Interviewsand Articles

 

Free Flight: Gale Wagner at the Sanchez Art Center, Pacifica, CA, Aug. 10, 2014.

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 7, 2015


 

 

Director of the Sanchez Art Center, Jerry Barish, invited me to have a conversation with artist Gale Wagner on the occasion of a one-man show of Wagner’s work at the center. I was happy to oblige having known Gale and admired his work for over twenty years. Besides the many informal conversations we’d had over the years, I’d interviewed Wagner twice and had published the conversations in magazines I’d founded. On the afternoon of our interview, all the seats in the room were filled. Suspended in the air all around us were examples of Wagner’s latest work, handmade airplanes. About them, Barish wrote: Wagner’s planes are powered by rubber bands, but they are very far from model airplanes that come in a kit. His free-flight planes are made with painstaking care and, as he says, with great joy in each phase of the process. He carves and smoothes each delicate balsa wood connecting strip; hand-dyes thin coverings of tissue paper, dying, drying, and re-dying to achieve a color he loves, spending up to 200 or more hours building just one plane . . . and then he goes out and sets them free up into the sky! Wagner says he made one plane three times, because the first two disappeared in flight, borne upwards on a thermal draft, never to return. There is an indescribable beauty in these free-flight planes, an ineffable compound made of the artist’s joy, skill, and craft, his respect for materials, and the pure love of making art.

Jerry Barrish:  First of all, I don't know anybody who cares more about their work and puts more effort and love into it than these two gentleman here, these two artists. So I thought it was the perfect matchup today. I remember an earlier interview Richard did with Gale. It was in his magazine. In those days, Gale was making monumental sculptures out of steel and now he's making the airplanes that you see here today. And when he talks about these things—if we don't cut him off, we'll be here until midnight! [laughter] So this is really a wonderful evening. So Richard before you interview Gaile, tell us how to subscribe to works & conversations. And tell us a little about the magazine.

Richard Whittaker:  Thank you, Jerry. I just want to say that I’m impressed by what you’re doing here. It’s a treat for Pacifica to have artists like Gale, and other artists of such quality exhibited here. You’re doing a real service for the community. So thank you.
     In terms of the magazine, I publish two issues a year. It is a labor of love. I’m interested in artists who are working from some deep impulses, and when their art succeeds, something of these deep impulses can be shared. And I think that puts us in a different state and we feel a quality of meaning. One of the joys of the magazine is meeting people who inspire me, and I try to help get that inspiration through for others. The magazine does support itself, but it’s never made me any money. The rewards are otherwise and quite wonderful, but most artists don't really make any money. But there are a few, of course. Gale, I think that now and then, you sell a piece. Is that right?

Gale Wagner:  Every once in a while.

RW:  I met Gale probably 23 years ago. I was with another artist and we were talking in a nice little place in Alameda, run by this wonderful woman, Peggy Williams, who was one of the treasures of Alameda. And we were nobodies, and Gale Wagner came in. and you remember Peggy, right Gale?

Gale:  Of course.

RW:  Peggy was conferring with Gale about some pieces that she might show, and we kind of horned in since we were sitting nearby. Gale showed us so much kindness and friendliness that the three of us ended up going over to his studio across the estuary in Oakland. There was no condescension from Gale—no, "I'm better than you." It was very refreshing and an encouragement to me and to Dickson Schneider, the other artist. This was in the days of my first magazine, The Secret Alameda which has become works & conversations. I featured Gale once in an early issue of that first magazine and later again in the new one.
     So my relationship with Gale goes back a couple of decades and of course, I've had many conversations with him. And there are so many different places we could start this conversation, but I thought, let's do something traditional. I mean, we'll get to the planes, which I know everybody wants to know more about, but I wanted to ask about some of the key moments in your life. So going back as far as you want, what do you think accounts for your life as an artist?

Gale:  Well, I was born [laughs]. You know, as long as I can remember I've been building stuff. I've always been a maker of things. When I'm doing sculpture, I'm making—and I'm in love with that process. I love every aspect of it! When I'm trying to figure out, all right, what size am I going to work? Then, where am I going to get the materials? And then, if it's a large piece, I’m occupied with getting a wide-load permit; or can I get a loan from somewhere? I mean, I'm not married so I have a lot of extra time. Even though I’m getting older, I probably do 50 hours a week in the studio. And I was figuring here not long ago, that in 45 years, I’ve put in 100,000 hours of just making stuff. And when you do something that much, it all kind of starts looking the same, in a way. It's like now, when I'm working on a piece of balsa wood repairing a damaged airplane, in my mind, it's just like I'm working with steel. Does that make sense?

