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Orange County’s Aviation Heritage Lives On in Art at Orange County Great Park

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The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Irvine closed in 1994, yet the base’s heritage as a place for launching major military aircraft and for housing the many people who resided there and made that possible continues to this day. This legacy has endured largely through several aviation-related art exhibitions, displayed in the Palm Court Arts Complex, which is part of the Orange County Great Park— now on the site of the former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro.

A bit of history: Soon after the air station was slated for closure, several groups lobbied to turn it into a commercial airport. Fortuitously, the public voted in 2002 to transform 1.3 acres of the base into the Orange County Great Park. The original plan for the park, as designed by New York landscape architect Ken Smith, included the arts complex. Today, this flourishing, multi-faceted entity comprises the Great Park Gallery and the Heritage and Aviation exhibition — both created from squadron support buildings. In a twist that the people who launched military aircraft on the site years ago would find hard to believe, these art-related venues have spawned several dozen exhibitions and projects over the years.

The largest and most comprehensive aviation-related exhibition, “Farmers to Flyers: Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and Mid-Century Orange County,” was displayed in July 2012. The show told the story of how Orange County grew in 150 years from vegetable fields and citrus orchards to a burgeoning county comprising the marine base, and soon after, to a major metropolitan area. The exhibition was created in part from 400 interviews with El Toro marine base veterans and was conducted by the Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton. It included historical photos, artifacts, oral histories and videos.

The introductory panels, documenting the agrarian nature of 19th and early 20th century Orange County, contained descriptions of the massive Irvine Ranch, of Irvine family members who ran that successful empire, as well as displays of the many citrus crops that were grown there, along with pictures from scenic fruit box logos, which are considered works of art today.

"My Blue Heaven" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin
"My Blue Heaven" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin

The core of the exhibition was the development of MCAS El Toro, carved out of the farming land. Along with visual and written accounts of military training and paraphernalia, it included portrayals of the lives of hundreds of thousands of marines and their families who lived there over the decades. These depictions included photos and stories of the schools, playgrounds, churches, dances, performances, sports teams, beach outings and shopping excursions at the base “shopping mall” for military gear, even pots and pans, as well as women’s and children’s clothing. There were also pictures of female marines working on aircraft and engaging in team sports, along with written accounts by troops describing the perfect weather, the orange-scented air and the nearby farmland.

"Eiler's Crossing" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin
"Eiler's Crossing" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin

The show went on to explain that Orange County’s massive expansion, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the present day, occurred partly due to the many service people who resided at El Toro and eventually settled in the O.C. Massive parcels of land were developed into tract housing, business and shopping centers, while a major university and one very famous amusement park were built to accommodate them. The exhibition included a picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson at a University of California, Irvine dedication in 1964, another of a family moving into the first Mission Viejo Company home in 1967, a photo of Disneyland being constructed in the 1950s and a picture of O.C. native President Richard Nixon landing at El Toro marine base during the Vietnam War. A few panels were even devoted to the emergence of the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society in the O.C.

The final portion of “Farmers to Flyers” was about the closing of MCAS El Toro in the 1990s and about its proposed changeover to an airport, resulting in the citizens’ vote to turn the base into a park. Implicit in this display was the fact that it is to Orange County’s credit that the Great Park was built, in a region that a few decades ago seemed lost to the ravages of over-development. 

The marine base’s magnanimous heritage, as well as the visuals related to it, continues to fascinate art lovers, as well as former marines and their families. With this rich legacy in mind, the gallery’s “Walt and the Flying Bull” exhibition, based on the Disney studio’s design of the El Toro “Flying Bull” logo, was mounted in 2017. The show included a history of original Walt Disney Productions insignia art and featured the Flying Bull, which was designed in 1943 and displayed there until the base’s closure. Exhibition didactics explained that Disney created approximately 1,200 designs during World War II for both American and Allied military units as donations to the war effort. It also included insignia art from Marvel Entertainment and Pixar Animation Studios. 

