August 17, 2012
By Rebecca Gross
Time Flies By (2011) by How & Hosm. Spray Paint on DC3 airplane 203 x 776 x 1,142″. Photo by Jason Wawro for Eric Firestone Gallery
In and around Tucson, Arizona, hundreds of acres of desert serve as retirement communities for aircraft. The largest, located at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC)—commonly known as the Boneyard. Here, some planes are grounded until they are needed back in service, while others are dismantled and salvaged for their parts. At other, privately owned “boneyards” in the region, owners sell off plane carcasses and scrap parts to interested buyers. It was here, amid these jumbles of flight flotsam, that Eric Firestone came upon the inspiration for The Boneyard Project.
Firestone, who owns Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton, New York, initially asked artists to paint discarded nose cones that he had purchased, which he later installed at his gallery in a show called Nose Job. From there, the project grew from nose cones to entire planes, and the artists Faile, How & Hosm, Nunca, Retna, and Andrew Schoultz were brought to the desert to paint six unlikely canvases: three Super DC-3s, a Lockheed VC 140 Jetstar, a C45, and a C97 cockpit. The planes and nose cones were installed at Tucson’s Pima Air and Space Museum earlier this year, and Firestone is currently in discussions to display the craft at other domestic and international sites. We talked to Firestone about his inspiration for The Boneyard Project, his interest in artistic repurposing, and why not every artist requires a paintbrush.
NEA: How did you first find out about these airplane graveyards?
ERIC FIRESTONE: I’ve actually had a home in Arizona for almost 20 years, and I had dealt with both art and design since I was 21 years old. So if you’re in southern Arizona, and you know about the culture down there, you know that this is where airplanes go to retire and these graveyards were really incredible sources for industrial design, especially to be reincorporated. Unfortunately in the past decade, they’ve been highly depleted to the point now where they’re an almost completely vanished subculture in the desert because the U.S. government doesn’t contract these private parties to dismantle planes anymore. So with the prices of scrap metal rising so dramatically in the past decade, most of these planes have disappeared. So I was in a unique opportunity to figure out a way to conjugate some of the remaining elements out there and repurpose them for a whole new existence.
Naughty Angels (2012) by Faile. Acrylic on Beechcraft C45 aircraft 116 x 410 x 572″. Photo by Jason Wawro for Eric Firestone Gallery
NEA: I don’t think most people would think “brilliant canvas” if they ever saw discarded planes. How did that connection take place for you?
FIRESTONE: I had been dealing in historic graffiti and street culture the past few years, and really became a student of the history of where that movement gained so much attention, especially in New York in the 1970s and into the ‘80s. I thought about the idea that transportation has always been used as a mode—at least [since] that movement—to create work that could be seen by the masses. I also thought about the history of nose art, and how in WWII, the [troops] used these planes and personalized them with all types of caricatures. In the winter of 2010 when I was down in Miami during Art Basel, it all clicked. I realized, “Wait a second. How can I take this a level higher?” And I started thinking about the planes.
The project started in April 2011. We were able to implement the first stage of the project not knowing fully where it was going to go. We got the first group of artists out there…but as we created the project, we kept the plane park very secretive. Then we started engaging artists to paint the nose cones, which is the other part of the project. We had our first show in New York in July 2011 with a show called Nose Job.
Knowing that this [project] was happening, an opportunity arose so locally that it made too much sense: the Pima Air and Space Museum contacted me about exhibiting the planes. First they wanted to exhibit a plane, and I said why don’t we exhibit all the planes, and put the noses there? We opened that showing late January of this year, and that’s when the floodgates began to open, so to speak. We’ve had worldwide response, and I’m negotiating how to try and continue the project.
Phoenix of Metal (2011) by Nunca. Spray paint on DC3 airplane 203 x 776 x 1,142″. Photo by Jason Wawro for Eric Firestone Gallery
NEA: This project is a fantastic way of showing how art can give new life to objects and spaces. Is this something you’ve always been interested in?
FIRESTONE: I’ve always looked at architectural elements, design elements. The idea that they could be repurposed or reused is something that I’ve always had on my conscience ever since I’ve been involved in the arts. I’m not an artist in the sense that I put my name out there and create work and sell work. I’m an artist in the sense that I create ideas and concepts to try and let people visualize things differently. So I sometimes am a friend of the artists in the sense that I can come up with concepts and much bigger visions and that’s a gift in itself. I’m fortunate that I had, and I continue to have, these ideas that come up in my head constantly. I’m full of them. It’s just a point of which ones do I actually want to employ and where do I want to put my time.
When I started this project, it was more about wanting to take my idea and figure out how to implement it to the world. That I’ve accomplished. The financial side—I’m out a few bucks right now. But that’s okay. [Money] is never really anything that’s driven me. It’s much more of a rewarding feeling to know that I pulled off this magic act so to speak.
NEA: Besides financing, what were the other challenges involved with this project?
FIRESTONE: The logistics. Artists can be predictable and unpredictable. You have the element of the weather that you’re up against. The biggest thing would obviously be the movement of the planes. I was fortunate that I was able to get them moved over to the museum which is only a few miles away from where they were painted. But the next challenge is if the planes do go to Miami or they go to London, the logistics of breaking a plane down and re-assembling it for exhibition. And spatial limitations. When you’re out in the desert, the desert is a vast space with a really big sky, and great light. But what happens when you take these big industrial pieces and put them in much smaller places? So you have to be willing to just try and roll with that stuff.
Warning Shot (2011) by Retna. Ink & latex on DC3 203 x 776 x 1,142″. Photo by Jason Wawro for Eric Firestone Gallery
NEA: You mentioned Nose Job, and how that show deals directly with nose art. How do you think the project as a whole plays on the tradition of painted fighter planes during WWII?
FIRESTONE: The most immediate response to that is to understand that nose art was really meant to personalize the planes in cold, industrial designs that are repetitive in form and style. So you’re putting your name on the plane by putting a design on there. I think the connection is similar in the sense that you’re taking this one object and you’re creating a whole new being and form for it in the same spirit. Instead of doing just a small section of the plane, you’re doing the entire plane.
NEA: One of the artists in the exhibit’s promotional video said that although his grandfather didn’t always “get” his artwork, this particular project would be something his grandfather might like. Why do you think this would appeal across generations?
FIRESTONE: I think we all have some type of connection with flight; it’s something that we all have had an experience with, whether in military or non-military capacity. So I think it’s one of those subjects that really has a very easy way of conjugating itself to so many different generations and minds. It’s not a blue versus red thing; it has a universal appeal. Some people might look at the planes for the designs, some might look at them for the history of the military, some might be looking at them just for the art, some might be looking at it knowing that this project can make an impression on a whole new generation of thought-makers because it allows the imagination to realize that anything’s possible.