Airplanes on a Stick: Aviation as Public Art in the Antelope Valley

Photo: Charles Hood
Photo by Charles Hood

In partnership with Antelope Valley Art Outpost and managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, a creative placemaking project that supports regional vitality through artist-driven projects in the unincorporated California communities of Littlerock and Sun Village.

The high desert communities of the Antelope Valley are strongly associated with aviation. Sonic booms remain common, while much of the L.A. air traffic passes overhead, trailing behind white contrails. The space shuttle, stealth bomber, and stealth fighter all were built here; Chuck Jaeger broke the sound barrier here; unmanned drones that the U.S. uses for strikes all over the world were first developed here. Because of this -- and because there are only so many ways one can draw a Joshua tree -- aviation has a particularly indelible presence in the visual culture of the Antelope Valley. This includes murals on liquor stores, scale models in front of college campuses, and folk art versions of rocket cars.

One aspect of public art one sees often here is the "airplane on a stick" -- the elevation of a real, usually engine-less, plane via a plinth. These serve complicated and, at times, contradictory purposes. This article will tour sites and suggest five frameworks for interpretation.

1. Airplane as a Hair from the Tail of the Unicorn

Fine art achieves status in many ways, including by serving as a luxury good or rare object. A Renaissance Madonna has value in part due to the amount of lapis lazuli in the blue robes, or the quantity of gold leaf in the halo. Airplanes can be rare objects as well; Antelope Valley College's Douglas Skyrocket, the first plane to break Mach 2, is one of just three in the world.

Photo: Charles Hood
Photo: Charles Hood

This historic status is why it deserves attention, but I would like to suggest it could serve a different, separate role. During the Vietnam War, some of the campus faculty clashed with administration. While perhaps more common elsewhere, protests in the Antelope Valley were relatively rare. According to legend, at night the faculty would climb over the Skyrocket and paint peace signs and hippy flowers on it. In the view, the mounted plane could be a reminder of a moment of civil disobedience in our local history and a reminder of our first amendment rights.

2. Airplane as Visual Anchor.

Here is an airplane on a stick that anchors three axis lines at once.

Photo: Charles Hood
Photo: Charles Hood

This is the F4 Phantom on Lancaster Blvd., across from the Sherriff's Station. On a north-south line, it's the visual anchor for the Metrolink train, whose route out from Union Station ends here. On an east-west orientation, it ends the development called "the BLVD," that includes an aviation walk of fame.

This plane draws a third axis as well, one between memory and history, pride and concern. We saw earlier with the plane at Antelope Valley College, some people might see military technology as problematic, just by its very presence, and so for them, any plane may be inherently aggressive. Yet all planes -- just like all paintings -- exist in a context; in this case, this plane was our primary fighter during the Vietnam War.

In interviewing veterans for this article, I was told that seeing a plane from an era they served in could be a very positive experience. In seeing a plane (even while just driving by), they would remember bases they were stationed at, or recall people they once knew. The Phantom was used by the Marines, Navy, and Air Force, as well as by Israel and other allies, and in its time, was a record-setting, world-class plane, produced in greater numbers than any other US jet fighter.

Looking at it may mean little to some of us -- just another "airplane on a stick" -- but as a shape, as a piece of history, it means something to plenty of other people. That raises a question about public art: whose art, and which public? If the general population wants something immediate and unproblematic, what is art's responsibility to resist that or to satisfy it? More on these issues below.

3. Airplane as Homerun.

The most photographed airplane in the Antelope Valley is the F-18 outside of JetHawk Stadium.

Photo: Charles Hood
Photo: Charles Hood

The mounted pose shows the lines well -- it's a gorgeous object, aesthetically -- but of course also implies flight: from almost any vantage point, we are soaring along with it, in a second plane -- the proverbial wingman -- wheels up, afterburners flaring, the blue sky unspooling ahead of our faces at hundreds of miles per hour.

This is almost a kind of installation that should not work. After all, the plane shows an action none of us can do, and yet somehow that inspires hope, not anger. We take collective pride in the plane's implied flight, implied achievement, even if few of us ever will be there in person.