Flying Bull at a control tower, by Jacques Garnier. |  Courtesy of Jacques Garnier/The Legacy Project
Flying Bull at a control tower, photogaphed by Jacques Garnier. | Courtesy of Jacques Garnier/The Legacy Project

The inaugural Gallery exhibition was “Plane Air Power: Paintings and Sculptures,” by Jorg Dubin, displayed in 2011. The artist’s 18 landscape-style plein air paintings illustrated the marine base’s runways, hangars and barracks. With titles such as “East of Eden,” “House of Blue Lights” and “My Blue Heaven,” the work depicted the base during the early 2000s as it was being reclaimed by nature. The perspective in much of Dubin's work appears to be from jet planes hovering over the land during the landing stage. Accompanying the paintings were the artist's two sculptures of F-18 fighter planes.

Tom Lamb’s “Marks on the Land” series, displayed in 2012, featured aerial pictures of the decommissioned airbase and the surrounding area, photographed before the Great Park was fully developed. Lamb, who shot the pictures from a helicopter, explains, “my images, both from the air and the ground, are of the built and unbuilt, often abandoned or in transition, landscapes. These images examine how we interact with the planet’s most valuable, but increasingly threatened, resources. I am interested in the balance between the natural world and man’s mark on the land.” 

In June 2015, the Great Park opened the Heritage and Aviation exhibition in the former hangar 244, across a palm tree-studded plaza. With historical images, displays, artifacts and two World War II airplanes, an N3N-3 Canary and an SNJ-5 Texan, the hangar tells the story of the park’s transition from its previous life as the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Also displayed there are several photos taken by local photographers, including Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Robert Johnson, Doug McCulloh and Clayton Spada, who called themselves the Legacy Project. From 2002 to 2017, these photographic artists documented the transition of the marine base into the Orange County Great Park in still and moving images. One of the Legacy Project’s members explained, “we felt like archeologists entering a ghost town when we first explored the air station in 2002.”

"East of the Sun" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin
"East of the Sun" by Jorg Dubin | Courtesy of Jorg Dubin

While their photos in hangar 244 are primarily landscape shots of the shuttered base’s runways and buildings when nature began taking over the land, they have also amassed 200,000 plus images of the base’s shuttered neighborhoods and barracks, including officers’ homes, backyards, playgrounds, schools, churches, theaters and shopping centers. Their images tell the story of the marine base as a home for thousands of marines and their families from the early 1940s through 1994. Many of their photos have been displayed in several museums and galleries.

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The most recent exhibition mounted in the Great Park Gallery is “A Brief History of the El Toro Air Show: 1950-1997.” Running through August 18, this show includes several dramatic watercolor, oil and ink landscape paintings by Orange County-based artist Paul Gavin. These works, with titles such as “The Sound of Freedom,” and “Hail and Farewell,” combine classic landscape painting techniques with patriotic images, including excited onlookers at an air show, fighter planes, helicopters, flags and marines. The artist’s “Marines: A Tradition of Uncommon Valor” has an outline in the clouds of the famous 1945 photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” by Joe Rosenthal.

The show also includes close-up black and white and color photographs taken by George Katzenberg during El Toro air shows and an untitled 12 by 8-foot mural by artists Gary Musgrave, Jeff McMillan and Jake Kazakos, who call themselves “The Draculas.” Their mural features P-51 Mustang fighter planes and Disney’s “Flying Bull” insignia. The exhibition also features black and white photos of the B-2 Spirit, the B-47 Stratojet, the F6F Hellcat, the F11 Tiger and the F4U Corsair. 

In the eight years since its inception, the Orange County Great Park Gallery has mounted many other exhibitions, some unrelated to aviation art, featuring abstract art, photography, sports-themed art, posters and art made by women, among other themes. However, the gallery periodically returns to its aviation roots for its shows. Click here for more information.

Top Image: An image from Tom Lamb’s “Marks on the Land” series. | Courtesy of Jacques Garnier/The Legacy Project

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