By the autumn of 1918, the war to end all wars was itself coming to an end in Europe. Far away in rural Virginia, Leslie J. Payne, an 11-year-old boy from Northumberland County, went to an air show, gazing in awe as biplanes looped and rolled and performed mock dogfights. Such aerial exhibitions were taking place across America, and kids—some of whom would become aviators themselves—were watching and dreaming the primal dream of flight.
Like thousands of other kids, Payne's imagination was ignited by what he saw, but for him the wonder of airplanes would remain the stuff of dreams. A farm boy whose formal education ended at fourth grade, he would spend his working life not as a pilot but as a handyman and a crabber on the Chesapeake Bay. But Payne had the soul of an artist, and his childhood experience was no less transforming for him than for those who would actually take to the air. In the 1940s, in his spare time, Payne began assembling what he called "imitation" airplanes, crafted of scrap metal, bits of wood and canvas. Today, one of Payne's earthbound flights of fancy, dating from 1970, resides within the collections of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. (It is currently on loan to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.)
Though he started small, Payne eventually scaled up his artful assemblages to be large enough to take local kids for rides up and down his family's field, propelled by salvaged aircraft engines that Payne had restored. According to Portia James, a curator at Anacostia, "Payne kept flight logs in which he entered the names of his passengers, and his [imaginary] destination for a flight. He might say to a visitor, ‘Today we're going to North Africa.' He always wanted people to visit in their good clothes, probably so that a fantasy flight would seem a special event."
The Anacostia's plane measures 9 feet in length, an inspired product of wishfulness and whimsy that looks deceptively airworthy. The museum's Payne collection also contains his flight suit and aviator's cap, both homemade, various articles from his repair shop and a 6-foot section of Payne's 12-foot-high replica of a control tower, a construction that stood on the "airfield" where he kept his airplanes.
This unique trove of American folk art might have been lost had it not been for a lucky coincidence and the curiosity of an art historian. "Payne's family probably thought of him as an eccentric, not an artist, so his work was neglected," says James. "The hero of this story is Jonathan Green."
Green, now director of the California Museum of Photography at the University of California at Riverside, first heard about Payne on a visit to Washington in the mid-1980s. (Though Payne had died in 1981, one of his pieces, as it turned out, had recently been exhibited at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.) "I'm intrigued by the ways art and science are interwoven," Green says, "and this work seemed as if it would be an interesting example." So Green drove to Payne's former farm on the Chesapeake. "The field, and the planes that Leslie kept there, were completely covered by undergrowth," Green says. "I discovered the work, and also caught poison ivy."
Green knew at once that he had stumbled upon something significant. "I was blown away by the intensity of coming upon these things in a natural state," he recalls, "and fascinated by the imagination that created them. When you look at the ingenuity of these remarkable simulations, you see a kind of organizational genius at work."
Green, who was then director of Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts, returned to the site with a crew of six, including a photographer and videographer. He and his team transported several of the deteriorating pieces back to Ohio State, where restoration was completed. (Green would arrange for the Smithsonian's acquisition of Payne's pieces in 1994.) "It's unclear whether Payne ever flew in a real airplane," says Green, "but as an artist he clearly had a flier's love of the experience. Though Leslie's work has a secular underpinning, there is something spiritual about it."
Anacostia's Portia James agrees. "If I put myself in his place—a black man born in 1907 living in segregated rural Virginia—I can easily imagine that for him the idea of flight would have represented a dream of true freedom from the restrictions of his life."
Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.
( Click here to read an interview with Edwards.)