Even stripped of engines, wheels, and cockpit, this still weighs 8 tons, so as a piece of human culture, it testifies to good engineering. As a related note, according to city staff, the plane's elevated, "next step is the stars" position serves a practical purpose as well: it lifts the plane up above the reach of tail-climbers and vandals.

4. Airplane as Ferrari.

For those who prefer not to put their airplane on a stick, there are two air parks in the Antelope Valley; Palmdale's includes the SR-71 Blackbird (below), a plane that can fly from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in one hour. There also is a lesser-known air park on Rosamond Blvd, on the entrance road to Edwards Air Force Base.

Photo: Charles Hood
Photo: Charles Hood

Besides speed, the SR-71 has other achievements as well. The titanium that was developed for its air frame is now is used in surgery and thousands of other applications. The metal was so strong, it wore out drills in less than two dozen pilot holes, and all-new welding techniques had to be invented.

Planes at the Palmdale are reminiscent of somebody who has a cherry supercar and longs to show it off, yet at the same time, knows modesty has its place as well. They just look so dang cool, don't they? And yet to see them static on the ground feels vaguely sad, as if they should be out booming and zooming. Each plane's joints were designed to expand in flight, so while on the ground, fueled up and ready to go, the plans would not have been as tidy as this, nor as quiet. According to ground crew assigned to prepare for missions, before takeoff, fuel "leaked out of the plane like sieve."

Here, now, we can appreciate their sleek lines and trend-setting materials, but you can't help but wish there were a way to sneak somebody in the cockpit to rev the engine a bit, like a hot car at the stoplights going vrroom, vrroom. We all know it doesn't really impress anybody, and yet each time, it's hard not to look.

5. Airplane as Missed Opportunity.

Fiona Banner once put an airplane inside the Tate Britain, in London.

Fiona Banner's Harrier and Jaguar 2010
Fiona Banner's Harrier and Jaguar 2010

It was a British-made Jaguar fighter, paint buffed away to bare metal. In the museum (whose outside walls still show bomb damage from WW II), upside-down like this, it was strangely human, a fallen Icarus whose polished metal was a funhouse mirror for your own face.

Good for her: a risky piece, but a successful one.

This begs the question: What could the Antelope Valley do? How can these displays transition from literal artifacts to pieces of public art?

There are more airplanes-on-a-stick yet coming; the Veterans' Home on 30th West is due for one in the next year or two. What if an airplane were installed upside-down or painted non-traditional colors? What if our next airplane was cast from clear resin -- it was the right shape, but utterly transparent -- and at night colored lights filled it up like the glow from a tropical lagoon? Could an airplane also be a planter, filled with flowers, or, better yet, "available to anybody" melons or strawberries?

The aerospace industry and the arts may not seem like friendly cohabitants. But, in our endeavor to activate the Antelope Valley through art, I hope we can create artworks that find a happy medium: between the aesthetic and the utilitarian, the highbrow and the low, and the celebrated and the shameful.

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OPEN CONVERSATIONS is a series of free public lectures and workshops that bring leading artists to the Antelope Valley to discuss and demonstrate the values of social practice. These artists and local residents will work with the Lancaster Museum of Art and History (MOAH) and the Otis College of Art and Design (Otis) MFA Public Practice program to explore the potential for future projects in Littlerock and Sun Village.

The fourth Open Conversation series features artist Kim Stringfellow. The presentation portion of the event will take place 6 p.m. Friday April 24 at MOAH. Stringfellow will share methods for capturing the histories of place and the environment, and present her work including the long-term Mojave Project, which maps the historical, cultural and natural resources of the Mojave Desert.

The following afternoon, Stringfellow will lead a workshop at the Devils Punchbowl Natural Area in which participants will record oral histories about the environment. Dave Numer, Los Angeles County Regional Park Superintendent will join Stringfellow in a discussion about the history and significance of the region. The workshop will be followed by a guided tour and conclude with a free picnic dinner.

Please note: Seating for the Devil's Punchbowl event is limited to 40 participants. Please RSVP by April 23 to moahengagement@cityoflancasterca.org or (661) 723-6250.



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