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Fine art, physicists and family: It’s all in this painting

Newest work to join the Bradbury’s fine art collection shows how connections are found in art and artifacts
December 1, 2020
"McAllister Hull briefs the civilian explosives specialists for the first time” is the artist’s description for his painting.

Artist's description: "McAllister Hull briefs the civilian explosives specialists for the first time."


  • Stacy Baker
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We’re excited to unveil “The Powder Men,” the first painting to join the fine art category of our permanent collection.

Capturing a forgotten moment during Project Y, the painting depicts Los Alamos physicist McAllister Hull at his tidy desk with calculations scribbled on a blackboard behind him. He’s introducing eight newly arrived “powder men” (a longstanding nickname for men working with raw explosives powder) to their mission: casting explosive lenses for Fat Man, the plutonium bomb.

For the artist, this 1992 painting represented far more than a snapshot in time at Los Alamos. The man standing behind the desk — the man obviously responsible for these powder men, their safety and their success — was his father, McAllister Hull.

For artist John Hull, this 62- by 42-inch work in acrylic represents a day in the life of his dad.

Fine art category is smallest in Museum collection

Unlike most of the Bradbury’s artifacts, which tend to run toward the technical end of the spectrum (components of Antares, Manhattan-era photography and computing equipment, for example), this painting captures a mood. The men’s postures, their expressions, their intense concentration and the serious nature of the conversation are palpable.

Through this painting, we are reminded that the people who worked on that early mission — and of those working on national security missions today. They are far more than scientists, engineers, administrators and managers; they are family members, dear friends and cherished community members. (See photos of contemporary powder men and women at the bottom of this article.)

About the Hulls

The Bradbury is grateful to the Hull family for gifting this remarkable painting to the Museum in 2003. Three generations — McAllister, John and Isaac Hull (John’s son) — are listed on the donation record.

McAllister Hull, a longtime physics professor (including at the University of New Mexico), died in 2011. He described the work of civilian powder men in “Rider of the Pale Horse: A Memoir of Los Alamos and Beyond,” which was illustrated with 46 drawings by his son and published by the University of New Mexico Press.

John Hull is an art professor in Charleston, South Carolina. His work has received numerous awards and can be found in such public collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds a bachelor’s from Yale University and a master of fine arts from the University of Illinois, Urbana – Champaign.

“The Powder Men” is available for viewing in the Bradbury’s Online Collections Catalogue, which includes dozens of images and correspondence from Manhattan Project workers and their families. For more information about Bradbury artifacts, please contact Collections Specialist Wendy Strohmeyer.

Contemporary powder men and women

Powder Men

Spencer Anthony of Q-5 cleaning equipment at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The High Explosives Science and Technology (Q-5) group serves the Laboratory and the nation providing the knowledge base in high explosives for the Nuclear Weapons Program and other critical national security areas.

Powder Men

DAAF (Diaminoazoxy furazan, an insensitive high explosive first synthesized in Russia in the 1980s) that has been synthesized and is prepared for bulk drying.

Powder women

Tabitha Estrada, left, and student Ivana Romero are "powder women" with the Lab's Q-5 group.