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Flying Circus

Two Artists’ Planes Collide to Create a Dynamic Alloy of Sculpture and Performance

Michael Northrup
FLYOVER STATE: Mara Neimanis (above) and Laura Shults bring Amelia Earhart back to life in their collaboration Air Heart.

By Anne Howard | Posted 2/1/2006

Air Heart runs Feb. 2-4 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. Flight runs through Feb. 18. For more information visit

Eight years ago, Mara Neimanis was staying in a tepee with a Sufi clown family in Israel, where she had previously spent six years studying “the spiritually centered, the poetic side of the clown.” One night she dreamed of Bill Clinton and trapezes. “I was in love with Bill,” she remembers, her voice acquiring a melodramatic lilt. “We stood on a big platform in the sky and I clapped my hands, and we looked out and there were all these children flying on trapezes.”

Thus began Neimanis’ fascination with flight. She packed up her life in Israel, moved to San Francisco, and began training under a then-68-year-old trapeze revolutionary named Terry Sendgraff.

A sometime clown, mime, actor, trapeze artist, and circus-school student, Neimanis has reinvented herself as Amelia Earhart for Air Heart, a collaborative show with fellow Creative Alliance resident artist Laura Shults. Neimanis’ curls, newly cropped and newly blond, spring out from under her black flying cap; she is also clad in the classic aviatrix uniform of jodhpurs, jacket, and boots. Her strong-boned face actually resembles Earhart’s a little, but Neimanis’ eyes—round, expressive, stunningly lichen-blue—are nothing like Earhart’s dark slits, so often sun-squinting for photo ops on the tarmac.

Her dream of a celestial romance with the president, her rigorous training with a dance-influenced aerial artist, and her theater background—she studied and taught at the well-known Dell’Arte School of California for 10 years—culminated in a new type of stage work of her own creation: aerial theater. “I started helping [Sendgraff] write scripts for action rather than just movement,” Neimanis says. “And I developed a body that did different things than what most actors’ do.”

For Air Heart, in which she performs her aerial theater on Shults’ 12-foot metal sculpture of Earhart’s plane, Electra, “I wanted to get her language first and foremost,” Neimanis says. “Then I started building a [physical] vocabulary: This is the way Amelia gets in the plane. It’s not the usual way you get in a plane, but this is how she does it. And this is the way she flies. So, hopefully, the audience will, like, buy that.”

The poor acoustics of the gallery, where Neimanis rehearses, render the accompanying sound effects of radio-muffled voices fully incomprehensible. Neimanis settles into the cockpit of her Electra, slowly miming the movements of flying a plane, pulling levers, adjusting dials. Suddenly, disaster strikes as the radio voices become frantic and the ethereal music swells and Neimanis tumbles upside-down, her head jutting out underneath the nose of the plane; her rigid body, arrow-shaped, points downward as Amelia crashes, and the sculpture drowsily spins.

Earhart doesn’t die this time. Neimanis jumps off and moves seamlessly into a poetic body narrative, then back into Amelia, who recites a fictional letter, interspersed with actual quotations, to Eleanor Roosevelt. “I’m getting too old,” she says with a smile out of the side of her mouth. “I want to make way for the younger generation before I’m feeble, too.”

Neimanis grew up near the Canadian border in way-upstate New York. After attending college at Niagara University, a small Catholic school—you get the unmistakable impression that the gregarious Neimanis was not well cut out for the repression of small-town life and Hail Marys—she moved to Israel in the early 1980s.

After six years there, she came home to New York and bounced around over the years: California, back to Israel, back to California, teaching and studying every kind of physical theater along the way. She bartered aerial work for advertising and eggs, wrote and performed aerial theater pieces (including one in which she starred as “basket flying all over the world”), became the first white woman to win a Native Cultures Fund grant, taught trapeze to the oldest living member of the Yurok tribe, and eventually developed “kind of a cult following, you could say,” she says.

Neimanis came to Towson University for graduate school in 2003 and a year later moved into the Creative Alliance. “I’ve been the only performing artist here,” she says. “They’ve never had one before, so when I first moved in I didn’t know where I fit. I didn’t have any idea how I was going to be with these visual artists. When [Air Heart] happened, I thought, Ah! I’m one of them.

Laura Shults lets the lively Neimanis do much of the talking. She nods, offering a few words of clarification here and there. Whereas Neimanis’ artistic energy is clearly theatrical and for an audience, Shults comes off mellow and quietly confident, an artist sans mood swings. Blond and lanky with a voice that tends to rise at the end of a sentence as though her statements were questions, at first glance she could pass easily for a MICA freshman.

