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Artist Viktor Schreckengost Turns 100

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Viktor Schreckengost is 100 years old today. Even if you've never heard of him, it's likely you've played with, eaten off, or written on things that he made, because he is a designer of dinnerware, lawnmowers, toy cars, wagons, furniture, pottery and more.

As Schreckengost's centennial approached, his family began rummaging through his stuff to catalog his art and inventions and NPR's Dianna Douglas reports on a few of their discoveries.

DIANNA DOUGLAS reporting:

Sculptures, designs and paintings hang from the walls, sit in the windowsills and on the floors, overflow from closets and boxes, and weigh down the attic in Viktor Schreckengost's house. He lives here with his wife, Gene.

DOUGLAS: How long have you and Gene been married?

Mr. VIKTOR SCHRECKENGOST (Artist; Inventor): Four-hundred and eighty-two years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENE SCHRECKENGOST: It just seems like it, honey.

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: We get along fine. Gene takes care of things. You see how she organizes (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOUGLAS: Gene Schreckengost jokes that her husband hasn't thrown anything away since he bought the house 53 years ago. In his den, one of his signature red and white pedal cars is parked next to a bust of an Egyptian queen. His best-selling yellow lawn chair, some dinner plates he designed, and a few paintings, all share the same corner in the dining room.

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: Those are some batiks I made. I'd hold them up and drive and would chill the wax and bring it back and dip it in another color.

DOUGLAS: Two bright batiks from 1929 were found a few months ago in a bag with some mothballs in a closet. Then, there are the sculptures.

Ms. SCHRECKENGOST: These are two of the four heads that he did for the World's Fair in 1939 in New York. They did air, water, earth and fire. Earth, Vik was sure was on the third floor. We looked for it several years ago and it wasn't. But recently, our archivist was digging some things out of a bookcase on the third floor, noticed a door behind the bookcase, opened the door and here was Earth, as well as two other pieces that we didn't know anything about.

DOUGLAS: And then there are watercolors. Schreckengost went to Europe with the Navy during World War II to work on the top-secret radar project. He was flown over battle zones to get a good look at the landscape, and then he built elaborate, three-dimensional models of the topography. His maps showed the military how blips shooting across radar screens corresponded to the enemy's position on actual mountains, beaches or forests.

And in his downtime, Schreckengost painted watercolors.

Ms. CRYSTAL POLIS (Curator, Navy Art Collection): My name is Crystal Polis and I'm the curator for the Navy Art Collection. We're showing eight of the watercolors that they had found in his studio behind some old frames and the colors are brilliant; it's like he painted them yesterday.

DOUGLAS: He paints enemy territory in vivid, nervous strokes with menacing light, while the safety of the earth seems to slip away.

Ms. POLIS: This one, you definitely feel that you're looking out the right side of the airplane as the airplane banks left. You see the tilted horizon and the clouds and the world below - probably some low-lying valley in France or the German coast.

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: Oh, Lord, these are old. Oh, it's been a long time.

DOUGLAS: Schreckengost attended this exhibit and saw the watercolors he made as a young man framed for the first time. He remembered wanting to express how he felt during the war through art.

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: I couldn't take my sculpture. I had to take little blobs of paint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: So, on the way into land, I would make a quick dummy and, as soon as I landed, I would get my paper out and make paintings.

DOUGLAS: Schreckengost worked on placement of radars during the Battle of the Bulge. He was clearly effected by the destruction he saw in Europe. A few of his watercolors show what was left of the heavily bombed city of Le Havre in France.

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: Sad, isn't it?

DOUGLAS: Do you remember doing this piece?

Mr. SCHRECKENGOST: I sure do. I remember standing in this pile of stuff and I went home and did the painting. It was a shame that those things were all destroyed. It worried me, so that's why I painted several of them.

One hundred museums across the country are celebrating Viktor Schreckengost's centennial this summer with exhibits of his paintings, peddle cars, sculptures, bicycles, dinner plates and inventions. And his family is sure they'll still find more.

Dianna Douglas, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see some of Viktor Schreckengost's works in ceramics and ink by going to our website: npr.org.

And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dianna Douglas has produced NPR's signature news pieces from across the nation and around the world. In the spring of 2010 she spent five weeks embedded with the US Army in Kandahar. Her work with the Special Forces in Meiwan Province, the Military Police in Kandahar City, and the recently-arrived 101st Airborne Division in Zhari document the small victories and overwhelming challenges of the American mission in Afghanistan.