MOUNT ZION — Dan McQuality, an Army veteran and ordained pastor, is living out his dream of working as a full-time artist.
A World War II aviation buff whose grandfather survived the downing of his B-17 bomber in Germany, McQuality paints vintage pinups, cartoon characters and mascots on warbird noses that he fabricates himself in his home studio.
McQuality, 42, who was born in Panama and raised in Decatur, started his career at an early age.
“I drew a swastika on a paper airplane at ABC Daycare and got in trouble,” McQuality recalled at his Mount Zion home, which he shares with his wife and six children. “I was just drawing what I had seen. I wasn’t trying to be a Nazi.”
Although the day care folks were upset by seeing a precocious preschooler penning the modern symbol of evil on their premises, McQuality was not traumatized by the negative reaction to his earliest effort. A self-taught artist, he continued to develop his talents.
He joined the Army shortly after graduating from Mount Zion High School in 1988.
When he served as a medic with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during the Gulf War less than three years later, he painted vehicle nicknames on M1 Abrams and M3 Bradley tanks, as well as pictures such as skulls and scenes of tanks in battles.
“I drew nose art on a lot of armored vehicles,” recalled McQuality, who drove an armored personnel carrier, cheerfully nicknamed Armageddon, during the first Iraq war.
About 15 years later, when he was living in Holland, Mich., serving as the pastor of a Lutheran Church, his talent for painting vehicles surfaced once again.
“I had a ’54 Ford I was dismantling,” said McQuality, whose father, Robert “Mac” McQuality, owns and operates an upholstery shop specializing in classic cars. “I started painting on some of the fenders. I put some of them on eBay and sold them. I started getting requests for more, and it took off from there.”
McQuality moved back to his hometown in 2009, partly to be near his father, an Air Force veteran.
McQuality, who serves as pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lincoln, had no idea when he sold his first nose art pictures that it would become a full-time business.
“It was just something I did for a hobby, and it blossomed into something more,” McQuality said.
Because of the Internet exposure of McQuality’s early offerings, other people contacted him, especially pilots and military veterans, with proposals to create custom nose art. McQuality created his own website, which brought more offers.
A customer named LaRhonda, who has a military background, discovered that there was once was a B-17 nicknamed “Sweet LaRhonda,” which flew missions in World War II. Naturally, she wanted someone to replicate the nose art of the original warbird, which was a beauty in a two-piece bathing suit riding a surfboard, so she could see it in living color in her Georgia home.
McQuality, who now has so many requests for his original artwork that he tells new customers the wait time may exceed one month, received his most memorable request early last year.
Patrick Van Tiem of suburban Detroit operates a business in which he sells leather flight jackets autographed by former President George H.W. Bush. He decided he wanted to give Bush a jacket as a gift, with a painting of his namesake aircraft carrier emblazoned on its back.
“I did an online search for someone who did nose art on jackets,” Van Tiem said. When he called McQuality, Van Tiem discovered that he had served in Desert Storm.
“So he admires President Bush as well,” he said. “So that cemented the deal in my mind.”
Van Tiem sent a flight jacket to McQuality, who painted a detailed picture of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on the ocean, with an F-18 Hornet fighter jet taking off and another one landing.
Although Van Tiem offered to pay for the service, McQuality insisted on doing the work gratis, so it became a gift from the artist as well.
“Dan did a great job, and President Bush absolutely loved it,” Van Tiem said. “I presented it to him in April 2012, and he thought it was absolutely wonderful.”
At Van Tiem’s suggestion, McQuality sent Bush a note.
“That made it even more poignant because Dan had served when he was commander in chief,” Van Tiem said, adding that the aircraft carrier and its crew are near and dear to Bush’s heart.
Bush, in turn, wrote a heartfelt thank-you note to McQuality. His wife, Rachel, said receiving that note was a memorable occasion. “Dan was floating on air for days,” Rachel recalled.
McQuality’s generosity was richly rewarded. Van Tiem has commissioned him to paint several more jackets with pictures of the USS George H.W. Bush and the light aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto, which Bush served on as a young pilot during World War II.
For McQuality and his wife, Rachel, who helps with shipping and other business duties, their products often forge strong emotional ties with their customers, especially veterans who see their former service memorialized. Many veterans and their relatives send stories along with their orders, which the McQualitys enjoy.
“For a lot of guys, two or four years in the service, it just tattoos you for life,” Dan McQuality said. “It shapes you, especially as a young man. When they’re in the service, they bleed red, white and blue.”