Son of ‘Bridge of Spies’ pilot to deliver father’s story at HMNS Wednesday

When it comes to American espionage, few people are as close to the truth as Francis Gary Powers, Jr., and fewer have a story to tell as exciting as his father’s — one that inspired director Steven Spielberg to make a movie out of it. Bridge of Spies (2015) tells the declassified tale of New York lawyer James Donovan, who brokered the international prisoner exchange that brought home American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Sr. The narrative lives on through Powers’s son, who will tell his own story of historical preservation Wednesday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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May 1, 1960, during the height of the Cold War, Powers, Sr. was shot down over Russia during a spy mission to take photos of the ground from an altitude of 70,000 feet. Using specialized camera equipment, Powers’s plane gathered information on ground movements from 13.25 miles above the Earth’s surface, more than twice the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner.

Powers’s U-2 was damaged by an SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, which exploded near the tail section, breaking off a portion of the tail. The plane disintegrated as it fell through the atmosphere, tearing off both wings. According to his son, Powers never ejected but still survived the crash, and the middle of the aircraft remained nearly intact, leaving advanced technology available for Russian engineers to investigate.

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Francis Gary Powers, Sr., in the specialized pressure suit that allows U-2 pilots to survive at 70,000 feet.

Powers pulled himself from the wreckage and was later captured by the Russian military and detained in a Soviet prison for two years. In the media and history books, his capture and brokerage back to the United States became known as the U-2 Incident of May 1960.

At this point, Powers’s story grows muddled in rumor and conspiracy theory, which his son has passionately and patiently resisted for decades through his work with the public. Many Americans considered Powers as a traitor, believing he should have taken his own life to preserve U.S. secrets and that perhaps his return home meant military secrets had been exchanged.

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Powers, Sr. used this model to explain in legal hearings how the aircraft broke up as it fell to the ground.

“It’s never too late to set the record straight,” Powers, Jr. told the Houston Rotary Club at a special luncheon Tuesday, where he delivered his story as a guest speaker. He explained that the U-2 Incident happened when he was a child living in California, but he was old enough to understand his father’s POW status.

Later in life, after his father published his 1970 memoir, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, Powers, Jr. became instrumental to the preservation of the U-2 Incident and Cold War espionage. His father died in a tragic news helicopter accident in 1977, and after many years of mourning, Powers, Jr. picked up the torch.

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With the help of John C. Welch, Powers, Jr. founded The Cold War Museum in 1996. Inspired by decades of research into declassified documents, his father’s memoir and personal experience, he first established the museum as a traveling collection with the preservation of truth in mind. Over the years, the museum traveled around the world to build interest in the creation of a permanent home, and in 2009, Powers, Jr. announced a physical address in Vint Hill, Va. He currently resides in Richmond.

For 15 years, Powers, Jr. pitched his father’s story to the film industry to further build interest in the museum, the memoir and the U-2 Incident. In July 2014, Steven Spielberg requested to option Powers’s book for Bridge of Spies, released last October. The movie stars Tom Hanks as Donovan.

Powers, Jr. will deliver a lecture Wednesday in the Wortham Giant Screen Theater at HMNS. He will discuss the U-2 Incident, the history of Cold War espionage and his experience establishing The Cold War Museum and serving as a technical consultant for Bridge of Spies. Tickets available online or at the box office.

Don’t miss our temporary espionage exhibit Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America, open through next Monday, Jan. 18. Learn the secrets of spies before they disappear!

Still interested in espionage and counter-terrorism? Come back next week for a second spies lecture titled Terrorism, ISIS, and Emerging Threats — Evolution of Terrorism StrategyWednesday, Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in the Wortham.