RW:  I suppose it does. And you were saying that you’ve been making things since you were a kid, like from eight or nine?

Gale:  Before school even.

RW:  So what kind of things were you making?

Gale: I started off making airplanes. Balsa airplanes. And my father had taken down a picket fence that was around our yard. So my brother and I had these pickets that acted like Lincoln Logs—hundreds of them, to build stuff with. So we were building bridges and forts, and houses. We'd build towers and then coffee cans and before long, we're building a whole airport.
     I remember making, for a Cub Scout project, a three-dimensional Mickey Mouse mask. It had the eyes. I was eight. I remember talking to my mother later, after I had grown up. I said, “So you must have done the work?” She said, “No, you did the work. You did it.” So I had a knack.

RW:  Now as a kid, I remember working on something I was making. And there's a quality of experience there. I mean, you’re completely engaged, right?

Gale:  Yes. I guess maybe it was just to get lost, just to take that journey, you know? It's like the house was small. My brother was practicing the violin. It was stressful to my little ears. Down in the basement, that's where I was making airplanes or something else. And as a young kid, I loved snakes. I started catching snakes, so I was busy building environments for them—cages, you know. My mother said, “You can keep them if you take care of them.”So I was building cages. When I got more snakes; I'd build another cage. It's just like I was building, building, building.

RW:  How many snakes did you have in those days?

Gale:  Jerry Long [present in the audience] and I grew up together in a little place called Raytown, Missouri. This little neighborhood we lived in was like three square blocks, and it was surrounded by cow pastures and stuff. So once people in neighborhood knew that I liked snakes, then whenever someone would find a snake, they'd call me up on the phone. I'd ride my bicycle over and rather than killing it, I would catch it. So they were happy and I was happy. Then that expanded to other neighborhoods in our hometown. Then the next thing you know, I'm working with the zoo in Kansas City.

RW:  This is serious. I mean, working with the zoo as a kid?

Gale:  Yes. And the snakes taught me so much, too.

RW:  Would you say something more about that?

Gale:  Well, I liked the snakes. So I wanted to be friends with them. Like, I wouldn't pin them behind the head. So then they had the freedom to bite me if they chose, you know? I would just say, okay, I'm your friend. If you're going to bite me, bite me—and get it out of your system. Then after a while, I wasn't ever having trouble with them biting.
     They see auras; all animals see auras, it seems. And with holding them, they taught me balance, which is so important for airplanes, and in my metal sculpture—even the ones that weigh tons. They’re all balanced. When I would have engineers around to make sure a large piece was safe for humans to be around—for seismic things and 100 mile an hour wind—a few times one would say well, “Why am I here doing this? I’m not even sure why that's standing like that!” And it wasn't until maybe twenty years ago when I realized—I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I was working on my steps then—it was like all these doors started opening up in my little clouded mind, and I realized that all those hundreds of hours of handling snakes they taught me balance. They were always moving, and only touching me in a few spots and somehow that transferred into my brain in a way that I probably can't share with you, because I don't know how that worked. But I just have a knack for balancing stuff. It's like when I make the planes. Almost all these planes end up balancing when they're finished, without me needing to put weight in them.

RW:  Do you build these planes from drawings or do you kind of work them out just on your own?

Gale:  You have to make a drawing to lay it out. Like on the sides of most of these airplanes, you build two sides and then you connect those, and so that's over a drawing. And then to layout the wing, you have all those areas where there are ribs. But I just draw lines. So I'll draw a leading edge and a trailing edge and some lines for some ribs, and I know what I want to do. I just need a reference point to glue it together.

RW:  So with the top curve on the wing for lift, how do you get that curve, for instance?

Gale:  Well, I was pretty hard-headed. I kept thinking, “I'll make it higher and get more lift.” But then you get into a struggle with drag; you're defeating your purpose. You look at a plane like a Piper Cub, and you see the rise, which is the curve at the top of the wing, and then you look at a jet, and it will almost just have very little rise—it's more like a dart being projected through the air. So you kind of experiment around. It's about feel for me, mostly.

