In observance of National Volunteer Month, Civil Air Patrol recognizes Maj. Ron Finger, who serves as CAP’s national artist on the Marketing and Strategic Communications team. Finger, honored over the weekend by the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame, is one of 270 national staff volunteers who work alongside CAP’s paid staff and contribute greatly to its programs and initiatives.
When Civil Air Patrol’s national artist, Maj. Ron Finger, decided as a college student to ground dreams of an engineering or medical career and become a graphic artist, his aunt in his small Wisconsin hometown was skeptical.
“She definitely was old-school and said, ‘Well, you know, you certainly don’t want to be an artist and sell your paintings on the streetcorner.’”
Today, no doubt, Aunt Mary is smiling.
Finger, a 13-year veteran the Minnesota Wing’s Crow Wing Composite Squadron, was honored April 1 in Minneapolis by the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame for his artwork in CAP’s Timeline Flight and Silvered Wings initiatives, which captures for future generations the iconic aircraft of the U.S. Air Force auxiliary’s 81 years.
“It was a surprise,” Finger says. “I was congratulated by a couple of people in (the Minnesota) Wing before I even heard about it.”
He was aware last summer he had been nominated for the honor.
Finger, 68, has labored on the Timeline Flight and Silvered Wings series in collaboration with CAP’s national historian emeritus, Col. Frank Blazich Jr.
“So much of CAP history remains forgotten or lost, particularly imagery of people, places, aircraft and operations,” Blazich said. “Maj. Finger’s artwork brings the past forth in color and motion.”
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Finger’s paintings of the lesser-known planes of the 1930s and 1940s, known to only a few in the present-day aviation community.
“His wide vision of aviation history will be one of his lasting strengths and contributions to the field,” Blazich said.
Finger’s journey in paint and ink began in his small high school, where he was the self-described “art guy” in a class of 150.
After majoring in engineering and then pre-med with an art minor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he decided to focus fully on art, transferring to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Thanks to a 6-by-6-inch square catalog from the school, his career flight plan was set.
“I was going be an illustrator,” Finger recalled. “I didn’t even know what that was.”
Even with some academic detours before his move to the big-city school, art was always in the picture.
“The sirens were always there, sort of calling,” Finger said. “Getting into a medical school was going to be a difficult thing. … My grades weren’t so hot.”
In the art and design world of the 1960s and ‘70s, it seemed Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, and Mark Rothko called the tune. Finger, the small-town kid, was influenced instead by Norman Rockwell, whose Saturday Evening Post covers celebrated little-town life.
Finger grew up in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, a town like the ones Rockwell painted. Sandwiched between Milwaukee and Madison, then hotbeds of antiwar and Civil Rights protests, Lake Mills was steeped in family, faith, and the flag.
“It was Rockwellian. Small. Very German. Very orderly. Very safe,” he said.
Finger remembers attending a weeklong student art gathering in Madison. At the opening icebreaker, students were asked to name their favorite artist. “Rockwell,” he said.
“There was this groan and laughter and giggles,” Finger recalled. “I knew I was a little different then.”
His aviation art, fueled by a lifelong love of airplanes, was influenced by Keith Ferris, whom Finger called “the dean” of the genre. One of Ferris’s paintings hangs in CAP National Headquarters.
Like Rockwell, Finger’s art focuses on detail. It’s fitting in aviation, where for pilots and ground crew detail can be the difference between a smooth flight and disaster.
Finger credits Blazich for helping him discover and stick to the details of each aircraft.
“He’s always my double-check,” Finger said. “He is, as he professes, no expert on aircraft per se. But he is an expert resource finder for just about anything. Frank’s knowledge of CAP history is like a firehose; after talking to him about something I find myself a little dazed until the brain swelling subsides.”
Finger also relies on Joseph P. Juptner’s nine-volume “U.S. Civil Aircraft,” covering the World War II and immediate postwar periods, which includes images, specifications and ATC (Approved Type Certificate) numbers for those aircraft – the “stamp of approval” by the former federal Civil Aviation Authority.
“It was kind of like a birth certificate for a model,” Finger said.
His artwork for CAP gives some of those historic planes a rebirth of sorts in acrylic paints and other media. He has also participated since 2012 in the the Air Force Art Program as one of a select pool of artists a assigned “art missions” to document specific Air Force operations.
While the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame recognition honors his work, Finger sees something more.
“I hope it’s a testament to these flyers,” he said.
That thought hit home as he completed his most recent depiction, a Monocoupe 90A, a streamlined beauty linked to Coastal Patrol Base 5 in Flagler Beach, Florida, one of 21 CAP coastal bases down the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast some 80 years ago.
Base 5’s logo was a wringer washing machine with menacing eyes and teeth, spewing a mix of bombs and suds.
In his research he discovered the equivalent of a yearbook for the base, honoring those who flew out 60 miles over the Atlantic on the hunt for enemy submarines – dangerous stuff.
“You look at the guys in the yearbook and these guys are having the time of their lives. I know this is dead serious business they’re engaged in,” he said.
“I’m here in my warm, comfortable studio, where the risk to me is climbing the studio stairs. And I’m getting the recognition. They were having the time of their lives.
“But thanks to them, I’m having the time of my life, too, but with much, much less risk. Any honor I truly want to deflect to them, because they were the guys out on the danger line.”
More of Finger’s CAP artwork can be seen at his Redpine Illustration studio website.