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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Leslie Payne: Old Airplane Builder

One of my favorite artists in the Anacostia Community Museum collection is Leslie J. Payne. Born in 1907 in rural Northumberland County, Virginia, Payne was a fisherman and a crabber. Payne only received a fourth grade education, and remained impoverished for all of his life. He had few opportunities for travel, to satisfy his curiosity about the world, to put his enormous creative energies to work, or to indulge his larger than life personality. But in 1918, he attended an air show when he was only eleven years old that was to change his life. As a direct result of that event, Payne began a lifelong obsession with airplanes and airfields.

Leslie Payne poses with one of his airplanes. Image courtesy of Johnathan Green.

In the 1940s Payne began to construct airplanes, most of them relatively small in scale. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Payne began to construct what he called imitation planes. These were large scale planes, constructed so that Payne and a passenger could sit in the cabin and enjoy the view. On Sunday afternoons, Payne would invite selected young ladies to join him on flights in his planes and they would put-put around the surrounding fields. The young women wore their good Sunday clothes—one recalled wearing white gloves and pearls—and Payne wore a flight suit, aviator cap, and goggles, and outfitted each passenger with helmet and goggles . He maintained a travel log book in which the young women kept notes on each flight’s imaginary itinerary, and also had his passengers take Polaroid photos. On those occasions, for those few hours, Leslie Payne became a pilot, with all the powerful and romantic notions that that suggested in the 1960s. On the back of his flight suit was emblazoned a huge emblem that revealed his self-made identity: Old Airplane Builder. Homemade.

Using metal, canvas, automobile parts, kitchen tools, and other materials that he scrounged, he built imitation planes and then transformed his small farm into an airfield, complete with AIR TOWER, machine shop, and runways. He had no truck, or transportation for the larger pieces of scrap metal, so he carried the stuff back to his farm.

After Leslie Payne retired to a nursing home in the late 1970s, and after his death in 1980, his airfield was abandoned. The planes, tower, and machine shop remained until 1987, when Jonathan Green, then director of the California Museum of Photography traveled to Lillian, Virginia, and with the permission of the family, brought back a plane, the air tower, and some of the machine shop. Green’s team spent years restoring the artifacts. In 1994, Green assisted the Anacostia Museum in acquiring the collection, and it remains an important part of the museum’s holdings today.

Leslie Payne motto.  Image courtesy of Johnathan Green.

Let me end with Leslie Payne’s motto that was burned over the doorway of his machine shop: Safty first, Tak No Chance!

This post originally appeared on the Anacostia Community Documentation Initiative  blog.
If you enjoyed this entry, you might also like Inside the Artist's Studio: Leslie Payne .

Portia James
Senior Curator
Anacostia Community Museum

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