Payne, Leslie J. "Airplane"

Leslie J. "Airplane" Payne (1907-1981) was an African-American artist who created an identity for himself as an aviator although he never actually learned to fly.  Inspired by an air show that he had seen at the end of World War I, when he was only 11, Payne began in the 1940s to make what he called "imitations". He ultimately constructed a total of 8 small imitation airplanes out of found materials (two of which he tried, and failed, to fly). Accompanied by young local women acting as his stewardesses, Payne would sit in his planes and take imaginary flights around the world. These trips were recorded in detail in a logbook that he kept under the name Airplane Payne. The logs include photos, maps, drawings, and descriptions of his adventures. [1]

Payne constructed his 15-foot planes largely out of found materials, including scrap metal and wood, bits of old appliances, real airplane engines, and the like. Most were biplanes, although one was a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, as Payne was an admirer of the exploits of Charles Lindbergh. Navigation instruments for the planes were constructed out of repurposed maritime instruments. The planes themselves were painted and decorated with a variety of symbols-- peaces signs, the stars and stripes-- as well as Payne's own biplane logo. One plane had wallpaper enlivening its interior. Although largely nonfunctional, one plane could be motored around local streets, powered by a 75hp engine. [2]

In the 1960s, Payne expanded his enterprise and began constructing an appropriate environment for his airplanes. Within a decade or so,  Payne's Airplane Machine Shop Company included a "machine shop," an "instrument tower," "pylons," and an "airstrip." [3]

Payne, who grew up in Virginia near the Chesapeake Bay, was largely self-taught; his formal schooling went no futher than the fourth grade. As an adult, he worked part-time jobs, sometimes around local airports, and sometimes as a fisherman and a crabber. [4] In another time and place, Payne might have become a professional aviator or engineer. Instead, he created an extraordinary project-- an airport complex with real airplanes, all for the sake of his imaginary flights to places he would never otherwise be able to reach. A writer might have been content to write up the imaginary trips without creating the airplanes and airport; a more traditional artist might have created the objects and left the story to be inferred by viewers. What makes this a canonical fictive art project is that the airplanes and their complex were necessary to create a miniature world within which Payne and his companions could "make" their flights and then record the results for posterity. The specific kinds of fictional flights Payne had in mind were contingent on the rest of his creation, and vice versa.

Some of Payne's airplanes are now in the collections of  American folk art museums such as the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C.

Notes: 
1. Information from the Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, which had one of Payne's airplanes and his "machine shop" on long-term loan at the time of my visit (Fall 2006).
2. Ibid.
3. California Science Center press release (2002).
4. Edwards, Owen. "Flights of Fancy: Leslie Payne's flying machines soared, if only in his imagination." smithsonian.com, June 1, 2007.

Further information:
Green, Jonathan. "Leslie Payne: Visions of Flight." Wexner Center, 1991.
 
Photos:
Top: Leslie Payne working on one of his planes. Photo by Bob Jones.
Right: Payne out on his airstrip, standing by his plane. Photo by Bob Jones.