RW:  I think that gets into an area that I don't think I've ever read very much about, but I think that people have known a lot about it in the past. People who worked with their hands, like in the guild systems, know that there's an intelligence in the body, this hands-on kind of experience with life. I mean, take your description of the snakes. I think there's a kind of an attunement that gets into our bodies. This must be a basic part of the way you work. Would you say that?

Gale:  Yes. And it's like I'm just out of control when I'm making something. I just love it. When I'm working on a project, the last thoughts I have before I fall asleep are about that project. When I wake up in the morning, the first thoughts I think about are that project, and I'm just excited to wake up and get after it again. The planes are wonderful because you don't even need to get dressed. I can just come downstairs. I can be in my undershorts and just start working. There's no spray paint, there's no welding, no fumes.

RW:  Well, going back to earlier points in your life. You ended up at an art school. Right?

Gale:  Yes. The Art Institute in Kansas City.

RW:  What moved you to get into art school?

Gale:  Laziness. As a youth, I’d done drawings as well as make things, and I did paintings. I was always the class artist, you know. So I thought I'd be a commercial artist, and the Art Institute was close. That was great. I thought, “I'll just go and become a commercial artist. I won't have to study very much, and I'll just have fun!” Then in my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to be a sculptor. Then I realized I’d been playing around with sculpture all my life, anyway.
     My father says, “We're working real hard, and you're going to be the first member of this family to get an education, and you're going to become an artist? How are you going to make a living at that?”

RW:  It must be a familiar refrain. So did you go through four years of the art school?

Gale:  I did two years and then after my sophomore year, it was time for me to see another area. So I left home and went into the service. I was in the service for three years, and came back and then finished up art school. Then I set-up a studio in Kansas City. I’d married my childhood sweetheart. But I was a mess when I came back from Vietnam and that was a disaster of a marriage. Then I came out here to do graduate work, to study with Pete Voulkos.

RW:  I invite you to share whatever you might be comfortable with about your experience in Vietnam and how that's played into your career as an artist. I know it was pretty intense.

Gale:  Well, I don't even know where I'd start. I'd never even been out of the state of Missouri, except for Kansas, and then all of a sudden, I came out to California and saw the Pacific Ocean! I was young and most of the guys I was learning with were older.
     I became an officer and a platoon leader in Vietnam. It's probably the best job I will ever have. By the time I got to Vietnam, I really didn't believe in the war, but as a platoon leader, you can't allow your men to know that's how you feel. I thought I was on the wrong side. It seemed like we were the bullies, and I was just so amazed the entire experience.
     Then to put the icing on the cake, I was wounded and hospitalized for 18 months. Then you realize how lucky you really were to even have made it. I don't know. I think I was born happy and that didn't sour my happiness. So I feel lucky there. And you start to wonder. It's like, aren't all mammals born happy? It seems like it doesn't matter if it's a little baby mouse or a colt or a cat or an elephant; we're all happy. We're born happy as mammals, it feels like. Then maybe the experiences in life kind of change us a little. But I've been lucky enough to continue to be happy. Did that make sense? I don't even know what I said.

RW:  Listen, tell me a little bit about the guy from India. Maybe he was in your platoon. It was somebody who was saying, "Gale it's your karma. Don't you see?"

Gale:  That was Rajesh! I lived across from Beacon Day School in Oakland; that's a private school and they lean towards the arts. So through the years, there's been some amazing parents dropping their children off, and then they see my art, or I'm out there working, and they stop by and talk. So Rajesh was one of them. And recently, he's moved back to India, but recently he was back for a visit and we were talking and I shared some things with him about my time in Vietnam.
     He said, "Well, Gale, don't you see how the karma works? There you were. You were trying not to kill the enemy. In fact, you were going out of your way to avoid contact when possible.”
     I think I saved a lot of lives on both sides, really. At any rate, Rajesh says, “Well, don't you see? You get wounded, and they're not even sure you're going to live. You're hospitalized, but today you tell me that you've never felt disabled in your life!”
     Which is true. But all these things happened to me, you know? Bladder and veins blown out of legs, and herniated abdominals—all these things, but I never feel like the guy who lost a leg or the guy that lost half his face or an arm. So Rajesh says, “See, now you have this mandatory retirement. And because you were giving your most, you ended up getting promoted to a captain when you were just a kid. And now you retire at that rate.”

