My Keith Birdsong Story
by Bret Leader One (Bret Smith)
I have been an avid “Star Trek” fan since I was in the 3rd grade when my father showed me original series episodes being broadcast for the first time. With the series only lasting three seasons and being an avid reader, I was very excited when “Star Trek” books with new stories started being published in the 1960s. It was a regular thrill for me to visit Waldenbooks in the local mall and see the latest “Star Trek” novel on the shelves starting with Bantam Books and now Simon & Schuster since 1979. In the 1990s novels were released with incredible book covers. Artist Keith Birdsong was creating “Star Trek” covers that featured photo-realistic art pieces of characters, aliens, ships and planets! And every cover captured my eye and drew me into the story.
In 1985, Bill Kraft formed the “Star Trek” Stamp Committee and worked 13 years trying to convince the United States Postal Service to honor “Star Trek” with its first stamp! Finally, in 1999, the Postal Service began a “Celebrate the Century” initiative that allowed the public to vote for significant historical and cultural events during each decade. The “Star Trek” fans united to give their favorite show its first stamp and artist Keith Birdsong was chosen to create that stamp of the U.S.S. Enterprise starship. I, of course, was a member of the voting public and was thrilled to get a sheet of these 1960s commemorative stamps for my “Star Trek” collection.
I attended my first “Star Trek” convention in the early 1980s and have continued to attend such conventions more and more over the years. Besides collecting autographs from “Star Trek” actors, I started to become interested in meeting producers, directors, writers and artists that have contributed to “Star Trek” over the years in all of its forms. With the advent of social media, I was able to “friend” various writers and reach out to them directly to ask to get books signed. If I was planning to attend a convention in a different state, I looked to see which “Star Trek” talent might be in the same geographic area to see if I could connect with them.
In 2018, via facebook, I learned of the devastating stroke of artist Keith Birdsong and his miraculous recovery. I thought that if I was ever near Oklahoma, I’d love to try to connect with him. Then earlier this year, I decided to attend Kansas City’s 20th anniversary Planet Comic-Con event as it is not that far to travel from my home in Colorado. If I rented a car in Kansas City, that would put Tulsa, Oklahoma, within a 4-hour driving distance, so I reached out to Keith and connected with his friend Andrea Bowden. The following are excerpts from my journal describing my amazing encounter with artist Keith Birdsong.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
I flew to Kansas City and rented a car. While en route to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Andrea Bowden called me. She said she had a 24-hour bug and should be fine tomorrow but that Keith Birdsong was back in the hospital for personal reasons. She invited me to meet her tomorrow and we’d drive to Muskogee in hopes of meeting Keith! I arrived in Tulsa in the late evening.
Thursday, March 28, 2019
Per a request from Andrea, I stopped by the offices of the Tulsa World newspaper to pick up copies of yesterday’s newspaper with its current article about Keith Birdsong for myself and for Keith’s family. Andrea called me to say she was still under the weather but could take me to Keith’s home to show me his studio. I met her there and she gave me a tour of the house. Keith had converted his living room into an art studio and there was stunning art everywhere as well as an amazing collection of pencils. He draws sketches with pencils first, then does the finished pieces using color pencils. On the main easel in the room was the “Star Trek” stamp cover that he did and it was stunning! Plus original pieces were hung going up his stairs. A couple weeks ago they held an art show at his house that had over 200 guests. Andrea showed me Keith’s sketches of the 1960s decade USPS stamps including Martin Luther King Jr. and the first-ever USPS Star Trek stamp, the U. S. S. Enterprise! I learned Keith is a cousin of Elvis Presley, is a huge fan and does a great Elvis speaking and singing impression! I got to see three paintings of Marilyn Monroe he did for a set of three Hamilton plates. Keith had stacks of Hamilton Star Trek plates and tons of Star Trek books that he did the covers for. Andrea took photos of me in his studio with the original Star Trek USPS cover painting and holding the framed Star Trek stamp. I even got to see a Star Trek book cover that was not used! And also in his studio was his latest drawing of a woman in the woods that is the first piece he has done since his hemorrhagic stroke in June 2018. I learned Keith wants to add color to it next. Andrea’s voice was wearing out so she opted not to go to Muskogee, providing me with Keith’s sister DeeJay Gaugh’s address. It was a 50-minute drive to Muskogee. I drove to DeeJay’s home and she was super nice, inviting me to join her on her front porch to drink sweet tea and chat. She told me some family stories of being dirt-poor, Keith drawing in grade school and his mother Sheila Jo taking on a clothes-ironing evening job to get money for Keith to take art lessons. Later, the teacher refunded all of Sheila Jo’s money, saying she learned more from Keith than the other way around! DeeJay also showed me Keith’s beautiful paintings in her home. Next we drove to her mom’s home, I met Sheila Jo and got a tour of Keith’s paintings in her home. Then I followed them to the VA hospital. I had a small roll-tote full of “Star Trek” books that Keith had so graciously offered to sign for me! I met 59-year-old Keith Birdsong who was soft-spoken and very nice. The four of us sat at a table, ate snacks, drank tea and chatted. Highlights à
- I had brought copies of Keith’s article in yesterday’s Tulsa World. Keith has had some vision issues since his stroke and doesn’t read much now. So I was happy to read the whole article to everyone and Keith showed some of the hospital personnel his article, too!
