Interviewsand Articles

 

An Art of Joy: A Conversation with Gale Wagner

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 17, 2010


 

 

 Early in 1992 I got an unexpected call: "Why don't you come over to the studio tonight at 6:30 and bring some food. There will be lots of artists here." It was Gale Wagner. I'd met him only a week or two earlier at Peggy Williams' place in Alameda, the Courtyard. In those days her restaurant and gallery was where Alameda's art flame was protected and fed. One day a heroic statue of Peggy will stand at the foot of the High Street bridge, gateway to the island's East End. Or it should. If Gale wasn't an Oaklander, maybe his would be there, too. The two are much alike in spirit. 

     The day I met Gale, my friend Dickson Schneider was with me. The little art magazine, The Secret Alameda, that I'd started with Dickson's help was a little over a year old. I remember how that first conversation with Gale was a lift, my first experience of "the Wagner effect." 
     And the invitation to join the artists gathering that evening gathering made me feel that, as a fledgling publisher, I was starting to get somewhere. A real artist, someone with some standing, was calling me and I was thrilled.   
     That evening there were, indeed, lots of artists at Gale's studio. The place was packed. Gale spotted me and made his way through the crowd. "I don't know what this is! I guess it's a picnic!" he shouted in mock confusion above the noise. Twenty minutes later someone started banging on a pan. It was Gale. "Listen everybody! Let's get this meeting going. This is the Pacific Rim Sculptors Group!" 
     In an interview I did a couple of months later, I asked Wagner and his friend Luigi Testa how the group had gotten started. "Gale is the embryonic force behind it," was Testa's answer.
     Eighteen years have passed since then. The Secret Alameda has come and gone. Or more exactly, it became works & conversations
     Not long ago I was talking with Suzanne Tan, the new director of the Berkeley Art Center. It happened that she'd been talking with Wagner and wanted to give him an exhibit. "Do you think we could do this as part of the Berkeley Treasures series?" she asked. 
 
     I hadn't seen Wagner in years and Suzanne's suggestion gave me a chance to follow up on a conversation we'd had when he first started making his delicate planes. It left an unforgettable impression. Never before had I imagined a sense of the mystical connected directly with the work of the hands. And I wondered if he was still making the planes. 
     Turns out he is. "Why don't you come over for breakfast?" he responded when I suggested another interview. It had been about ten years, I calculated, since I'd been to his studio. It hadn't changed much. The twenty-five-foot steel potted plant that had once stood so strikingly at the corner of his building was now laying on the ground in piece. But there were several big new steel pieces I hadn't seen before. There was no mistaking that here was an artist's studio. 
      Inside, as we chatted while preparing breakfast, he remarked that he was feeling that his artmaking was selfish. Right there I stopped and turned on the tape recorder. -Richard Whittaker
 
works:  You're feeling that making art is selfish? What do you mean by that? 
 
Gale Wagner:  Well, this life is the luck of the draw anyway-and now we have six billion people. I don't know what six billion is. There was what? a hundred thousand people at the Superbowl yesterday? 
 
works:  It must have been something like that, I'd guess.  
 
GW:  So if you had ten superbowl stadiums, that would be a million. And then a billion is what? a thousand million? So then there would be ten thousand superbowl stadiums full of people for a billion. Then we have that, times six. 
     Of all the cards to be tossed out... I was born in 1946 in the Midwest in the United States of America-possibly, from just the joy of the journey, the best time ever to be born. And then I had good health. I had loving parents. I grew up in a community that was-we just had a ball! And then I got to study at the Art Institute in Kansas City under Dale Eldred. He was an amazing guy. Then he sends me to Peter Voulkos and I come out here. And I make sculpture from my heart all my life. Total freedom! 
 
works:  When did you start making sculpture?
 
GW:  Maybe I was five. I made a series of airplanes out in the yard with planks and then I had coffee cans on the front for the engines. Where I lived there were a lot of airplanes. Every time an airplane would fly over I'd run outside and watch. I just loved it. And I got to the point where I could identify them by their sounds. 
     So then, because I'm such a cantankerous guy and because of my military retirement at age 23 and because I don't desire material things, I had total freedom. So for forty years, I made sculpture. I made whatever came to my mind. I wasn't connected to a good dealer who herded me into doing just what's saleable-which is so often the case. And by the luck of the draw, I was talented enough that I was able to sell enough pieces to keep the doors open. 
    I would make sculpture to reach as many people as possible. I did the big public stuff. For a while I was making it for kids to climb on. Of course, you couldn't tell clients that [laughs]. They'd worry about lawsuits. But all of those big grid pieces, I was making them for kids to climb all over and slide down. I'd go visit some of them years later and the paint would be worn off. And I'd go, Yeah!
 
works:  It was working. 
 
GW:  It was working. You're reaching them with art and they don't even know it! But they're getting it. 
 
works:  Now some of those steel pieces were pretty big. 
 
GW:  Oh, yeah. The largest one I built was in Alaska. It was almost three stories tall. We slid a piece of two-inch steel plate through space and balanced on top of a tower. That weighed tons itself, just the plate. It was 24- feet long and 3-feet wide and 2-inches thick. 
 
Works:  So let's go back to the selfish part. 
 
GW:  Well that's just pure selfishness!
 
works:  [laughs] Pure selfish joy, hunh? 
 
GW:  Pure selfish joy! And unlike so many artists I've known, I enjoy every aspect and every second of it! Except the marketing. My studio door is ten feet tall. So when I built the large pieces, I'd have to build them in sections I could squeeze out the door. In my neighborhood I could even block the street and put them together in the street. Back in the seventies and eighties there was no problem with the city. Then I'd figure out how to get them down the highway without wide-load permits and police escorts. There was no money, but I'd always figure out the logistics somehow. 
     I got to know all the crane companies in the Bay Area. They got a kick out of me and liked my work and were amused by me. I'd call and say, I've got this big piece I want to put up. They'd say, well, we're going to be putting an air conditioning unit on top of the Kaiser Building in Oakland. We'll be done at 2 p.m. and we'll swing by your place after that. They'd souvenir me [laughs]. They'd pick me up, and so that's how I did it. I traded everything. I built a big sculpture for Nick Keehner. Instead of cash, I wanted to use his shop for the next three large pieces. That ended up being a lifelong friendship. And I had all that equipment at my fingertips.
 
works:  You told me earlier that since you didn't have a dealer, you made friends with everyone who bought a piece from you. 
 
GW:  Usually. If they were trying to work an angle on me, we ended up not being friends....
 
works:  So a lot of people who have bought from you are now friends. That has to be a great thing.
 
GW:  It's wonderful. Yes. That's what I'm saying-the joy of the journey in every aspect. All right. So now-if we're aware at all of what we're doing on the planet-WE ARE USING IT UP! It doesn't matter where you look, we're doing it. The United States in particular, we are out of control. We are the pigs. We're taking the lion's share of everything. Natural resources, energy, you name it. So making large outdoor sculpture, as much as I love it, it's harsh on the environment. It's a long, long way away from green. And I've had so much fun doing this all these years. 
     Now I'm getting older. I'm not a favored, blue-chip horse. I have pieces out there that are just getting violated-by people who purchased them, by corporations. I've a piece in Berkeley where they ran a chain link fence through it, for God's sake. This isn't some place in Mississippi that did that. This is Berkeley, California. There's a museum in the Midwest that had a piece at the entryway of their acreage and they threw it away. And I'm alive and they easily could have contacted me. 
     So you face reality. You can't legislate good behavior. In every one of these cases I could sue. I could have an attorney just write a letter and they would be wanting to settle and stuff. But why? What's the point? What is that? Isn't that just feeding more fuel to the insanity of the direction we're going in? 
 
works:  Now I know there are unselfish things you're thinking of doing. Tell me something about that. 
 
GW:  Okay. So all of this has been a gift. It's like when I was wounded in Viet Nam and survived, just the luck of the draw.
 
works:  Let's stop for a second there. What happened?
 
GW:  I got hit with, I didn't know it at the time, but it was a 155mm artillery round. A lot of us got wounded in that operation. After you're out there in the field long enough you know what caliber the rounds are. I had four young Vietnamese who weren't really soldiers. They were just given to me to walk through mine fields that we were going through. We'd already been hit a couple of times that day and I was running to tell them to spread out. They were all in a group cooking a chicken in a steel pot that they had found. It was booby-trapped and this thing blew up. There was nothing left of them I understand. Then the blast hit me, so the whole front of my body was hit with schrapnel and burned. I was maybe only fifteen feet away from it. It was unheard of to even live through something like that! My whole abdominal wall was blown open. The external iliac veins in my left leg, a portion of that was blown out. If it had been an artery, I'd have lost my leg at the hip. All of it was the luck of the draw. Or a higher power. You can call it whatever you want. 
 
works:  You were a captain, right?
 
GW:  I got out as a captain, but I served as a lieutenant and was a rifle platoon leader.  And even that day, they had a helicopter out en route to pick up a wounded soldier and I took top priority over him because I was so close to going out. 
     So now. I've had this reward, in a sense. I mean my disability is not something where I lost my legs, lost my eyes, or my hands. I have multiple injuries that I do have some problems with, but I don't ever wake up and say, "Oh, I'm disabled."  And in my mind, I don't feel disabled. And I have this retirement and it has afforded me this joyous journey. And so now, it's time for me to give back. I want to give back to people less fortunate. And that's going to be like all of us. This thing, we're not going to get out of this if we don't all get involved and pick an area we can work in and go to work.  
 
works:  For the good of others.
 
GW:  For the good of the planet! To save the planet. I mean we're wasting everything. We all really know it, but we deny it. Or maybe we don't all know it. 
     And I have enthusiasm. It was a gift. I was born enthusiastic, you know? I was born with a creative mind and I love problem solving. So it's time for me to do something. I'm thinking of using the healing qualities of creating art and its spiritual growth and the magic of that and working with kids. It's something that luckily, I backed into. 
 
works:  You have a plan. And you have some friends who can help you with this, right?
 
GW:  They don't know it yet. All my communication with people all my life has just been my enthusiasm, really. It's a catching thing. Whenever I'm doing any project, it's the enthusiasm. Whether it was the Pacific Rim Sculptors Group or the way I led my platoon in Vietnam. 
 
works:  The Pacific Rim Sculptors Group. That really grew into something and you were one of the founders of that, right? 
 
GW:  Yes. It kind of started off because I knew so many good sculptors who were friends of mine. They'd lost the spirit and heart to keep creating their art because they were having to make a living. Any time I'd ask one of them to cut a piece of heavy plate or to bend something that I didn't have the facilities to do, they would drop what they were doing for me. After a while I realized something was wrong with this picture. Well, they'd lost their inspiration to do their own work. 
     So I had the idea of us getting together. Of course, we all drank in those days. So a few of us would have gatherings. At first it was at Spenger's or Brennan's in Berkeley. It started off with Luigi Testa and myself. Luigi liked to cook meals, so we had quite a few gatherings at his place. There was Don Rich and Chuck Splady and John Fick and Greg Wescott. Then we opened it up. I said, let's invite Bill Wareham and Joe Slusky and Bruce Johnson and Doug Heine. It just started expanding. 
     After we did this for a year or so, we thought, well, let's give a show together! So they started getting their enthusiasm back, you know. Then Ben Bullock came onboard. He worked some kind of a deal at Contract Design Center in San Francisco and that opened a door for exhibiting. At some point there were about twenty of us meeting fairly regularly and then we started taking minutes. Then somebody said, all these people are people Gale gathered together. That's when I said, well, everybody should invite whoever they want. This is a democracy! That's when it just took off. I don't think there are any of the founding members left today. 
 
works:  I remember you saying something like, when they started having a sergeant at arms it was time for me to leave. 
 
GW:  Well, it got to be something it didn't start out to be. The spirit and soul in the original group was giving, adding to, adding to, adding to. Then-as many, many people started coming-it got to be what can I take from this? When "What can I take?" came, "What can I give?" disappeared. But it's still a good thing, I'm sure. If there wasn't a need, it wouldn't exist. 
     Once again, it was the luck of the draw. It just grew out of the need to create the spirit, to vitalize the living spirit in these artists. And it's time to do that with the kids now, to make a nurturing environment. That flowerpot series I did was a perfect metaphor. A flowerpot exists to isolate and to protect. So when I started doing those big steel flowerpots twenty-five years ago, that was the theme. We need to slow down. We need to nurture. 
 
works:  Gale, you're good medicine.
 
GW:  You really can't take credit. Like I say, for me, it's all been a gift. It's a GIFT!
 
works:   Listen, that is so important! Doesn't that have to be said over and over again? 
 
GW:  Well, if you just sit and look at all you have, your health and friendships and abilities and a roof and food, everything! [laughs] Then, it can only be a gift! What else could that be? [laughs] The timing! Timing is a gift, too. And I don't think it's that way for everyone. Of six billion people, how many are there where life isn't like that? So if you're fortunate, it is a gift. So who gave the gift? 
     I think that what starts happening is when we realize that. [he pauses, emotion comes up.] We give, or we get way out of sorts ourselves. Do you see what I'm saying? Wait a minute. It's a gift. And if I can't give the gift away [said with difficulty], then I'm going to get real sick myself. [long pause] I'm a tough guy, aren't I?
 
works:  Someone with a heart. 
 
GW:  But you see what I'm saying. I've reached that stage. 
 
works:  Okay. Let's get some breakfast together here. 
 
GW:   You like orange juice? [yes] That's a gift, too. Wait until we drink that. That's like Holy Communion. [Wagner carefully cuts six oranges in half and two grape-fruits, presses them into a juicer and then pours. ] And where does this come from? Berkeley Bowl! There is no liquid you could ingest and start your day with better than fresh-squeezed juice! We really are in heaven here. Let's close our eyes and drink this! [We drink with closed eyes. Who else but Gale would have proposed such a moment? The juice is indeed a perfect nectar.]
 
GW:  We're so fortunate, Richard. You realize that a third of the world's human population isn't going to have fresh bath water or fresh drinking water? And look at this! I'm wasting it washing my car! The only antidote, I believe, is realizing that I've got to give back. That's what I was saying about selfishness. 
     And I already know that I'm not in this fictitious marketing, merchandizing world. I'm already making the highest spiritual thing I could make-these planes. But then I start feeling guilty, you know? 
     What do you do with your life? Well, I'm making these flying temples. What do you mean? My artist friends don't believe they're art. The people who collect my art don't believe they're art. So I'm saying, I've been making shit all my life and this is the best stuff I've ever made! No one believes it! So why make it? Well, I make it because it's the best I can do. It's the highest, most spiritually, visually rewarding and enjoyable journey in every aspect. 
     Well, okay. Then let's go to the next step. Which would be what? Let's start giving to those who need it. 
 
works:  Okay. Well...  [pause]
 
GW:  You can keep up with this? [laughs]
 
works:  I don't know [laughs]. But I want to back up a little. Here's one area I'd like to hear you say something about, and that's craft. People say it's an old saw. But this is something I know you have in abundance. I mean doing your work with a certain care and mastery, and a certain quality of attention-real craft. So is that at all interesting?
 
GW:  Sure. For me, it's all the joy of the journey. When I was building large outdoor steel pieces, people would say, oh, it's macho or it's the fire and the anvil. But it was never that way for me. I was doing a slow dance to the music. I was just using the steel because it was so affordable and such wonderful material to work. So everything that I build, it's a dance. It's a romance with the material. Feeling the material and understanding the material enough to then handle it with respect. It's like I don't hit a piece of steel with a hammer. You can dent a piece of steel. People don't realize that. And then what I'm doing is dancing through space with gravity, whether it's a large piece or a small piece. It's all about that, and to get as close to balance as possible. Gravity is my alley. I don't fight with it like so many people do who are building things. I'm embracing that dance and its flow. So it has been a natural evolution to arrive at building free-flying airplanes. 
 
works:  So in this slow dance with material, where does the body fit it? I mean, I'm guessing that for you, there's a lot of body involved in all this. I'm speaking about coming through sensation, touch, feel, an intelligence of the body. 
 
GW:  Help me a little bit more here. 
 
works:  Well, an artist friend was having a show. Several people trying to help. They took out tape measures and were fussing around trying to measure it all out. The artist said, just let Jane do it. He knew Jane didn't have to do all that fussing around. So she just walked down the wall with a pencil and made marks. Put them here, here, here, here. It took her a minute or so. See, she had a relationship with the natural intelligence of her body. Does that make sense to you?
 
GW:   It makes complete sense. That's the way I do everything, really. A lot of people who see the work I do think, he engineers this, does these drawings, he does that. I don't do that. Even when I'm making the airplanes I don't do drawings. So it's just part of the flow. 
 
works:  So let's go back a little bit. I see that your relationship to planes goes right back to your childhood. So, let's talk about these recent planes you've been building. How did you get started with these? You ran into some friends? And how long have you been making these? 
 
GW:  These rubber-band-powered planes I've been doing probably for about 14 years.
 
works:   Now how did that all start? 
 
GW:   Well, in Missouri all of us kids, all of the boys, played football, played basketball, softball in our neighborhood. And then we made airplanes-gas-powered airplanes with a control line. You flew them around in a circle. You watched the older boys do it and you were intrigued. For me it was, oooh, look at the color combinations. I was thinking in sculptural terms more than about flying. I cared what they looked like. 
 
works:  So what brought you back fourteen years ago? 
 
GW:  I just loved the planes all along. I remember in the hospital after I was wounded, I would build stick and tissue airplanes. And they were always these sculptures. I just loved making them. I loved the light transmitting through them. They were like stained glass windows. 
    Even here in the seventies and eighties, when I'd finish a large steel sculpture, I'd be exhausted and go through this quiet period and build an airplane. But these didn't fly. Then about fifteen years ago I decided I was going to build a sculpture that was a large-scale model airplane. It would look like a rubber-band- powered airplane from the 30s, but it would be big enough for a child to get into and fly. So I was building this wonderful plane and I was at a hobby shop buying some spruce for capstrips on the ribs and this guy asks, what are you doing? I say, I'm making a Jimmy Allen sixteen-foot wingspan plane. He couldn't believe it. He asked me if I knew about the flying down at Moffett Field in the airship hanger. He told me once a month guys gather there to fly rubber-band-powered planes.  
     So I went. I walked in the door and there were about 80 guys in there flying airplanes. It was so magical! You walk into one of the largest rooms in the world and here are eighty-some guys aged from about 5 to 80 flying these silent, rubber-band powered airplanes. It just touched me. I started and have never looked back. 
 
works:  When you first began doing this, did it take you several times before you built one that could fly, or how did that all go? 
 
GW:  The first one I built was a bearcat, which was the last piston-powered fighter aircraft the US Military made. It had a big engine and it went real fast. So when you translate that to a rubber-band-powered plane that's very light and goes very slow, it becomes very difficult to get it to perform. This first one was like a missile! It was too heavy and there wasn't enough lift. It would just bolt across the room and crash into a steel column or something. But it would endure. So they had me build one from a kit, and that flew pretty well. So after that, I got off on my own again, designing my own airplanes. And they all fly pretty well. Once again, a gift.
 
works:  So how do you go about designing one?
 