RW:  So you can make art then.

Gale:  That's right. And I can't imagine how a human being could have as much freedom. It's like I don't need much, but I have enough to get by. So I'm able to just make art, which is what I've done.

RW:  So look, every stick has two ends. You get almost killed. But then you get a pension that allows you the freedom to follow your art for the rest of your life. So you got into making large steel pieces. I don't know if all of you have seen his work. It's fantastic. How many years would you say you’ve spent making these large steel pieces that get placed outside of buildings and in parks and stuff like that?

Gale:  Well, Dale Eldred, the fellow I studied with at the Kansas City Art Institute, worked large. He was a neat guy, very intense. He went to the University of Michigan on a football scholarship, to give you an idea. He opened the door—anything you wanted to do, you could just do it! So I started building fairly large pieces in 1965, before I went into the service. And my father worked at a company called Dart Truck Company. They made these mining trucks. So as a child, I would get to see the factory. And here are these guys making these big, huge trucks with these little welders. So one of the games I used to play as a kid was building trucks. We'd get cardboard boxes and stuff and build some trucks, you know. So it was never outside my mind that you could just build anything; any size that your mind could comprehend. Then after Vietnam and you know, the armor and the helicopters and dah, dah, dah… You develop confidence. Then I worked on a railroad as a brakeman one summer. Quite a few trains were getting derailed and I used to volunteer to clean up the derailments. It was just magnificent. You’d be picking up boxcars with the cranes. And steel rails looked like bent pretzels. So the sense of size was something amazing.

RW:  That’s kind of glorious and I totally get it. Now I want to ask you about Pete Voulkos—there's got to be some stories there.

Gale:  Many stories. We hit it off. Eldred, two years after I graduated, says to me, “You should go to graduate school. You're one of the best students I've ever had.” He said, “Here, I'm going to call the guy you're going to study with.” And he dials Pete up. Then he hands me the phone, and he says, “Here, talk to him.”
     So Pete said, “Come on out. You can stay at my place. There won't be any problem getting in or anything. Just come on out.” So that's how it happened.
     Then, I was looking for a studio space, and he'd bought the building I'm in, but he says, “I don't want you to move in this building. You've got too short a fuse on you, after Vietnam, to be having a studio in the areas of Oakland you're looking at.” He says, “You'd get killed here.” So it was like, “Settle down.” My life's been showered with gifts.

RW:  He really took you under his wing. Right?

Gale:  Yes. We were kind of drinking buddies and poker buddies. It was pretty much nonstop for a few years.

RW:  I remember the first time I saw your studio twenty-something years ago. You had big steel things all over the place and smaller things lying around in the open, no fence. And you had a hand-painted sign, "Please Don't Take My Stuff I Need It for My Work." And you had the 'R' reversed and some words misspelled. All that really caught my attention. I was wondering, “Who is this guy? Who lives here?” You know?

Gale:  There's a great story on that sign. One day I heard a noise outside so I looked out, and there's this guy ripping me off, a black man who’s maybe seventy-five. He's barefoot. It's a hot summer day, and his feet are ulcerated. I'm watching him walk across the steel plate. He's like picking up these railroad spikes that I had in this pile by the driveway. He’s got this beat-up old pickup truck and I see someone, maybe it was his daughter, and she had this little baby, a tiny baby. So I came out and I said, “You can take all the steel you can handle here.” And then I asked him, “How do I keep people from stealing my stuff? They're starting to hit me now.” He said, “Just put a sign up and say please don’t steal my steel.”

RW:  It's a great story. That's the right stuff. That's such a lovely…

Gale:  I don't know any better.

RW:  God bless you! I think that's why I love you.

Gale:  So who has a question about planes?

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  I do. How do you choose what color you're going to use?

Gale:  Sometimes it's like that white and blue airplane right there. George Benson is here. He's not a flyer, but he took us down to the Amazon. So one of the things we were doing, while going down the river every day, is I'm watching—for like two hours a day—these kingfisher birds flying around. Then I realized these guys are just having fun. You watch a bird fly for two hours a day for 14 days in a row and you start to learn something about them. So they would fly and they would just do a right angle, and then do a dart. Then it's like they'd somehow show-off and be doing these big circles around the boat. So I wanted to build an airplane that liked to fly as much as a kingfisher.
     So I built this plane and I designed it. So I'm making it and I wanted something that's as intense as what the kingfisher was. So that's that real deep blue, which cost me flight time, weight-wise, but I wanted something to snap. So that's an example.
     This one here is like a school bus that Jeremy and I used to ride on when we were kids. That's why it's yellow. It's probably the only school bus in America that same color of yellow. I'm just playing around with color. Then when the planes are in the air, and the sun is shining through them, they're like stained glass windows up there or something, you know, with the light coming through them.

