YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Flight Inspires Historic Cast

A Santa Clarita artist's statue of the Wright brothers will highlight Dayton, Ohio's centennial celebration of their 1903 feat.

November 14, 2002|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Mark Henn grew up listening to stories about aviation pioneers and hometown heroes Orville and Wilbur Wright. Awed by tales of the brothers' first manned flight, Henn let his imagination soar every time he looked at an old photograph his grandfather had taken with Orville.

So when the 44-year-old Santa Clarita artist began sculpting a few years ago, he knew instantly who would be among his first subjects: the Wright brothers. Henn's small bronze sculpture depicts the two men animatedly discussing the intricacies of steering their new flying machine.

What happened next would forever link Henn with his boyhood idols. After viewing his 14-inch sculpture, the organizers of Dayton's upcoming celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., asked Henn to do a larger piece.

The result is a 1,000-pound, life-size monument of the one-time bicycle mechanics who would transform the world with their great engineering feat. This week, the statue will be shipped to the Dayton Art Institute, where it will be publicly unveiled Nov. 20.

The sculpture will be on display at the museum until a scheduled three-week July celebration, Inventing Flight: Dayton 2003, gets underway at Deeds Park near downtown. At that time, the work will be moved to the park, where it will remain on permanent display.

"Daytonians don't get a chance very often to celebrate their achievements, and when they do have those opportunities, many times they don't because they are so humble," said William J. Roess, who is one of the event's chief organizers.

"We are so proud of the Wright brothers and their accomplishments," he added. "This sculpture is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Dayton."

Although he declined to say what Henn was paid for his work, Roess said "it was largely donated by Mark."

As he polished the bronze sculpture and prepared it for shipment earlier this month, Henn reflected on his creation and its significance to his hometown, his family and aviation history.

"People in Dayton are going to walk up to it and put their arms around it and have their picture taken," said Henn, who makes his living as a Walt Disney Co. animator. "This is quite an honor."

His detailed sculpture is a tribute to the Wright brothers' ingenuity.

It depicts Wilbur, dressed in a three-piece suit, his hands raised, as he explains to Orville his theory of "wing warping," which occurs when a pilot adjusts the angle of a plane's wing -- much like a rudder -- to control the pitch and roll of an aircraft.

With his bowler hat pushed back on his head, Orville listens intently as he twists the ends of a small cardboard box, simulating how each wing of an aircraft would change position in relation to the wind.

"Twisting the wings was the answer they had been looking for," Henn said. "This was their breakthrough."

When Henn's parents saw the miniature statue, they were so impressed that they went about promoting it as a public arts project.

"My parents, who still live in Dayton, got in touch with the Inventing Flight Committee and told them about the sculpture," Henn said. The committee then contacted him.

Creating a larger version of the piece posed a few challenges for Henn. He relied on physical descriptions of the brothers' height and weight and recalculated the amount of wire, clay and bronze needed to make the free-standing statue.

Sometimes when he was unsure of an exact dimension, Henn said, he just eyed the piece from a distance to see if it looked right. "I played it by ear a lot. I didn't want to be too technical. I wanted to keep things loose."

He worked on the piece in his home studio at night and on weekends beginning in December. He meticulously chiseled Wilbur's cleft chin, sidelong glance and upraised hands.

Then, he turned his attention to Orville. Henn carefully crafted the bicycle inner tube box the younger brother holds, as well as his slightly furrowed eyebrows and thick mustache.

He carved the brothers' signatures and the dates 1903-2003 into the base before finishing the artwork in April.

The clay sculpture was packed and trucked to Sun Foundry in Burbank in June to be cast in bronze. The foundry workers were impressed.

"This is the most beautiful piece we've done," said owner Kenneth F. Kalbfleish Sr. "This was quite an opportunity for us to memorialize an event so important to the growth of aviation."

Los Angeles Times Articles