Far Side cartoons, Ansel Adams landscapes, underwater dogs — so cliche. Why settle for a humdrum wall calendar in 2017 when you can track your days with CIA paintings showing agency operatives stealing secrets, killing off enemies or even getting killed themselves?
January features a painting of a CIA contractor firing an AK-47 out of an Air America chopper onto a North Vietnamese biplane. Flip to April for “The First Sting,” depicting a CIA-trained Afghan mujahideen striking Soviet helicopters with a Stinger missile. End 2017 on a high note: December features the famous Glomar Explorer in 1974 recovering a portion of a Soviet submarine teeming with secrets from the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
The inaugural “Secret Ops of the CIA” calendar was produced by the nephew of an agency contractor killed in the line of duty and features reproductions of the actual paintings that have hung for years inside the hallways of the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia. Yes, the CIA has an official art collection, although you can’t just drive up to the agency to check it out.
But for as little as the cost of about a week’s worth of coffee, you can adorn your kitchen wall with prints of genuine CIA artwork showing clandestine missions from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The calendars are on sale for $28 at the International Spy Museum and its online gift store; or, for $23.95 on the website of its producer, Erik Kirzinger, a North Carolina man whose uncle, a CIA contractor, was killed during a 1952 mission in China depicted in one of the calendar paintings, “Ambush in Manchuria.”
But the CIA won’t sell the calendar at its own gift shop.
“I bent over backwards to make sure everyone on their end was comfortable,” Kirzinger said, declining to elaborate. “I mean, the CIA gift shop has sold made-in-China coffee mugs with the CIA logo on it. Good grief!”
Toni Hiley, the longtime CIA museum director, said the gift shop can’t sell the calendar because “it’s not an official work of the U.S. government.”
For the folks who run the International Spy Museum in downtown Washington, the CIA’s loss is their gain. The shop bought 25 copies of the calendar and quickly sold out. Then the museum store purchased another 300.
“When we tell visitors that it’s the first time you can have prints of these paintings all together, they’re surprised and they get really excited, and they also get excited that the CIA logo itself is on it,” said Allison Bishop, a book buyer for the spy museum and retail store. “So few products have the CIA logo allowed to be on the product.”
(In true, cryptic CIA fashion, Kirzinger’s calendar cover does carry the agency’s blue seal with an eagle, but he said the agency also required him to print a disclaimer next to the seal that says the CIA “does not approve, endorse or authorize use of its name, initials, or Seal.”)
It was Kirzinger, 65, who began commissioning large oil-on-canvas paintings for the CIA. And it was Kirzinger who designed and published the calendar with his own money, along with significant contributions from a retired case officer in California and the chief executive of a technology company whose father was a CIA contract pilot.
“I am unaware of any other CIA calendar like this,” Kirzinger said. “If the true-to-life scenes depicted in the CIA artwork involved the service branches, there certainly would be large medal presentation ceremonies with marching bands and well-deserved public acclaim. But for the men and women in the ‘silent service,’ everything is on a need-to-know basis, including whether or not medals and citations were presented.”
The backs of each page contain several paragraphs of Kirzinger’s research, archival photos of agency personnel, and other documents. In advance of its release last month, he submitted the calendar to the agency’s museum and staff historians to verify its accuracy.
Though Kirzinger has never worked in the spy business himself, he led a peripatetic life, working as a logger, a fly fishing guide, a cowboy on a 165,000-acre cattle ranch in Montana, and the regional director of a now-defunct Chinese restaurant franchise.
He first made contact with the CIA nearly two decades ago, thanks to his dogged attempt to find the remains of his uncle, Norman A. Schwartz, a pilot killed on a secret mission into Communist China in 1952. In the spring of 1998, Kirzinger’s aging mother pushed him to have Schwartz’s remains repatriated from China, where his plane crashed, so he could be buried next to their parents in Louisville.
After getting nowhere, Kirzinger wrote then-CIA Director George J. Tenet. A few weeks later, his office called back, disclosing that the agency would chisel a star onto its marble Memorial Wall in his honor. Though Schwartz’s remains were never found, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the CIA’s highest honor of valor. At the CIA’s annual Memorial Wall ceremony in 2000, Kirzinger said Tenet’s vivid remarks about the slain operatives inspired his project.
“I just had these visions of art work, from the OSS through the contemporary war on global terrorism, and if you lined up all these paintings, you’d see the visual history of the CIA, one painting at a time,” he said. “I knew the only artwork at the headquarters was some god-awful ‘modern art’ . . . and tacky Americana prints.”
Eventually, Kirzinger pitched himself to the CIA as a volunteer who could find the artists, pool private donations to pay them, and research the missions’ scenes to ensure the paintings’ accuracy. The first painting, “Earthquake’s Final Flight,” which depicts a CIA plane in May 1954 under fire over North Vietnam, was installed at the agency in 2005.
“Erik’s vision for the collection ran parallel to our own desire to create a world-class art collection,” said Hiley, the agency’s longtime museum director. She added that the CIA wanted to amass a collection on par with the combat paintings owned by other military branches.
In June 2010, after multiple pieces had been unveiled at the agency, Kirzinger was presented with the CIA’s highest civilian honor, the Agency Seal Medal. After that, Kirzinger bowed out of his role as the agency’s unofficial arts commissioner. But last year, he decided to incorporate those paintings into the inaugural Secret Ops of the CIA calendar, at the insistence of one of the artworks’ donors, Bruce Walker, a retired CIA case officer in San Francisco.
“Erik’s very patriotic to begin with, but he’s very skilled with understanding what the agency needed to pull this off,” said Walker, 84. “To achieve this product requires a lot of finesse and diplomacy.”
Where does Kirzinger hang his Secret Ops of the CIA calendar?
“Um, I don’t have one,” he said. “As soon as I get ’em, I give ’em away. I have to send a batch to the CIA director and another batch to the Directorate of Operations.”