Frank Kelly Freas was the best scifi artist who ever lived. That's what I say and I'm sticking to it. There have been illustrators who have done better aliens and more realistic spaceships and more convincing planets and just possibly sexier heroines (though I'm not so sure about that). But just as Frank R. Paul was the quintessential scifi illustrator of the 20s and 30s, the art of Kelly Freas represented—-indeed defined—-an entire era of science fiction. Moreover, he lived and breathed science fiction. He loved the stuff. Some of the greatest writers and editors of the half century between 1950 and 2000 considered him a friend. Kelly was also unflaggingly generous with his time, encouraging countless young artists whenever he could (yours truly among them). I suspect there are vanishingly few sci fi illustrators who grew up during the heyday of Freas' career who were not influenced by him.
Freas' work is unique in the humanity and emotion he was able to bring to the characters—-human and otherwise—-he illustrated. This quality is epitomized by some of the very first sci fi covers he ever created, such as the art for Aldrys Budris' "Who?" and the astonishing art he did for Tom Godwin's "The Gulf Between".
Born in Hornell, New York in 1922 and raised in Canada, Freas studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh following a stint in the Army Air Forces. While working as an advertising illustrator, a friend urged him to submit a sample to Weird Tales. The magazine snatched it up and Freas decided then and there to follow a career as a science fiction and fantasy artist. His work soon began appearing in some of the most iconic publications of the day, Weird Tales, Planet Stories and, eventually, the brass ring of science fiction: Astounding Science Fiction. It was then that Freas began his long friendship and collaboration with the legendary editor, John W. Campbell...a relationship that lasted a...well...an astounding 48 years.
In the meantime, Freas' art appeared in a lot of other places. Not the least of which was Mad magazine. During his 50-year stint with the magazine he not only provided scores of black-and- white interior cartoons, but parodies of advertisements of famous products and probably the best portraits of Alfred E. Neuman ever painted.
Freas was dedicated to the success of the American space program. He was asked by NASA to design the official crew patch for the Skylab 1 mission. He went on to create a series of posters promoting the space program and space exploration, which he painted and published on his own hook.
Freas was nominated an unprecedented 20 times for best artist Hugo....and won ten times. Typically, he eventually asked that his name be withdrawn from future nominations in order to give other artists a chance at recognition.