To spend time in Carol Low’s El Segundo home is to feel, by proxy, the exhilaration of the Space Age. You feel it in her energy, in the rapid pace of her voice as she walks you through the house, pointing out markers of the aerospace industry that shaped both her career and the South Bay as we know it.
We’ve come to see the 40+ paintings she will be exhibiting at the El Segundo Art Walk, all by the late John Desatoff
Satellite models, coffee-table books, mugs, and paintings, all tastefully displayed, recollect a time when aerospace corporations were moving into the area, landing lucrative government contracts, hiring a lot of people, and frenetically developing technologies that would explore the far reaches of our galaxy and send a man to the moon.
“I’m so excited you’re here,” Low says to the photographer, Jessie Lee Cederblom, and me. We’ve come to see the 40+ paintings she will be exhibiting at the El Segundo Art Walk, all by the late John Desatoff, a little-known but widely-seen local artist whose work appeared across America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, stoking the optimism of the international space race. Desatoff spent much of his career as an in-house artist for aerospace corporations Hughes and TRW, painting the satellites and spacecraft that gripped a national audience for decades.
“That was a very exciting time,” recalls Marie Bennett, his wife, who still lives in the Gardena neighborhood where she and the artist first met.
Desatoff painted fighter pilots, soldiers using radar, satellites in orbit, spaceships exiting the atmosphere, and helicopters landing on the deck of a carrier in the middle of the ocean in a time before AI, design software, and the Internet. His art appeared on the covers of L.A. Times Magazine, Fortune, and Aeronautics, as well as in a two-year traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and TRW. His work electrified the nation. Low is eager to talk to us about all of this.
“I love [his paintings]. And he has three paintings at the Smithsonian. Did I tell you that? And this one’s a whole ‘nother story. Don’t you just love it?” she asks, moving quickly and purposefully through her home. There’s a Desatoff painting in every room. Behind the couch is a centerpiece of sorts: the artist’s easel, where he produced a prolific body of work.
“Oh, and this one is all over Google,” Low says. “That’s the Apollo re-entry. And this one is just amazing.”
Low, a second-generation TRW employee, discovered Desatoff by way of a painting that hung in her father’s office at the complex known as Space Park on Aviation and Marine in Redondo Beach.
Her father worked at TRW for 30 years; his badge number was 325, indicating he was one of the first few hundred employees at a company that would grow to employ more than 120,000 people. The painting in his office, which features patterned shapes resembling computer chips and the word “microelectronics,” now hangs in Low’s living room.
Low followed in her father’s footsteps, working at TRW and then Northrop, which acquired TRW in 2002. After retiring, she became involved in a group for retirees, who meet for luncheons, and on Wednesdays, she volunteers in the archive room at Northrop, digitizing engineering project proposals and technical papers.
“There’s a bunch of us who do it because we just love the company,” she explains.
A coworker saw a photo of Low’s father’s painting and identified it immediately as a Desatoff. Low searched for the artist on the Internet and called a phone number she found. Bennett answered. By that time, in 2014, the artist was 95; he passed away soon after that. But Low and Bennett became friends, and together they began sorting through the art in the garage. Low became sort of a posthumous agent for the artist, arranging meetings with museum curators and city officials to ensure his work lives on in the place it both grew out of and shaped.
Bennett describes Low as “helpful and so, so kind.”
“Whatever she told you about John was right,” she says, early in our conversation. “She knows most everything about John and TRW, too.”
Still, Bennett tells me the story of her husband’s life. Desatoff’s parents immigrated to Los Angeles from Kars, which was then the Soviet Union but is now Turkey. He was born in the U.S. in 1919 and graduated from Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights before enlisting in the U.S. Navy against the fundamentalist code of his parents’ Molokan religion.
When he returned home, Desatoff bent himself toward his childhood dream of becoming an artist, attending ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and Chouinard Art Institute in Westlake. He began his career as an illustrator in the aerospace industry at Hughes Aircraft in Westchester and in 1961 joined the graphic design department at TRW, where he remained until he retired. At work, he and a handful of other artists produced paintings and sketches for a range of purposes, among them promotion, bids for contracts, presentations, decorations for executives’ offices, calendars, and awards for years of service. He continued painting until he died.
The artist’s largest imprint on the South Bay is a mural measuring 16 by 31 feet called “Quadrisciences” that hangs in the lobby of Northrop Grumman’s executive building. Its 51 panels represent space, air, earth, and water, or the four areas in which TRW developed technologies.
Desatoff also has a mural at the Redondo Beach City Hall featuring the city’s post office, among other landmarks. He painted it in 1982 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the incorporation of the city TRW called home.
All proceeds from paintings sold at the El Segundo Art Walk to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where Bennett’s son Mark, who was born with a heart defect, received more than two decades’ worth of care. The exhibit is being held in his honor; Mark passed away in 1991.
“I’m just passionate about it,” Low said of Desatoff’s art, “and about getting it into a public space so it can be seen. It needs to be seen.”