- I learned Keith was in the Army as a journalist. Andrea had shown me some articles and an award hung up in his Tulsa home. Keith wants to write his memoir to share his story of his miraculous recovery from the hemorrhagic stroke. He was not supposed to live, let alone ever walk or talk again. A miracle! And he believes it was God’s purpose that he not die. Keith told me while dead from the stroke, Jesus showed him the terrible path he was on and asked him if that’s what he wanted with the rest of his life. He said he chose not to go down that path to hell so God saved him for a reason.
- Keith worked on a couple films for Hollywood, one out of North Carolina called “Read Me a Story”. He drew tattoos on an actor playing a serial-killer with a mask in the film. Keith said he’s on IMDb.com.
- I asked Keith how he came to draw his “Star Trek” covers. He said he always loved “Star Trek” and wanted to do a book cover. His agent told him that he was not well known enough to get such a gig. So he spent one night doing a sample piece of “Star Trek The Next Generation” characters, sent it to Pocket Books and was immediately hired! He did over 75 Star Trek book covers and his editors loved that he was fast and could crank out covers quickly! They would send him a one-page synopsis of the novel. Keith had to get his own photo references of the characters.
- I asked about attending conventions as I was curious if he’d ever been to Denver’s Starfest which has been going on over 40 years. He really didn’t recall and said his agent took him to a lot of conventions. He would take current artwork he was working on and continue drawing at cons.
- During the second hour of my visit, DeeJay helped me unpack my “Star Trek” hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines and USPS stamp sheet to put in front of Keith who happily signed them, telling me that each book brought back good memories for him.
- Keith asked me if I wanted him to sign my books as he usually signs his book “Birdsong” or as his full-name. First, I suggested whatever he preferred then asked for his full-name. On the hardcovers he signed inside them, on the magazines he signed on the cover and on most of the paperbacks, he signed on the cover. As he was signing, he said “I really like the way my full-name signature is looking!”
- When he signed the USPS “Star Trek” stamp he pointed out the other stamps that he also did from the 60s decade like Martin Luther King, Jr. He showed hospital personnel and they were happy to see the stamp sheet, too! Next I showed him Bill Kraft’s Maybe We Need a Letter from God: The Star Trek Stamp book which Keith said he’d never seen! He wanted to sign the cover of that book and later when I read him the section at the end of the book where he was noted as the chosen artist after the successful campaign, he signed that section with a big “THANK YOU”.
- When Keith signed the Star Trek: The Official Fan Club Magazine #84 with his portrait of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, he said he was good friends with Gene and really loved the man.
- Keith pointed out his first “Star Trek” cover – Jean Lorrah’s Star Trek-The Next Generation: Metamorphosis. On Star Trek-The Next Generation #13: The Eye of the Beholder cover, Keith painted his daughter Candice as an Andorian. Plus, he showed me a Klingon on the cover of Star Trek #54: A Flag Full of Stars and told me the Klingon was modeled after a homeless person that he gave $10 to be able to use his likeness!
- Keith said he met all of the “Star Trek” cast. When I mentioned William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols were coming to the next Starfest, he said that he was especially close with Nichelle and that she told him she was the only “Star Trek” woman NOT to sleep with Shatner!
- Keith was enthusiastic about the possibility of going to Starfest in April, only noting that Andrea would need to come with him to help him get around due to his reading issues. He also told me he was going to California to Lightspeed Fine Arts in May to sign a bunch of prints. Andrea had told me that he was going to do this a year ago but then the stroke put a delay on that.
- When I said I hoped to see Keith at Starfest, he agreed and gave me a big smile!
When it was time to leave, Keith shook my hand and gave me a big hug. He walked us down the hallway and I got another hug, he looked me in the eyes and said, “I really like you, you’re a nice guy.” Then it was farewells to Keith, DeeJay and Sheila Jo. The entire family had taken a complete stranger and welcomed me into their family. It was a most memorable one-day experience for this huge “Star Trek” fan!
It was only a few months afterwards that Keith had a devastating car crash that took him from us. With today, June 4, 2021, being the second anniversary of Keith’s passing, I wanted to share this story of my brief, but inspirational meeting with this incredible artist.
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