First, Steve Barba drew airplanes, made models of airplanes, maintained airplanes, painted on the sides of airplanes, now coming full circle, he’s back to drawing airplanes. Barba, a South Dakota artist is on a continually evolving adventure that weaves his military career, his love of art, his passion for aircraft and unending curiosity. “I was always kinda fascinated by art and I love aircraft so I was always drawing airplanes”, Barba said, “As a kid, I would pour over books and magazines filled with pictures of (World War II), fighters and bombers with artwork painted on the sides of these powerful aircraft, I knew that the time of those machines and artwork had long passed and I would have never guessed that in time, I would be a part of that colorful history”. Barba joined the US Air Force in 1981 and was trained as an aircraft mechanic on the mighty B-52. In his spare time, he was learning sign painting under the tutelage of a local sign shop in Rapid City. Ultimately, his sign painting and aircraft maintenance skills proved to be the perfect combination for Barba to fulfill a lifelong fantasy. After spending 15 years on the B-52s, Barba was transferred to the B-1B squadron at Ellsworth, the 37th Bomb Squadron. By that time in 1996, nose art had made a comeback in the Air Force, and every jet had art on it. “The 37th had an artist painting the jets, and being very new to the squadron and the jet, I wasnt about to step on his toes, but a month later that individual got orders to Edwards and left the squadron. By then I had a fat portfolio of things that I had painted. I went to the flight chief and showed him the album and he said I could paint the next jet”, Barba said. “That was in 1996. I painted nose arts until 2016.” Barba painted 50 nose arts for the 34th, 37th and 77th Bomb Squadrons, including a George McGovern Tribute and 6 base commanders jets. He holds the unique distinction of being the only contemporary artist anywhere to have painted 50 nose arts on active duty bombers. Barbas art and aircraft skills made him ideally suited for painting nose arts. “The military was looking for people in the ranks to paint nose arts. You can tell the difference between a civilian sign painter and an artist who has ties to the aircraft,” Barba said. “Aircraft are not just inanimate objects, they have a soul. The all have personalities. I learned that after working around them for 25 years,” Barba said laughing. Barba was often asked to “personalize” going away art prints with either pictures of aircraft that the recipient worked, or maybe something unique or even embarrassing that might have occured during their time with the squadron. “To interject humor, I started developing a loose cartoon style to these illustrations. I can draw in a realistic style, but leaving the squadron PCS, (permanant change of station), or retirement are always pretty light hearted and I tried very hard to keep it that way”, Barba says, “So when I started drawing the illustrations after I retired, I kept the loose, animated style, makes them more fun and shows the jets personality.” Barba took an inner office cartoon that has been making the rounds probably since the 1960’s, 70’s, titled “The Crew Chief” “The picture, (crudely drawn, which in a way is appropriate), depicts a USAF Crew Chief with arrows describing all his “parts”, ie; red pencil- used break jet, black pencil, used to fix jet, Gremlins are real, etc, I had seen this drawing for decades and decided to clean him up and make the crew chief aircraft specific by adding his appropriate airframe behind him. So with all of the different USAF airframes, plus all of the different versions of the same aircraft, past and present, I should be busy the rest of my life,” Barba said. “I started doing so many airframes that we decided to offer them on the web, and “Thunderbolt Gallery” was born. The name “Thunderbolt” is derived from the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt, the mightiest and hardest hitting WWII fighter ever conceived.” Although Steve’s illustrations are done in colored pencils, his preferred medium, he is well versed in airbrushing, acrylics, pen and ink, oils and murals. Steve lives with his wife Kristy and 2 dogs in Sturgis South Dakota.
Frank Luckman, (Lucky), Steve Barba, "Gathering of Mustangs and Legends 2007" Columbus Ohio