A Vision of La Virgen: Interview with Ferguz, Mexico City’s Pintor Espiritual

translation by Ivan Perez

Felipe Gonzalez, known in the art world of Mexico City as Ferguz, is one of millions of North Americans inspired by the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, but his fine art pushes the world-famous Mexican icon to its limits. Using a variety of media to create shimmering minimalistic variations on the traditional image, Ferguz’s work is a captivating dance of color, texture and historical context. An example of his approach appears in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s newest exhibit, La Virgen of Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas. When Ferguz came to see it in context during opening weekend, we jumped at the chance to sit down and ask him about his work.

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HMNS: Tell us about the piece of art that you have in the exhibit.

Ferguz: It is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I painted from my point of view. The painting has a base color of Mexican pink or a type of fuchsia, which I mixed with gold to represent the splendor of the Virgin, and towards the bottom of the painting where the cherub is located, I added my self-portrait as a way to integrate myself into the painting. It was a way for me to make the piece more contemporary and also more minimalistic.

HMNS: Why is la Virgen de Guadalupe so inspirational to you? Why did you choose to paint la Virgen?

Ferguz: She’s always been an inspiration to me. I believe that Mexican Catholicism is really strong, as is the faith that is evoked by her, and as the saying goes, “Faith can move mountains.” I’ve always been attracted to religious and spiritual themes, and my art has always reflected that.

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HMNS: How does it feel to have your work in a museum, especially in a natural science museum?

Ferguz: It is a huge privilege and an honor that I have been asked to have my work shown here. This is a huge and well-known museum and it is an honor to be here during the opening.

HMNS: Is HMNS well-known in Mexico?

Ferguz: Yes, everyone knows this museum because of the dinosaurs and the T. rex and because of the big exhibitions that come through.

HMNS: Do you feel that a more Hispanic population will be attracted to the museum with la Virgen de Guadalupe being here?

Ferguz: Yes, I believe so. It’s a theme that, in Latin America, is followed by many people. The opening date, and the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is also very special, which coincides with my birthday, Dec. 12. This is one of the reasons why La Virgen is such an inspiration to me. So yes, I believe that the Hispanic community will have a positive response, and I hope that this exhibit will attract them to museums, so it’s really good that the museum has decided to talk about this subject during this important date and to this community, which is very large.

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HMNS: Can you tell us about the process for your artwork? What materials do you use and what makes your artwork special?

Ferguz: The piece is oil on canvas and it’s a process that I enjoy tremendously. I enjoy the work that is involved, and I have been doing art for over 10 years professionally and I am totally dedicated to it. I am proud of my work, and I am proud to be here showing it.

HMNS: Can you tell us a little more? How do you come up with the ideas?

Ferguz: I work with sketches, but Picasso said that inspiration should come to you when you are in the process. When I am working on one piece, I get inspiration for the next one. When I developed this piece for La Virgen, but with my voice, from my point of view it was a win because I love the topic and I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something contemporary, but with a minimalist point of view. I also wanted to use a base color of Mexican pink with the incorporation of the Virgin and I wanted to include myself in the piece and be a part of this exhibition, so I included a self-portrait that expresses the innocence of childhood and a time when humanity still feels a deeper sense of spirituality, which is why I decided to include myself in the painting.

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HMNS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ferguz: I would like to thank the museum for this great opportunity. Thank you very much.

La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas is now open, and Ferguz’s work is available for purchase in the Museum Store.

HMNS Winter Trend Report: La Virgen de Guadalupe

Sourcing product for special exhibits is one of the favorite things about my job, but as a lover of Mexican art and culture, La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas has been especially fun.

This summer, we traveled to Mexico City and met with officials at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The ancient basilica and chapels are beautiful, and seeing the art, both fine and folk, in context punctuated how meaningful the Virgin has been to so many lives and how integral she is to the culture.

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Capilla del Pocito – Chapel of the Little Well.

With this in mind, we met with the Basilica’s retail director and chose some very special items to bring to the museum’s store. These rose petal rosaries made by nuns are deeply scented.

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Scented rosaries made by nuns.

Our talented Creative Director, Kim Bloedorn, designed our beautiful souvenirs including mugs, refrigerator magnets, 3D postcards, bookmarks and more, featuring Her image surrounded by roses.