GW:  Well, how does an accomplished musician go about playing? If you love aviation, as I do, and if you look at the evolution of aviation, you get it by osmosis. You investigate the Wright brothers' plane and then you investigate one that was made in 1920 and then one that was made in 1940 and then one that was made in 1960 and you see the evolution in its pure sense, form and function. If you look at wing placement, look at the lift pattern-just start looking-you will see. You'll just get it by osmosis. 
 
works:  So when you design a plane you say, well, I think the wing should go right about here. 
 
GW:  You do. But you also know some common laws. The plane has to balance. For rubber-band-powered airplanes, the balance point will be about one third back from the leading edge of the wing. That's where the curve starts going back down. That curve creates the lift as the air flows over the wing. You want the plane to balance at that point of lift. So that's a basic law and you keep that in mind. 
 
works:  These planes are built out of fragile materials, very thin paper, thin little pieces of balsa wood. We talked maybe ten years ago. I was thinking, how the hell does Gale get these thin paper skins to stretch over these curved surfaces so beautifully? There are no wrinkles and everything fits so perfectly. I asked how you managed these delicate operations. And you said, well, sometimes I get in such a state of attention that the paper seems to curve over all by itself. And you gestured with your hands like this [I make a careful gesture with my fingers]. I still remember that. 
 
GW:  [laughs] It does. It does. But you can only get there if you're handling it with respect. For example, if you're making something out of a piece of plywood that's an eighth-inch thick, it doesn't require the patience and gentleness and attention thirty-second-of-an- inch plywood does. So when you start covering a model airplane with this very thin tissue paper you really have to be respectful, patient-and graceful. You're almost massaging it as you're covering the plane. You get into, because it's so thin and unforgiving to abuse, you get into a zone when you're working with it. 
     At some point, with the gentle touch of handling it and the love of the journey of doing it, it starts kind of magically making curves that you can't conceive you can do with the paper. Sometimes you can just blow on it a little bit and just the little humidity from your breath let's you massage it a little in another way. Then sometimes I'll take a paintbrush and put a little water on the paper and it will get soggy. Then, as I'm massaging it, I'll take it out into the sunlight and the sun will instantly start moving it. It's all a magical dance! Of all the materials I've used, none of them are as rewarding and challenging. And you get into a run then that's [lowers his voice] very quiet. It's very peaceful. 
     If you're working with tissue paper and that paper is wet and, as you know, tissue when wet will just dissolve, then it's something magical that can happen if you can take it to that edge and not destroy it. Then from there it gets into a real abstract area that few people can understand [laughs]. I just go on and on and don't give you a chance to say anything...
 
