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Inspirational Vandenberg women: Graphic artist 'Aims High'

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Jan Kays, a 30th Space Wing Public Affairs graphic artist, works on a project at her desk here Wednesday, April 27, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Andrew Satran)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Jan Kays, a 30th Space Wing Public Affairs graphic artist, works on a project at her desk here Wednesday, April 27, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Andrew Satran)

VANENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- San Antonio. The Vietnam War is in its final years. A young airman basic, newly assigned to Air Force Recruiting Command as a commercial artist, is diligently working on a road sign for use as a recruitment tool. The result: a 2-by-4-foot reflective metal sign with the words "Air" and "Force" split on separate lines by a white silhouette fighter jet with red, white and blue stripes streaming from its tail like contrails.

The sign is posted along some highway in San Antonio and the artist moves on in her career with a reassignment to England. The artist returns stateside, reporting for duty at Norton Air Force Base, Calif. She walks through the front gate and passing her on the right is a blue Air Force bus loaded with people.

Then, a whiplashing double-take: the words "Air" and "Force" split on separate lines by a white silhouette fighter jet with red, white and blue stripes streaming from its tail like contrails. It was her road sign, plain as day because it covered the entire side of a bus.

And that was how Jan Kays learned her road sign, one of the first projects she did for the Air Force, had become THE symbol for Air Force Recruiting and would remain so for another two decades.

The 30th Space Wing's lead multimedia artist and recipient of Air Force Space Command and Air Force level media awards too numerous to mention, has built an impressive list of artistic works and achievements since that sign of hers made it big.

For example, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Air Force space and missiles, Kays designed a graphic that not only went Air Force-wide but was also painted on the side of a rocket launched from Vandenberg in 2004. Art in space. In 2007, she entered a contest sponsored by the Washington Post to design a graphic marking the Air Force's 60th Anniversary. She won, and the Post used it as their masthead for their coverage of the anniversary. The Air Force put it up on billboards throughout the nation's capitol.

Los Angeles. A 9-year-old girl sits at the kitchen table doodling on some scrap paper. Her mother walks in, home from the butcher shop. She places a bag on the table with a thud, reaches into it with both hands and pulls out a wad of butcher paper. It's a present. The young girl begins unwrapping the layers of paper, each one bloodier than the next, finally revealing a five pound cow's heart.

Over the next few weeks the girl draws and dissects, draws and dissects, meticulously documenting every detail of the four-chambered heart each step of the way. The result, a series of sketchings detailed enough to guide a layman through heart surgery (at least on a cow). It was around this time that a young Jan figured out what she wanted to be when she grew up: a medical illustrator.

Kays heard the Air Force had medical illustrators, so after graduating from a commercial art program at West Valley Occupational Center in Northridge, Calif., her next stop was the Air Force recruiter.

Soon thereafter, Kays was at Lackland AFB, Texas, wearing green fatigues. Despite being in a sea of conformity, Kays stood out. It wasn't her step. It wasn't her salute or her about face. Rather, it was the 25-pound, 2-by-3-foot portfolio case she painstakingly carried with her from place to place, desperate to show anybody her work and to be discovered. Her persistence paid off, and she was discovered by a career counselor, who placed her at Air Force Recruiting Command at Randolph AFB, Texas.

Love, marriage and Lompoc. Jan marries Dean Kays, an Air Force flight simulator instructor, and they've been Jan and Dean since 1977. She makes technical sergeant and promotes herself out of a job and out of the Air Force. Jan and Dean move around a little bit -- they go out East. Anxious to get back to California, the couple opens up a map of the state, close eyes, put a finger down -- Lompoc.

It's1985, and one day not long after arriving and settling in, Jan sees a 747 with the space shuttle atop fly into Vandenberg. Too cool.

"I've been very fortunate throughout my career," said Kays. "Been at the right place at the right time."

Today, Kays sits in her double-wide cube in the 30th Space Wing Public Affairs office in Building 12K. It's the same cube she's worked in since being discovered by a neighbor, the 30th Space Communications Squadron's first sergeant at the time, and starting work at Vandenberg 12 years ago. Inside, there are multiple work stations, one of which is complete with three wide-screen monitors. On her walls is a sampling of past work: there's the recruiting logo and the 50th and 60th Anniversary art; a logo from Guardian Challenge 2010 and another from GC 2005; Tuskegee Airman artwork; and a smattering of Vandenberg's base guide cover designs. There are patches peppered throughout: "Vietnam Era Veteran," "Certified Shark Killers" (think Guardian Challenge). There's a pin: "Rock the Arts." A sticker: "Drink Coffee! Do stupid things faster with more energy!" An Albert Einstein quotation integrated into a colorful design posted on foam board is suspended from the ceiling right over her main work station: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Tucked away in a corner, lost among multi-colored folders, a fake plant and an old picture of her in fatigues and chem gear, is a smattering of plaques and trophies: Civilian of the Quarter. Civilian of the Year. Best Graphic/Illustration of the Year. Best Graphics Artist.

One customer recently called her a "national treasure." And yet Kays, modest, humble and fiercely dedicated to duty and service, shrugs it all off. The recognition is nice, but it's not the goal. "I love design -- how to make things fit together to tell a story," said Kays. "I'm always trying to tell a good story. It just gives me joy at the core when it all works."

In 2011, Kays designed a new coin for a former commander, Col. Richard Boltz, and command chief -- a hawk with its wings spread and claws gently grasping the 30th Space Wing emblem. "Colonel Boltz had a distinct idea of what he was looking for in the coin," said Kays. "We just didn't know if it could be done."

One of the challenges in designing the coin, which in the palm of your hand looks and feels like a lethal weapon, was figuring out what the back of a hawk looked like for the impression on the reverse of the coin. "It was a challenge," said Kays. "How do you draw the back of a hawk? I've always drawn the front of the hawk -- had no idea what the back looked like."

Vandenberg. A former 30th Space Wing commander presents a coin to Jan for her work during the 30th Space Wing Operational Readiness Inspection and Unit Compliance Inspection. It's the coin she designed -- the second one she's received from the this commander. (The first was the first off the production line in recognition of her work to make the coin a reality). "You can wear them as earrings now," jokes Boltz. Everybody laughs, but inside Jan starts to wonder, "Just what would it take to wear these as earrings?"

Throughout her career, Jan has worked in graphics and multimedia, but she doesn't necessarily consider herself an artist. "Artists take their own vision and do what they want to do," said Kays. "I consider myself a practical artist. I take a customer's vision and turn it into reality. That's the difference."

From detailed sketchings of a cow's heart to a road sign turned iconic Air Force symbol and beyond to art in space, Kays has amassed an amazing portfolio. Today, you can see Jan Kays' work all over Vandenberg, on slideshows, in briefings, on walls and on the Web. And if you're an exceptional performer, you might just end up with some of her work in your pocket.