“Amelia & Friends” transitions over the years

The pioneers of aviation, 1920 to 1940, acrylic on canvas, 5×34′ in three sections.

The original mural in process, 1991.

The backstory, 1991.

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. Maybe it was because at age 11, my grandmother had taken my mom to see Lindbergh there in September, 1927.

I wanted to gather 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 brief friendship with one of Amelia’s biographers, Carol Osbourne. I found and met a man who was 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.

Preliminary research notes

My studio was a 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.

Literally, at the very moment I started to draw, a news flash on the radio announced 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.
A portion of the mural in my studio.
A portion of the mural installed.

Fast forward to 2021 & again in 2024

At some point, I reached an agreement with Hilton Corporation that the murals would be protected, and that if they ever wanted to make a change, Hilton would donate all three sections to a California aviation museum. Sometimes I’d call the general manager to check status, and finally one day, he said that they had redecorated, and sadly, they couldn’t find the main panel. It had carefully been rolled and stored. My bet? It’s on the walls of some man cave somewhere. Now it’s 2024, and upon reading that the property was closing, I called again. The two remaining panels are still installed, but they’re shutting down this August. So once again, I hope they’ll ship them to me so that I can find a new home. Some projects resonate, and this one has had it’s challenges. People move on, even the San Francisco Hilton has lot its glory. Who could have guessed the challenges in the last few years?