By Leah Eskin
Up two miles into the blue, a tiny speck of a plane banks, puffs, and lets out a straight white stick of cloud. Below, babies with buckets gouge Grand Avenue Beach, oblivious. The plane swerves, levels, and blasts another fluffy streak. The two lines form a sharp wedge, hovering ominously over the Loop. Bald guys on roller blades never break stride. Buzzing like a determined gnat, the biplane circles and puffs until a five-pointed star, half a mile from stem to stern, drifts across Lake Point Tower. Fat ladies in bikinis baste and turn. The star fuzzes, frays, and floats away. This is Sky Erasure Drawing, by Gary Simmons, a work in liquid paraffin on sky.
"My work is about disappearance," says Simmons. "The trace of information you get." And while he's been busy erasing his own work for years, last Saturday was his first chance to try sky.
Simmons, a New Yorker, spent a lot of years drawing on chalkboard, then erasing. His streaky ghost images of cartoon characters (of the Stepin Fetchit variety) were eerie, nostalgic, and unsettling. When a curator suggested he create a public piece, he wasn't sure his ideas would translate. "I didn't know how," says Simmons. "I didn't want to put a big metal horrible orange thing in front of a building." But Simmons did turn his eye to the sky. Chalk blurs. Skywriting dissipates. And of course, there's the nostalgia element. "The 'Surrender Dorothy' thing and all that," explains Simmons.
"It's public work in the most democratic way," says Amada Cruz, the Museum of Contemporary Art curator who commissioned the piece. "And it's a little mysterious."
Simmons created three pieces for the opening of the MCA, two of which hold still. Perched on a cherry-picker parked in the MCA's pristine foyer, Simmons chalked a lighthouse onto a field of slate paint. Then, using his trusty eraser, he set it spinning. On another wall, working at night from a projected image, he filled out a field of stars. He blunted their hard edges, making the stars shoot and fade. In the space between the two works, the museum opens up to a big stretch of sky. That, Simmons knew, was his third canvas. "It dawned on me everything here is about looking up. Stars became the object to use for the piece."
Stars made sense thematically. And, unlike some of Simmons's more complex first drafts, their straight lines could actually be executed at 140 miles an hour.
It took Cruz a lot of telephone time to dig up Wayne Mansfield, who signed on to fly the mission. Skywriting, it seems, is a dying art. Even Mansfield, who grew up tucked into the pilot's seat between his father's knees and who flew peace signs over Woodstock, doesn't do it much anymore. The company started in 1953 by his parents--both pilots--now mostly uses small planes to drag banners along beaches and over stadiums. What with super lightweight nylon and computer imaging and precision logos, skywriting's pretty much been elbowed out.
But to Mansfield it's like riding a bike. He's put in hundreds of hours spelling out "Rudzinski Real Estate" and only once endowed the R with an extra leg. Now that a few artists have engaged his services, he feels the profession is ennobled. "It takes it out of the Eat-at-Joe's genre," he says. There are only a couple tricks: Write backwards. And remember your work is floating away at a pretty swift clip.
Simmons's work was scheduled to debut the same day as the MCA, during the June 21 open house. But stormy weather kept Mansfield grounded on the east coast all week. Finally, last Friday, the skies cleared and Mansfield, packing an overnight bag and a 100-gallon barrel of liquid paraffin, strapped on his helmet, climbed into his chunky little single-seat Grumman Ag-Cat, and hit the air. He hopscotched out of New York, fueling up in Linden, New Jersey; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Cambridge, Ohio; Springfield, Ohio; and Huntington, Indiana; before touching down at Miegs.
Saturday morning was hazy: not ideal for skywriting. White on white is a tough read from both sky and ground. Mansfield swung out over the lake at 11,000 feet and tried a couple blasts of the wax, which is ejected along with the exhaust. The humidity gave it some staying power. It looked good. Winging about two miles west of downtown, he tried his first star. Simmons had specified an open-centered design, which means a lot of angles, not to mention ten strokes per. By the time the first one was completed, plane and puff had drifted all the way to the lake. Glancing up, two bikers panting next to the Pure Beef Dog cart docked a few points for asymmetry.
Mansfield headed upwind to try again. Over the next hour, by consulting the shadow of each star on the lake--and by paring down to a five-stoke design--Mansfield perfected his technique.
The piece was mounted twice more--at three, still hazy, and seven, suddenly clear. From the rattling plane a minor constellation bloomed and then faded, like a time-lapse supernova. Black-tied guests at the MCA oohed, pilots radioed in impromptu art criticism, and in the sunburnt city below, the briefest of five-pointed shadows swept through before fading into the blue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Wayne Mansfield, skywriting, by Cynthia Howe.