Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kim Ward: Artist brings history of flight in North Texas back to life at new airport

WICHITA FALLS, Texas - Kim Ward has been lost before in the dreamy haze of Monet — the luminescent emerald green ponds, the water lilies bobbing along like landing pads for dragonflies.

Her flights of fancy usually tend to Renoir, who celebrated beauty, and to Vermeer, master of light and shadow.

So it would seem unlikely that Ward, who often paints scenes of flowers and children, would delve like a dervish into the engineered, mechanical world of World War I era biplanes, airplane hangars, firetrucks and carrier pigeons.

Since July, Ward has lost herself in the bygone era of Call Field, the World War I training base that ushered in the history of flight in Wichita Falls decades before Sheppard Air Force Base would pick up that torch.

She is bringing that seemingly lost time and place to life in a monumental mural she’s painting as part of the Museum of North Texas History-sponsored “Jenny to Jet” exhibit at the new Wichita Falls Regional Airport, a $21 million, 52,000-square-foot facility that became operational Dec. 17.

Ward’s massive “Call Field: Pioneers of Flight” mural, a background for the exhibit, blankets two walls — one 55-by-20 feet and the other 22-by-20 feet.

It will be viewed by visitors through the wings of a 1916 Curtiss JN4-D Jenny biplane, representative of the planes in which pilots trained while stationed at Call Field. The plane and a Call Field Model T Ford troop carrier car rest in front of the mural, while across the way, a modern-day T-38 jet from Sheppard Air Force Base beckons.

The scene Ward is bringing to life is of a line of planes in front of half a dozen hangars. About three dozen planes hover in the wide, blue Texas sky overhead. A firetruck sits close by — “The Jennys would backfire all the time and start grass fires,” Ward said — along with a carrier pigeon coop in one corner.

The mural is so detailed and as historically accurate as Ward could get it that the artwork even includes a United States flag flying with 48 stars, since Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states back then.

Ward, who was born in Utah and lived in New Mexico before moving to Wichita Falls (though she has lived here longer than anywhere else), is known for painting two Mane Event horses. One of them is a Monet-inspired horse called “Claude” that sits in front of the Kemp Center for the Arts, and the other is on 10th Street. She also has painted murals in schools, a hospital and private homes.

“I do people and animals and flowers, trees, landscapes — things like that, but not vehicles,” Ward said Tuesday afternoon in front of the “Pioneers of Flight” mural.

She wasn’t daunted by the idea of painting something so different in subject matter from what she usually paints. “I’m up for a challenge.”

Ward didn’t really know much about Call Field before this project, which was commissioned by the history museum.

“I had never heard anything about the history of Call Field. I thought, ‘There was a flight school here?’ I didn’t believe it.”

Now Ward might be considered a historian when it comes to the World War I flight training base. She began her research in the summer, three months before starting the artwork in October.

“I went to the library. There isn’t a book on Call Field.”

She ended up at the Museum of North Texas History and the Wichita County Archives, speaking with museum Executive Director Charles Campbell and archivist Lita Watson, from whom she gathered a wealth of information. Her research led her to a site plan of Call Field and an old album of photographs she thinks made its way back to Wichita Falls from Missouri.

She photocopied and took photographs of many of the images, then arranged them in plastic sleeves in a binder. Many of the images she has taped to the mural as references for the artwork.

“They (the history museum) called me because I wanted to be historically accurate and had done the research,” she said. The museum had received several artists’ names from the Kemp Center for the Arts and Gallery Manager Gary Kingcade.

“I did lots of research on the buildings. It took two weeks just to figure out what the firetruck (in one of the photographs) was.”

It turned out to be an American LaFrance and dates to 1917.

“We were going over them (the photographs) with magnifying glasses. I was looking at the flight line and saw a really weird plane. Sure enough, it was definitely different. We realized the county archives had a picture of that exact plane.”

It ended up being a medical air ambulance rather than a military training aircraft.

“We find these gems that were overlooked,” Ward said excitedly.

In doing her research, she learned about homing pigeons, too. They can fly up to 60 miles per hour, she said. Pilots would take the pigeons up with them, and if the pilots had an accident or some other emergency and needed to get a message home, they would send the pigeons back with a note.

“The Germans would shoot the pigeons down,” she said. “So the (American) pilots would dye the pigeons black so the Germans wouldn’t shoot them.”

Ward cruised down Call Field Road, where there’s a structure of University Academy day care that was once a stable for the commander’s horse.

Ward, with her assistant John Zimmerman, who helped pencil in the mural images before painting began, researched World War I-era hangars by looking at one from the same era at Brooks Field in San Antonio.

The challenge in painting this mural, Ward said, has been painting on the textured walls of the new terminal and trying to step back and get the dimensions right, knowing that visitors will be viewing the work from a distance.

Ward has spent almost every day, 12 hours per day, working on the acrylic mural, though of late she has taken Sundays off.

She hopes to have the artwork finished sometime in late January. She has the grass and dirt to finish and needs to paint the people, as well.

“I originally wanted to get 34 men in the mural because 34 got killed here,” she said of those who died training at Call Field.

She wants to honor those men in the mural, those serving at Sheppard Air Force Base and in the end, Wichita Falls and the city’s flight history.

“It’s really an honor to do it. ... It will outlive me. I want to do a wonderful job with it. I want it to be nice; I want it to be beautiful.”

She added: “The airport is like the gem of Wichita Falls now. ... It’s a fabulous opportunity to show off Wichita Falls.”

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