works:  Not at all. So let's get back to this. Now tell me about this thing you can't share with many people. 
GW:  Well, you can, but they just think you're crazy. I remember once Phil Linhares and I were talking. He says, "It's a very lonely life for the artist. It's even lonely at your openings." He was saying that people really don't understand. There's this gala event and people still don't understand. 
     This airplane thing is that way. Fellow sculptors, a number of them have commented-and I'm lucky because I have respect from a lot of other artists who know my work. If you're able to keep the door open you don't need anything more than that as an artist. That's it. 
    It's like when I was doing those coffee table pieces where I'd balance granite on glass and all that. I was working with Oakland Granite. These guys would take granite to the sharpest edge possible, and they loved doing that for me because, mostly, they made tombstones. No one gave a shit what these guys were capable of doing. So these guys just poured out their hearts for me when I said, Oh, I want this crisp edge and I want to break this off right here. And they got it! 
     Okay, now with the airplanes you get to take it to the next step. When you see a Van Gogh painting, you feel it. You feel it! But what is it that you feel? It's that spirit that he put in there. It's like your friend who was hanging the art show. She didn't need a tape measure. Why? Because she had it. What does she have? She has the spirit. It's real! 
     When I make one of these planes I'll have a couple hundred hours in it and every second is pure joy. It's not like you have a bad stretch. It's almost like a spiritual journey. Here I am working with balsa wood. I'm handling every inch of this balsa wood and I hand pick it all. You need the nose of the airplane heavier than the tail, so I'll use heavier wood. It's a mental, physical journey, and it's all pure joy. And I believe that somehow that joy energy is in there. 
     When I dye paper, I'm handling the paper and maybe I'll dye it five or six times. So as I'm unfolding it and dying it and dipping it and hanging it on a line and pulling the wrinkles out, I'm loving every second of it! As the color gets richer then I'll dip it into a different color. It's all a joyous experience! Then I create this airplane. It's balanced. It's in tune to its ability to fly. I try to make the airplane so that it's clean when it goes through the air so it leaves a good footprint. 
     Look at this little lip that I put here in the wing. That's there to agitate the air molecules so it will create some extra lift. All of this is a dance with the air molecules so that it can most gracefully go through the air. And it's all natural materials. How is it powered? With wound rubber. No electric. No control. Nothing. It's a free-flying temple-of love. 
 
works:  Of love?
 
GW:  Of pure love! Look at this one. 250 hours easy in that. Not one second that wasn't pure joy. And because the materials are so light and delicate you get in that zone. You cannot be careless. There is nothing careless about it. There is something in there. 
 
works:  I find this so interesting, Gale. You know how the artworld works. And you've gone into building these airplanes. You know very well that the artworld will not appreciate them. Yeah, model airplanes. But you're following the inner truth of these things and not worrying about the artworld. 
 
GW:  Well, I wasn't too worried about the artworld anyway. And when the journey can be this rewarding-and they're not very expensive to create. 
 
works:  What you said about working with fine materials and how, as you work with them, you become very quiet, is very interesting. 
 
GW:   Well, you're completely in the present when you're making these. That's what so amazing about the planes in their entirety. I was explaining to you about just the breath on the tissue paper and then getting it in the sun to shrink some of it, and then having to wet another area. That can happen only in that moment. Sometimes it can only happen in the moment depending on the humidity that day. 
     And then there's the flying. But even when they're not in flight, there's something else. As a sculptor, the first thing I want to do when I see one of those large outdoor pieces is I want to walk the perimeter. You get to feel the sculpture that way. These airplanes, because they're light and hanging from a thread, they rotate for you. So if you like good visual presence, the joy of looking, well, these are ever-changing.
     But can I take it a step further? Some of my airplane buddies get it and others think I'm too far out here. Now most of the guys who make airplanes don't get as involved as I am. They don't enjoy every aspect. They may not revel in spending two days making a propeller. They'll go buy a plastic one. 
     For me, it's all saturated with this joy energy. I've had more than one occasion when I've been flying planes with my fellow club members where my plane was the only plane that was up and flying in conditions that were not favorable. Maybe it was too windy. I find that when you have a bunch of guys who love this hobby and if they're all focused and watching one of the planes fly, it seems to fly differently. It almost shows off! It seems to be responding to this collection of shared love energy. All these guys who do this, love it. Somehow when that attention is focused like a laser, the planes seem to perform differently. Now I've witnessed this a few times. This is something that is insanely dangerous to share with other people [laughs]. 
 
works:  [laughs] Yes. 
 
GW:  [still laughing] It's time to commit that man!
 
works:  Well, we'll soft-pedal it, just sneak it in. Now you told me about a plane that you were flying outdoors and it got into a thermal. Tell me about that.
 
GW:  I don't take pictures. But there's a lot of guys who take pictures when we're flying. [pulls out a folder of photos ] Here's one that flew away. 
 
works:   It flew away?
 
