Artist John Berkey of Excelsior had the ability to envision what life in space might be like -- so much so that NASA once wondered how he did it.
Berkey, creator of an iconic Star Wars movie poster, died April 29 at his Excelsior home of complications from several ailments. He was 75 and had been inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2004.
In 2005, he told the Star Tribune that he had never seen "Star Wars," nor was he a science-fiction fan, but he sold "Star Wars" creator George Lucas the painting credited with inspiring the Death Star.
"I have just never been into science fiction," Berkey said. "It isn't literature."
Skip Liepke, longtime New York artist, now of Minneapolis, said Berkey "was able to take the fantasy and make it real."
"He made up his own world and he took you there with him, and you weren't the same," said Liepke, adding that Berkey was a first-rate talent as a painter.
In addition to some of the posters and pre-production designs for the original "Star Wars" and many other Hollywood films, he did paintings that appeared on the covers of National Geographic, Time, Life and hundreds of science fiction paperbacks and at least 15 U.S. postage stamps.
Berkey earned respect from both sci-fi fans and professional artists.
His work is remarkably detailed and scientific-looking -- so much so that Berkey said he once got a call from someone at NASA asking him, "What do you know that we don't?"
Dave Machacek, executive director of ArtOrg in Northfield, said Berkey was disciplined in his work, often working day and night.
"He loved to paint so much, and the other things weren't nearly as interesting," said Machacek. "I think his place is yet to be determined."
Machacek, a longtime friend, recalled stories of Berkey as a teen -- his high school friends passing by in the evening, seeing the light on in his room as he worked at his art.
Berkey was largely self-taught, though he attended the Minneapolis School of Art after he graduated from Excelsior High School in 1950.
He got on with art studios in Minneapolis by doing odd jobs, but his talent was soon recognized, said his son Brian, of Wayzata.
Starting in 1955, he worked at calendar maker Brown and Bigelow in the Twin Cities, leaving in 1964 to begin his freelance career.
Among his postage stamps were the Hubert Humphrey stamp in 1991, the so-called Older Elvis stamp, which was never printed, the set of five Santa Claus stamps in 1991 and the Santa Claus stamp in 1993.
Brian Berkey recalled when his father became a freelance artist: he'd dress daily in white shirt, tie and slacks. Even though he worked from his home studio, he dressed as he had when he was an employee of someone else.
"He took it very seriously," said his son.
His daughter, Sharon, died in 1997.
He is survived by his wife of nearly 52 years, Damaris (Demi) of Excelsior; sons Brian of Wayzata, Kevin of Minneapolis and John of Rockford; sister Janice Knapp of Newbury Park, Calif., and seven grandchildren.
Services will be at 2 p.m. May 16 at the Congregational Church of Excelsior, 471 Third St., with visitation beginning at 1 p.m. at the church.