Cool air

Flight Dreams, an exhibition of contemporary art at the AGNS, explores the forgotten romanticism of flying.

Air fair "Balsa Wood Airplane: The Land That Time Forgot" is part of Flight Dreams at AGNS.

Between militant security guards patting you down for bottles of shampoo over 10ml and the energy crisis, air travel isn't much fun these days, so the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Flight Dreams is a refreshing escape. Inspired by the story of Ken Barnes, an aeronautical designer for the doomed Avro Arrow, the exhibition brings together works around the theme of flight from contemporary artists from Canada and around the world. Curator Dale Sheppard, director of education at the AGNS, used the opportunity to solicit input from teachers, artists, historians and children in the community in planning the show.

The Avro Arrow, a supersonic jet developed by Canadian military in the 1950s, was far ahead of its time. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the government's abrupt decision to cancel the production of the planes and destroy the six models already built, which led to a swirl of mythology around the plane---phantom Avro Arrow sightings have been reported ever since. This mythology follows through the exhibition. Sheppard sees flight as a universal human dream---a spiritual inclination.

"I think the desire to fly is a universal notion---a desire to defy gravity and lift ourselves up, physically and metaphorically," says Sheppard. She contrasts the story of the Arrow to Icarus, the Greek mythological figure who made himself wings of wax but fell when he flew too close to the sun. "For many people now, the Avro Arrow has become a Canadian icon, perhaps in part because it was destroyed abruptly, so there remains the hope of what it could have been."

The two largest objects in the show are, ironically, Art Domantay's five-metre-long "Balsa Wood Airplane" and Murray Favro's self-explanatory "Sabre Jet, 55% Size." They work to create tension in the room, fighter jet pitted against elastic band. Favro's model is so meticulous it would be capable of flight if the one side left open was completed. Sheppard has compiled a raft of other fanciful choices, including Frank Shebageget's "Beavers," dozens of tiny wooden models of float planes used to take supplies to remote native communities, which resemble strings of Japanese paper cranes, and Toronto artist Scott Griffin's two-dimensional metal works---essentially paintings made from rust. Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison's elegant photogravure prints depicting flying machines recall surrealist collages.

As an educator, creating something appealing to kids and educational was essential to Sheppard. "From the start, I realized that the way I wanted to curate this exhibition was to value the expertise of different community members by listening to their stories and ideas." She met with workers at aviation museums, education consultants, writers, dancers and teachers, and their input proved invaluable to creating the exhibition. The opening featured a school choir and dance performance, and a program of films and workshops runs until February.

Sheppard loved the process of combining curation with community outreach, and viewers reap its rewards. Science and art classes from J.L. Ilsley High School worked with artist Miro Davis on the enchanting "Feather Project," models of aircraft from Leonardo da Vinci's flight machine to 747s mounted on a giant Plexiglas feather. The whole exhibition just feels fun, from the giant planes to Alexander Graham Bell's models to John Greer's elastic-band paper plane shapes on the wall.

It's hard to ignore the messages of carbon credits and environmental doom and gloom that accompany air travel today, but Sheppard opted to focus on the romantic aspects of flight rather than get bogged down in this debate. Though she came across many great artworks dealing with the subject, she decided to stick with her initial vision of "the metaphor of flight and the possibilities of imagination and innovation." She feels the exhibition and associated program, however, will have the opportunity to "stimulate discourse between visitors on numerous issues related to flight, including one's footprint through air travel."

With its stellar lineup of contemporary artists and budding youngsters, Flight Dreams should allow you to keep your head in the clouds long enough to forget about airport security and remember a time when flights came with free lousy meals.

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