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Graphic design by HMNS Creative Director Kim Bloedorn.

Rising young artist Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz, is rapidly gaining a reputation for his sensitive portraiture of iconic figures. One of Ferguz’s compelling paintings of the Virgin will be in the exhibit on loan from a private collector. We had the opportunity to visit the artist in his studio and were able to commission some paintings the he created especially for the store. The photos do not do justice to the delicate colors and brushstrokes.

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Fine art by Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz.

Mexico is known for its vibrant folk art and traditional craftwork. Detailed, hand-painted and punched tin nichos from San Miguel de Allende highlight images of the Virgin.

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Nicho by San Miguel de Allende.

Traditional, brightly-embroidered blouses are from artisans in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Hidalgo.

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Itzel white blouse.

Weaving has been a part of the culture and livelihood of the Zapotec people since about 5000 B.C. The Spanish conquest introduced wool fiber and the standing loom and the weaving process and designs have changed little to this day. Ancient art meets contemporary design in these handmade purses.

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Zapotec tote.

Closer to home, I worked with local designer Rebecca Lankford to create a series of rosary-inspired necklaces. Rebecca’s faith is a large influence on her work and she was delighted to create jewelry that references how religion and design have been intertwined since humans first created art.

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Ruby rosary necklace by Rebecca Lankford.

We have more handicrafts, souvenirs and art available in-store and online at museumstore.hmns.org. All proceeds from store sales go back to the museum and enable us to create these unique exhibits and educational programs.

La Virgen de Guadalupe appears in Houston this weekend in a spectacular new exhibition

Quilts. Statues. Blankets. Street art. Devotional candles. Tattoos. In the Americas, you can find the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe almost anywhere, in any form. Her image represents not only a great miracle but the identity of a nation of believers. And this weekend you can trace the story back to its origins—only at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas opens this Friday, Dec. 11.

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La Virgen de Guadalupe, also known as La Virgen Morena, appears in this 17th-century painting.

In collaboration with the Basilíca de Guadalupe, the limited engagement exhibit features the iconic image of the Virgin in its many forms. Her fascinating history begins in 8th-century Spain and ends in modern North and South America. In between is a complex story of deep faith, conquest and conversion.

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A screen opens the exhibit and tells the story of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire through its panels.

According to deeply held beliefs, La Virgen de Guadalupe, also called La Virgen Morena to some, appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 near the hill of Tepayac outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic, fought to convince the bishop of what he’d seen, sharing a message from the Virgin to build a church where she had made her appearance. Juan Diego was met with doubt until he brought back roses growing out of season at the top of the hill, carrying them wrapped in his tilma, or cloak. When he poured the flowers from his tilma at the feet of the bishop, the image of the Virgin was left behind in the fabric, providing proof of the miracle and convincing the bishop to have the church built.

Through the next four centuries, the popularity of the Virgin of Guadalupe pushed her beyond religious symbolism and into the culture of Mexico and the Americas. Today, she symbolizes New World Catholicism as well as peace, hope and comfort to her followers.

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After almost 500 years, the Virgin of Guadalupe still resonates in the Americas, captured as a cultural symbol in artistic expressions of devotion like these statues.

“Regardless of your personal take on this story, we invite visitors to the exhibition to consider the history and reality surrounding the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” said Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, Curator of Anthropology at HMNS. 

The show features an authorized reproduction of the image of Virgin; the original manuscript of the Nican Mophua, an Aztec-language document that recounts the story of the apparition and part of the collections of the New York Public Library; an 18th-century painting of the Virgin said to have touched the original image in the Basílica in Mexico City; the Doctrina Christiana, one of the first books printed in Mexico dating back to 1553, on loan from the Benson Library at The University of Texas at Austin; and artistic expressions of contemporary devotion to the Virgin.

Information panels are printed in both English and Spanish, and an audio guide will be accessible by cell phone. Tickets on sale now.