he used his own illustrations. After being assigned to the 43rd Bomb Group his artistic talents came to the fore and were made spectacular use of and whilst deployed to the Philippines he would spend his spare time decorating the captain’s quarters.
.Bartigian used his great talent mostly during the last few months of the war and they had to be carried out in the isolation and soaring heats of the vast Pacific Ocean, however oppressive the surroundings it also enabled his imagination to run free, creating spectacular pieces with an exceptional skill. It is quite amazing that he was able to produce such immense works of pure art in conditions which would have stretched even the most skillful of artists. Just imagine trying to put paint to gunner with the wind rushing past you and throwing sand in your face in the barren airfield of Le Shima (near Okinawa). And he did not concentrate solely on the nose, he however saw the whole of the B24 as his canvas and many of his works would stretch the entire length of the aircraft , from nose turret to tail gunners position, these were enormous pieces of art!
(‘Cocktail Hour’ http://www.usaaf-noseart.co.uk/plane.php?plane=bartigian-cocktail#.VHzrLdKsX1U )
(‘It aint so funny’ http://www.usaaf-noseart.co.uk/plane.php?plane=bartigian-funny&code=404R#.VHzuKtKsX1U )
(‘Michigan’ http://alumni.umich.edu/about/news-features/wwii-bomber-michigan-featured-u-m-stadium )
It may be a fanciful story but it has been reputed that the Liberator featuring his ‘Dragon and his tail’ piece, having flown 85 combat missions, surviving Hitler and the war, was the last of the great B24’s to be sent back to the USA to be scrapped at the reclamation plant at Kingman Arizona, and that the emotional staff there could not bear to have it chopped up. They were so impressed with the amazingly colourful artwork that they kept her to the last and were holding on to the hope, till the last-minute, that a benefactor would be found to save the ill-fated war bird, save the beautiful lady for prosperity! Whilst waiting for this non existent benefactor the Liberator lay languishing in the desert sand, tail heavy as by this time devoid of her engines and as thus with her nose protruding in to the air. In 1946 it would have taken just $2000 to secure her, but no body came, there was no ‘Daddy Warbucks’ waiting in the wings. So as sad as it now seems she went the same way as most of the B24’s and B17’s of WW II, they had survived the war, the enemies guns, the fighters, the flak and the journey home, yet they could not survive the melting pot. Neither could the art work stretching along the entire side of this B24, its green Dragons tail entirely taking up the flat right side of the aircraft, quite possibly the largest single piece of artwork found on an aircraft in WW II. However, though the beauty was ultimately lost, she rose like a Phoenix from the ashes to be made into pots and pans to feed the world she had just helped to keep free.
( http://www.usaaf-noseart.co.uk/plane.php?plane=bartigian-dragon&code=404R#.VHzhRdKsX1U )
In tribute to the amazing work of Bartigian the Collins Foundation acquired the only flyable B24 remaining in 1989 and undertook a multimillion dollar restoration of the aircraft. They afforded Bartigian the highest accolade by painting a replica of the ‘Dragon and his tail’ art on her and once again the Dragon soured, taking to the air at air shows across America in front of thousands of excited onlookers (though it has since had another paint job).
How sad it is though that the great man in question did not live to see his work so wondrously honoured. Having survived the war and returned to his darling Mabel he was unfortunately killed during a car crash in 1955, aged only 49 and some 30 years before his work got the tribute it deserved.
Such a sad loss of a wonderful talent, considering his skill, one can only imagine the heights to which he could have achieved had been allowed the opportunity to hone his craft. It is so unbelievably sad that having escaped the clutches of Death during the war which shook the world he should come to meet his maker due to something so pedestrian as a car crash.
Through his work his will always be remembered as will the delightful Mabel.