Hollywood legend James Stewart was considered too old, too light and too famous to fight in the United States Army Air Force in World War II. This didn’t stop him, and with a great deal of determination, he went on to lead a bomber squadron based in England. He survived twenty bombing missions against Germany. Long after the war he remained a reserve airman, and remarkably, flew as an observer in a B-52 mission in the Vietnam War.
British artist Nina Mae Fowler is building a sculpture of Jimmy Stewart, to be cast in aluminium from World War II aircraft. Hush-Kit met Nina to find out the story behind this fascinating art piece.
“I work with a foundry near Old Buckenham in Norfolk, which is where the photo of James Stewart was taken. Tim Hannam who runs the foundry showed me the image, telling me the history of the local airfield and asked if I would consider making a sculpture based on the photograph. His idea was to cast the work using metal collected from parts of World War II planes.”
“The project appealed to me as my work is largely based around Hollywood during the 1920’s-40’s and one of the processes I most enjoy is making 3-dimensional sculptural works from old images of bygone stars. This particular image of James Stewart sitting on a fence in his pilot’s uniform already has a sculptural feel to it and a real sense of heroism in his character.”
“ I am not very well-educated in the field of famous aviators but I did recently read a quote from Robert Taylor (Good Housekeeping magazine, May 1956) regarding the ‘ten things that make my heart beat faster’……number one of which was: “The wide sky – from the cockpit of my plane”.
“I have however, enjoyed many films about aviation, I particularly enjoyed one called ‘The Last Flight’ (1931) about 4 pilots in Paris drinking themselves to the brink of oblivion in an attempt to forget the horrors of World War I.
There is an unforgettable shot of a bleary-eyed Helen Chandler holding a glass containing a set of false teeth she is “looking after” whilst their owner settles a score outside. Another good film on the subject is ‘The Eagle and The Hawk’ (1933) in which Frederic March plays a pilot fighting not only the physical perils of the war but also the mental strains.
That film also starred Carole Lombard who tragically lost her life in a plane crash on her way to see her husband Clark Gable who was a B-17 gunner in World War II….there could well be a piece of work in that too.”
“The sculpture measures approximately 60 cm in height. The images you have are of the model before it has been cast in metal, in its clay form. I use an oil-based clay called ‘chavant’. This means you don’t have to worry about it drying out like the normal water-based clay, and you can achieve a much higher level of detail as the medium is harder – a bit like Plasticine for grown-ups. Once the mould has been made Tim will make a replica of the fence he is sitting on and then cast the figure in aluminium, sourced from the disused parts of World War II planes.”
” I very much like the idea of the material being so relevant to the subject matter of the piece and with the added interest of the sculpture being cast close to the airfield where James Stewart was stationed gives me great pleasure too. I have done my utmost to stay true to the uniform and accessories of the time by researching the boots, hats and binoculars etc.
When working from a photo you are limited to what the camera can see and small details are lost in the lighting or camera angle. It was important to me that I got those sorts of details correct though as I appreciate there are lots of people who still take a keen interest in every aspect of aviation from that era.”
“The next pictures we will see of the work will hopefully show it in its final aluminium form. The casting process is complicated and can be unpredictable so as Tim says, now we just have to “pray to the casting Gods”. I am hoping to cast a limited edition of 20 and exhibit them wherever there is interest – in the local area and perhaps further afield. I will keep you posted.”
“Oh gosh, here comes my lack of knowledge in this field again. In terms of a favourite aircraft I’m afraid the answer would be whichever one was going to take me to Southern Spain the fastest. As for an aviator it would have to be a close call between all the matinee idols who ever flew planes. Not only were they in uniform, they were actually doing a real-life heroes job (along with all the other pilots of course), herein lies the beauty of the James Stewart piece for me.”
“I love to fly, especially if I am going somewhere hot or somewhere I have yet to see. I can’t say I have any desire to be in the cockpit though. The closest I came to this was in a small 6-seater tourist plane which flew my father and I over the Grand Canyon by way of an electrical storm. I don’t think I need to go into details but I will say that I don’t remember the view.”
“Oh, and that reminds me of a much happier experience I had on the same trip, going onboard the private plane which belonged to Elvis Presley on the grounds of the Graceland Museum in Memphis.”
“The thing which impressed me most was not the throne he sat on in the main area which seemed to have enough buttons and controls on its armrest to actually fly the plane but the impossibly long seatbelt which circumnavigated his double bed at the other end!”
Hush-Kit believes that Fowler’s Stewart statue should be permanently displayed at Old Buckenham airfield……more to follow
Fowler is represented by Galerie DukanHourdequin (Paris). In 2008 she was nominated for the BP portrait Award with her portrait of Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta and in 2010 she was short-listed for the Jerwood Drawing Prize. Her work is admired and collected by luminaries such as JohnMaybury, Daniel Templon, Anne Faggionato and Jude Law. She is included in private and public collections in Europe, Asia and the USA.