Revisiting “Amelia & Friends,” Oakland

In a Hilton Hotel near the Oakland Airport at a restaurant called “Amelia’s,” a tiny, yellow toy plane hung in the doorway, the only reference to the pioneer aviator. This was amazing because she, like so many others, had flown in and out of Oakland. I had a budget. It was up to me how I wanted to spend it, and often my efforts far exceed what was allocated. I decided that I had to create life-sized portraits of the pioneers of aviation who had flown in California between 1920 and 1940.

I wanted to reincarnate them, gathering them all together for the first time, as if they were sitting just outside a window, looking into the restaurant from the tarmac. First, I had to find out who had flown in California during that time. There was no one source for this effort. This became an obsession and I spent more than six months traveling up and down California doing research.

I interviewed Amelia’s official photographer in LA.

Next, I had to pick who I thought were the most significant, most interesting characters. This was subjective on my part, but it required that I do a lot of reading and spend a lot of time talking to museum curators and other scholars. I formed a temporary friendship with one of Amelia’s biographers, Carol Osbourne. I found and met a man who claimed to be her last “official” photographer, Albert Bresnick, an elderly charmer. He gave me a portrait of her, signed by him. He also said that he thought Earhart might have been pregnant on that last flight. But Earhart was only one of thirty that I eventually portrayed, including Charles and Anne Lindbergh and Wiley Post and a surprising number of female heroes.

       

My studio was a 4,000 square foot concrete tilt-up that was searing in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was so large that I often rolled around on my skates. On the longest wall, I had stretched and primed a single piece of canvas, 5’ high by 35’ long. Primed canvas is always so beautiful, pristine and pure that I’m often reluctant to destroy its pristine purity with a painting. This canvas sat vacant for several weeks as I finished my research and finalized sketches. I kept finding fascinating bits of information and it was so hard to limit the number of pilots so I could fit them all in. Finally, the day arrived when I was to actually start projecting and drawing the images on the canvas.

I set up the projector, arranged the transparent line drawings on the screen and turned out the lights. While the projector casts a lot of light, it’s eerie to be in such a cavernous dark space. Literally, at the moment that I started to draw, a news flash came over the radio announcing that a relic possibly belonging to Earhart had just been found. I froze, shocked at the coincidence of the timing. I thought that perhaps there was a reason I had chosen this project and to this day, I still wonder.

I believe at least one of the murals is still installed. Others are in storage, with the promise of donating them to an aviation museum in California. I need to pursue that.