Prussian immigrant Charles A.A. Dellschau spent most of his life in Houston working as a butcher; when he retired in 1899 at the age of 68, he turned his attention skywards and devoted himself to an entirely different endeavor: designing airships and charting the development of flight. For 23 years, he fervently produced almost 2,500 drawings of detailed, fantastical contraptions he compiled in at least 12 large, hand-bound manuscripts that remained in his family home for decades following his death in 1923. Today, the works are scattered between museums and private collections; 23 pages — all double-sided — are currently on view in Charles Dellschau (1830–1923): American Visionary at Stephen Romano Gallery, revealing the rich world of an aviation enthusiast who never flew himself but devoted decades to kindling boundless visions of flight.
Considered an outsider artist, the self-taught Dellschau focused solely on mechanics in his early works — hot air balloon-like vessels with quirky accoutrements like paddles, wheels, and pulleys are shown with great detail, at times with lengthy explanatory annotations. Overtime, though, his works incorporated more decoration such as striped borders and also gradually became more free-form and gestural. Many of his later, busier illustrations combine on butcher paper vivid watercolors of wondrous airships with cryptic symbols and collaged newspapers and magazines clippings he called “Press Blooms.” Fusing fancy with the reality of news stories and developments in politics and technology alike, his images captured the thrill surrounding the burgeoning age of experimental aviation at the time.
“By now it seems clear that Dellschau not only aspired to technological credibility but also wanted to convey the awesomeness and beauty of air travel,” author Roger Cardinal writes in an accompanying catalogue. “His interpolations are informative but are also an index of emotionality.”
Although only a draftsman of planes and never a pilot, Dellschau claimed to have been a member of a secret, California-based group of likeminded flight fanatics called the Sonora Aero Club, which was active in the 1850s. Researchers who have combed through historical documents and records have yet to definitively prove the existence of the club — which, according to Dellschau’s memoirs, met regularly to share and discuss members’ proposals for aircrafts of the future. Dellschau’s drawings, each meticulously numbered and dated, also often feature in the margins the names of members, whom he also depicted steering these machines or hanging out in their whimsical balconies, dining cars, and salons. Some individuals do correspond to actual people Dellschau would have encountered, but it is likely the Sonoro Aero Club, like Dellschau’s own drawings, fused truths and his vast imagination.
As whimsical as some of these contraptions appear — especially rendered in such striking colors — they are rooted in Dellschau’s keen following of the serious ongoings in the real world of aeronautics that stretched beyond his isolated drawing room. The particular paper clippings he chose from Houston Daily Post, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and Scientific American show he was up-to-date with the latest relevant inventions, looked up to aviators from the Wright Brothers to Louis Paulhan, and followed events from landmark journeys to aerial accidents to air races. Many of his drawings, for instance, combine parts of hot air balloons, biplanes, and zeppelins — crafts that underwent much tinkling and testing while he was alive.
Dellschau, too, appears in these scenes: in the labelled Plate 4714, titled “Wind 1845 Muehl Berg” (1920), he depicts himself as a child, guiding one of the earliest forms of flying machines: a kite. Although he created these frenzied visuals only towards the end of his life, this inclusion of the past suggests that the obsession was life-long — that he grew up with a vision of the future, surrounded by mankind’s increasing mastery of the skies, and dreamed about it to the very end of his days.
Charles A.A. Dellschau (1830–1923): American Visionary continues at Stephen Romano Gallery (117 Grattan Street, Suite 112, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through January 30.