GW:  Yeah. I made this airplane that was kind of a caricature. It was maybe something like a Deborah Butterfield horse or something. But it felt like a model of a real airplane. It was meant to represent lightweight, fabric-covered planes made in the 30s and 40s that carried two people. They were affordable.
 
works:  My father had one of those, a Taylorcraft. 
 
GW:  It had windows much bigger than they would be. I made them that way so they would draw you into it, pull your being into it. I did different things and built this plane and it just loved to fly. I built it three times, because twice it's flown away. Here are pictures taken the day it flew away [hands me the photos]. Now here's the second one. [another photo] This was on the day this second one flew away! 
works:  When it flies away, what does that mean? 
 
GW:  It gets up in the thermals. The air is rising and it just flies away. Now when I'm trying to translate the magic, like on the day that first one flew away-and I invented that airplane. I built it right here at this table [taps the table]. The first day I take it out and fly it, it flies away. It's a calm day and it's doing a circle about the size of a football field and it just keeps circling and rising higher and higher. Finally it just disappeared! It was basically straight up. It had a 54 inch wingspan, so how long can you see that? 
 
works:  It just flew out of sight. 
 
GW:  And I never saw it again. 
 
works:  Did you have something in there, a note with your address?
 
GW:  This is as far as I get. [He brings a plane over and points to a small label inside the cockpit.] See the weight of it. [He puts the plane in my hands. It's very light.] See, this one is heavy because of the exhaust pipes. This propeller is this color because it's red silk covered over green silk. 
 
works:  This is silk covering this? [impossible to recognize it as such.] 
 
GW:  Yes. Silk is kind of strong. I make the wooden propeller and then, to give it strength, I put silk over it. That color, see that richness, is red silk put on over green. I do that as part of this dance, see? This is not a scale model airplane. This is a gesture of a real airplane. See, this headrest is dyed paper covered over thin balsa. First the balsa is sanded. So that's several hours right there. 
 
works:  This looks like a WW1 plane.
 
GW:  I'm trying to give the feeling of what the real plane looked like. And then I make the boxes to carry the planes in, too. 
 
works:  Wow. That's a perfect fit!
 
GW:  It has to be precision because of the light material. Here's an example of what I'm doing. Now you felt the weight of that plane. Okay. So this is the one I'm currently working on. Look how much larger it is. It is so lightweight. Here, put your hand right there and just hold it. [I do. It's even lighter. Wow!] 
     It's so lightweight, Richard, that this is a right-hand plane. Look, there's a spot here where you put your thumb to hold it. And there are spots to put your fingers on the other side. Otherwise, you'll crush the fuselage just holding it. 
      Remember when we were looking at the toucan that I told you was so hard to make because there was nothing flat with it? This plane is the same way. There's nothing flat on the whole plane. When I make something like this you just reeeally have to be in the moment. You're balancing it in your lap and it's rolling around. You're sanding it. 
 
works:  This one is really a thing of beauty. 
 
GW:  Well, that's it, what you felt when you held it. Or when you looked at something that was maybe this detailed and ornate and beautiful, in a sense, and then when you discovered it was so lightweight, it touched you. It touched something in your spirit-that something with this much volume, this much energy was so light. Then just imagine-you wind it up and you just launch it! Then it's one with the moment. And every flight is different because the air is always different. It's in the moment with the air. That's why I say they're flying temples. As a builder, it's the highest form of art I can make. 
       Musicians will tell you that with a violin you have to play it if you want it to sound well. If it's played often it makes better music. So I understand from some musicians, that thing that comes from being used. Well what is that? So the airplane is that way-or a prayer wheel. It spins. It spins. But when you're not spinning it, it's not moving. The airplane, on the other hand, when you launch it, it's one with the atmosphere. And it continues to fly. 
 
works:  Are these planes like prayer wheels?
 
GW:  I think so. But if you were controlling it, I don't think it would be like a prayer wheel. I think because it's free, then it is. For me, it's spiritual. The whole journey is. ?
 
http://galewagner.com/
 

 

  
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

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