AM:  I remember when I was talking to you, you were talking about stepping away from this idea of a formal composition in your steel sculptures into making planes. I would just like to hear you talk about that a bit.

Gale:  Well, I started doing the metal sculpture and kind of got carried away with it until about maybe ten years ago. Then I got introduced to rubber [twisted rubber bands power the planes] and we're flying these smaller planes in the airship hangar like the orange and green one, or the little red one, or this scooter here. It was then that I really kind of retired from the metal sculpture. This orange plane was an enlarged version of the orange and green plane, which flew so well indoors. When I first started flying outside, I didn't have a de-thermalizer on this one. We look for the thermals that ultras fly, and hawks and eagles. And once your airplane gets in there, you can wave goodbye to it. It's going to fly away. So in order to save them, we set timers on them, and the tail pops up and then they fall. It's really magnificent. It's like straight down an elevator shaft.
     So I hadn't developed that yet, and I launch this baby, and it's flying around. It's doing a circle about the size of a football field, and I'm like, “God, is this fun or what!” I’m in heaven. And Jerry comes over and says, “I hate to tell you this, but it's not coming back.” So this thing goes and it just—I mean, it disappeared! It was like, “Hey, Big Dude, you took one. Good.”
     At that moment something happened and I said, “Nothing I've ever done is as exciting as this!” I mean, as far as my work goes. These are alive, you know? You put your heart in it and it almost feels to me like, not to be religious, but it's almost like a prayer state; it's like meditating, but it's quieter. And it's like that energy stays in them. I don't know, does that answer your question? It's just like we're waiting for something, and the airplanes do that for all of us that are doing it. For any of you who have never seen one of these free flights fly, it's pretty awesome. I mean, there's something up there that nothing is controlling. It’s just flying. It's magical.

AM:  So did you make a conscious decision to transition from metal work to airplanes or what?

Gale:  It kind of was on its way. Like I'm one of those people who really thinks there is global change happening. And I actually think that we're out of control. I had my fair share of being out of control in my life. I made large outdoor sculpture for people to see and I didn’t care if anyone bought it or not. Once I set my mind to making something, I would just figure out how to get it done and make it—and that's kind of piggish, in a way.
     When you think about it, there's nothing green about making steel sculpture or bronze. It's a harsh process. We're using up a lot of stuff for whatever the return might be, and I'm not a blue chipper. People aren't knocking on my door wanting a piece. So I just said, okay, it's time. My last series of pieces I did all had the planet Earth in them, because I wanted us to be more conscious of what we're doing to the Earth. And the series before that had animals the size of humans, and before that, it was flower pots. So all of it was a concern for these areas.

AM:  Are there photographs of all these pieces?

Gale:  I haven't even photographed any pieces in 15 or 20 years.

AM:  I was here a couple of weeks ago and really appreciated the technical detail you put in every single one of these planes. You mentioned the airfoil sections and I noticed you always have a little bit of washout in the wingtips. You've got decalage between the upper wing and the lower wing, which is critical to the stalling performance of the airplane. The de-thermalizer was a design we had never seen before. And the propellers are magnificent.

Gale:  Thank you.

RW:  Jerry, this is an incredible installation. And the thing that dazzles me about this work, these planes is that, in a way, you've gone right to the heart of something pretty sweet, something one discovers as a kid. I remember it was a gripping thing with model airplanes and making them, painting them.

Gale:  It was really hard to beat. It's hard when you have to do sculpture all day, but this is exactly what I'd be doing at night, and acting more like a child every day. Yeah. And you’ve sort of, you've crossed over into this other group.

Jerry: One of the reasons it was so important for me to bring the show here, is that there was talk when Gale was basically leaving the big steel pieces to make these planes. A lot of artists just said, “What are you doing? You're making model airplanes. You've given up art!” And I was so hurt by that. And I thought that these works of arts should be presented as works of art.


   
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

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