Around the Mall & Beyond

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The Little Plane That Could

A petite, pageboy-coiffed woman gazes intently at a small red-and-white biplane at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. In her casual pantsuit, she could easily be mistaken for a bemused tourist.

"It’s beautiful," she murmurs. Then, stepping adroitly behind the velvet exhibition ropes, she strokes the shiny skin of the plane, called Little Stinker. "It looks exactly like it did when I flew it in the late 1940s."

Betty Skelton, a spunky 75-year-old, knows every inch of the hand-built Pitts S-1C, having performed hundreds of daredevil feats in it during her six-year career as an aerobatic pilot. Skelton soared to fame and glory in Little Stinker, winning the women’s International Aerobatics Championship titles in 1949 and 195o. In 1988 she became the first woman inducted into the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame. "The finest times of my life," she says today.

In 1985 she gave Little Stinker to the Smithsonian. Restored to its heyday luster and unveiled to the public in October, the plane shares exhibition space with a 1975 monoplane belonging to the late aerobatic champion Leo Loudenslager.

Like its diminutive, 95-pound owner, Little Stinker’s appearance belies its gutsiness and power. The wingspan is not quite 17 feet, and the plane stands just inches above its 5-foot-2-inch pilot. Revolutionary for its small size and agility, the Pitts model would dominate aerobatic competition for decades.

By the 1920s, air shows were beguiling the public with aerobatic acts, but the theatrics attracted few female pilots. In fact, Skelton was the first woman to execute a show-stopping maneuver called the inverted ribbon cut. Flying upside down 12 feet off the ground, her propeller would slice a two-foot-wide foil strip strung between two poles. The first time Skelton attempted this stunt, the engine stalled while she was upside down just a few feet off the ground. Somehow she righted the plane, landed safely and went on to make the ribbon cut a highlight of her act.

Skelton grew up playing with model airplanes and watching pilots do their stuff over the naval station near her parents’ home in Pensacola, Florida. Bitten by the flying bug, she and her parents got pilot’s licenses. Skelton soloed on her 16th birthday. Four years later, in 1946, she launched her aerobatics career: "I cut a deal to fly in air shows for $25 and gas."

Even so, she feels she got the better part of the bargain. "There’s a feeling of freedom when you’re off the ground," she says. "You look out at the wings and wonder what’s holding you up."

—Paulette Dininny

A Tribute to His Roots
Inscription on Museum Wall

"We hadn’t talked in 22 years," says Duane Blue Spruce of the anxious moment he reunited with his Native American father in 1988. "I had memories of him from when I was very little, but he didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t know who he was." Blue Spruce, then 27, approached his father, his hand extended. But in seconds, his father’s arms enveloped him, pulling him into a long-overdue embrace.

Finally reconnecting with his Laguna Pueblo father, Blue Spruce, an architect for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, vowed he’d never let family and heritage slip away from him again. That’s one reason the 40-year-old facilities planner and father of two joined nearly 7,000 patrons who have donated $150 each to have their names inscribed on a commemorative Honor Wall that will overlook the new museum’s skylit rotunda.

Having his name etched on the museum he’s helping build is a tribute to his Native American roots, Blue Spruce says. "It’s documentation of a legacy that I can pass on to future generations of my family. In a hundred years, they might see my name on the wall and say, ‘That’s my great-great-grandfather.’"

Blue Spruce’s parents divorced just months after his birth in New York. Though his mother, who is of Spanish descent, made an effort to teach him and his sisters about their Laguna Pueblo ancestry, they soon lost touch with both their father and Native heritage. "I knew it was a part of me," he says, "but I was physically far removed from Pueblo culture."

After the reunion, Blue Spruce began filling in the family and cultural gaps, but the real awakening came when he moved to New Mexico in 1991, "to the land of my parents and grandparents. Walking in their footsteps helped me rediscover my roots," he says of his decision to leave a Manhattan architectural firm, his second job since graduating from Syracuse University in 1984.

His first trip to the ancient dwellings of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico still resonates. "They were constructed by Pueblo ancestors around 850 A.D. using architectural and geometrical knowledge," he says. "I felt a strong sense of connection to the brilliant minds and spirit of cooperation it took to build that."

Accepting a position with the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Blue Spruce was able to marry his profession to his cultural background by helping design the institute’s museum, sculpture garden and campus buildings. That work brought him to the attention of planners for the Smithsonian’s Indian museum. Arriving in 1993 during the early phase of the project, Blue Spruce helped draw up plans for the $219 million building scheduled to open in 2004. Architects consulted with Native artists and tribal leaders early on for cultural input. Departing from the rectangles common to the Mall, they designed a spiraling five-story curvilinear structure of textured limestone.

"The feeling was that the building should appear as if it were a natural element," Blue Spruce says, "like a large rock shaped by wind and water over time. It’s something that I’m extremely proud of."

—Kim Fernandez

The Mystery of Muñoz
Sculptures in an Eerie Drama

In August, spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz died of an aneurysm, just weeks before the opening of a major survey of his works at Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. He was only 48. Friends remember Muñoz as erudite, energetic and filled with a love for life. But his art reflects a world fraught with isolation, disorientation and more than a touch of the absurd. He once said his work was "about a man in a room waiting for nothing."

Best known for his enigmatic figures cast in bronze and resin, Muñoz’s installations create intense drama. Among his intriguing cast of characters on view are several dwarves, an inscrutable clique of teetering orb-shaped men and, on a catwalk above the gallery, 50 figures in gray uniforms laughing conspiratorially. Muñoz built surreal sets for his troupe, using bleachers, patterned floors, balconies and handrails. In one room, wrought-iron balconies and commercial-style "H-O-T-E-L" signs remind us of a quiet European street. But in the same gallery, a bronze ventriloquist’s dummy smiles inanely across a dazzling trompe l’oeil floor that seems to shift disconcertingly.

It’s all quite mysterious, and like detectives, we try to piece together clues to figure out what Muñoz is saying. The stage is set, but crucial evidence is missing, as Muñoz only hints at possible narratives. A key piece features five ivory-colored male figures seated as though around a table. They lean forward edgily or recoil in mutual distrust, and one looks suspiciously into a huge mirror where we’re reflected as part of their uncomfortable gathering. The gray figures on the balcony, though standing in various postures, have identical facial features. What are they laughing about? There’s something menacing in their mirth. Are we the object of their fun? We don’t know whether to laugh along or run for the door. Trying to make sense of the artist’s uncanny setups, it gradually becomes clear that he’s less interested in telling a particular story than in creating a sense of our own uncertainty.

Muñoz became an artist relatively late in life. Born in Madrid in 1953, he was tutored by a neighbor who happened to be an art critic. At 17, he left home and, for 12 years, traveled around Europe and the United States, enrolling in art schools in London and New York but spending more time studying and writing about art than making it. Finally, at age 30, Muñoz focused on sculpture.

The exhibition of his works will remain at the Hirshhorn through January 13 and then travel to Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

As Muñoz’s reputation flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, the Hirshhorn acquired one of his sculptures—Last Conversation Piece—in 1996. The five-piece bronze, which is situated on the museum’s front lawn, rarely fails to stop passersby. Three of its monkish figures stand in a cluster whispering, while the other two seem to be hurrying toward them to hear what is being said. It’s Juan Muñoz’s stage, and he challenges any playwright or actor fool enough to step onto it.

—Jason Edward Kaufman

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus