Arts & Culture

Model planes, rare photos of Wichita’s aviation history in CityArts exhibit

A model of the Rearwin Speedster is part of the aviation history exhibit on display at CityArts.
A model of the Rearwin Speedster is part of the aviation history exhibit on display at CityArts. Courtesy photo

A new exhibit at CityArts offers a visual representation of Wichita’s rich aviation history. Rare photographs, a vintage mural, scale model aircrafts, and even a full-size plane give visitors a glimpse into the 1940s and ’50s golden age of manufacturing that cemented Wichita as the “Air Capital of the World.”

Put on by the Kansas Aviation Museum, the show is a chance to experience the culture of the time as well as discover the often-unseen elements that helped define the city’s largest industry. Cessna, Beechcraft, Learjet, Stearman, Boeing, and Travel Air are all represented.

“There’s a lot more to the history than people think, and they’ll discover that in this show,” said Lon Smith, executive director of the Kansas Aviation Museum. “It’s not just about building planes. Aviation penetrated the whole culture of our community, as it continues to.”

Smith has long envisioned putting together a show like this that depicts various aspects of life within the air manufacturing companies.

He said CityArts was a natural partner because of its commitment to spotlighting local history. He also thinks that the Final Friday art crawl will attract a large and diverse audience.

He said that the Kansas Aviation Museum has thousands of one-of-a-kind photographs that depict not just the aircrafts, but also the heritage behind their creations. T

The museum keeps these photos safely archived, though, to ensure that they aren’t damaged; they typically only showcase digital scans from the collection. This exhibit is a chance to get a glimpse of the original images. Photographs on display were hand picked by Smith with an eye toward exhibiting the most distinctive elements of the industry and the community it created.

“Some are what you would expect, like a Stearman Kaydet, but I tried to also include photographs that would not be expected, like a picture of the 1945 Miss Boeing Wichita, in her swimwear,” said Smith. “There’s a photograph of employees at a Christmas celebration. There’s one set in the northwest that shows a river with cedar logs bound together from when Cessna contracted with a logging company. I aimed to pick unusual images that would surprise people.”

Other notable photos include the first factory used by Clyde Cessna to build his early production models, prototypes of cars designed by Beechcraft from when the company was exploring entering the auto industry post-World War II, and a 150-foot Boeing boat. Around 120 8x10 photographs will be on view, mostly all black and white, collaged by company.

Also on display will be two murals from the 1930s that were on display at what is now the Kansas Aviation Museum when it was used as a terminal. The works by Felix Jones, originally designed to portray the march of transportation, have what Smith describes as a common-man theme to them. They’re a distinctive time capsule, showing Wichita’s early history on one mural and a then-modern look at how the city evolved on the other. The museum came into possession of them in 2005 and had them professionally cleaned and restored.

In addition to the photographs, there also will be three-dimensional installations of scaled and actual planes. Five models of Kansas-built aircrafts will be interspersed throughout the gallery, including a Beechcraft Staggerwing and a Beechcraft Bonanza. The models were built by volunteers at the Kansas Aviation Museum and are about one-quarter the size of their originals. A partially complete wing from a rare Wichita-built airplane known as the Watkins Skylark will also be on display, as will the biggest undertaking: the full-scale Pretty Prairie Special. The World War II-era plane had to be taken apart and reassembled inside the CityArts gallery space for this exhibit.

“This is a rare chance to see some truly unique displays,” Smith said. “Once these photographs go off the walls at City Arts, they go right back into our archives. It’s going to be a good exhibit for everyone to see. I think that aviation enthusiasts and art appreciators alike will walk away having a better, more rich appreciation for the depth of history in their city.”

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