Shults actually completed her master’s of fine arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004 and was accepted as a resident artist at Creative Alliance the same year. Originally from Hornell, N.Y., a tiny railroad town not far from Neimanis’ childhood home, Shults arrived at Ohio’s Kenyon College unsure what she would study. “I was always told as a child that I was an artist,” she says. “It took me a while to find sculpture, but once I did I just grabbed onto it.”

After graduating she worked a series of odd jobs: a shop tech in Ohio, assistant to a San Francisco “street-fair artist” calling himself Dan das Mann who was “really big into the Burning Man scene,” a bike messenger and art teacher to autistic adults in San Rafael, Calif.—all within one year. She entered MICA in 2002.

Shults’ combination of almost-scientific interest in aviation and quirky sense of humor is as unexpected as her juxtaposition of fresh-faced artist and serious sculptor. “A lot of my stuff is kind of toylike,” she says. “It always has kind of an element of humor and function at the same time.”

Two of Shults’ planes in Flight, her half of the exhibit, are wired so that their tiny, useless propellers rotate diligently, striving for liftoff like Little Engines That Can’t. Shults creates fleets of aircraft, each one miniaturized, a perfect fit for a pug or squirrel.

The fluffy, cartoonish clouds drifting along the walls of the gallery are made of polyfiber, an industrial aircraft material, stretched over a frame. One of her pieces is entirely covered in brightly colored maps. She nonchalantly identifies a clear, latex, inflatable plane as “Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet.” It’s a curious mix of seriousness and goofiness, and Shults stays pretty poker-faced.

“It was kind of a logical step to get into planes, it was where my work was going,” she explains. “My first year at grad school I’d been making rockets—so [planes were] kind of a silly jump, but it made sense to me at the time.”

She was still interested in flight when she arrived at Creative Alliance. “I’d go to the library all the time,” she says. “I’d pick through which planes I’d like—mostly vintage. I did about six [tracings], painted them with nail polish, and hung them up outside for Open Studios,” an event at Creative Alliance for the resident artists. Don Cook, a longtime Creative Alliance artist, noticed Shults’ work and asked if she was trying to “resurrect” Amelia Earhart.

Cook created a small artwork in response to the nail-polish planes. “When Don came out with the installation I thought about Electra, and Laura’s planes totally clicked in,” Neimanis says. “This woman thinks about flight in a very different way than I do, but clearly, she thinks a lot about it.”

“One of the main things that we’re able to do for the resident artists is commit to doing a significant project with each of them,” says Jed Dodds, artistic director at Creative Alliance. “These are kind of their individual projects, and it just worked out so nicely the way they came together. It was really Electra. That’s the point where they converge.”

“I’d never really done anything like this, built something big enough to support someone, so there were certain engineering things and weight issues that I wasn’t so sure about,” Shults says. “Tim [Scofield, MICA sculpture professor] came aboard and helped us do the technical aspects of the plane.”

Built in eight days in August 2005, Electra came home to the Patterson, where Neimanis began choreographing her aerial piece. “I really wanted the plane to tell me” what to do, she says. “It’s important to listen to the apparatus. I was just looking, thinking, Can I fit through? And I got stuck many times. I started moving the phone really close by.” Neimanis researched and wrote her script using bits of old articles and letters to create the narrative structure, filling in the rest with her own imagination.

This Electra is a net of dark metal, like the clean bones of a burned-out or rusted-out plane. Both artists speak of the sculpture as able to shift personalities depending on the lighting or Neimanis’ performance. “[Electra] will look like a toy, like a plane, like a trap, like a menacing thing,” Neimanis says. “So I want to give all those values and help people see the sculpture . . . ”

“Give it life,” Shults suggests.

“It does change its identity. It gets really vicious sometimes. It gets really industrial,” Neimanis adds. “The show’s going to be really slick.”

The Amelia of the performance likewise splinters into multiple personae. “Amelia was a lady who was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas—a very simple lady in many respects,” Neimanis says. “There’s this enormous juxtaposition of celebrity/Kansas. There is a private Amelia and a public Amelia in the show.”

Neimanis, mime training notwithstanding, is a wholly entertaining performer, capable of subtlety in both facial and body expressions. At one point, Neimanis’ Amelia shifts almost imperceptibly—a real feat in the often overwrought genre of performance art and one-man-shows—from fury to contempt to determination as she responds to a male critic.

“What I saw in Amelia’s life is that she really was quite obsessed,” Neimanis says. “Someone who had to talk so much about flying but didn’t have a whole lot of time to fly, someone who did this major thing like a transglobal flight but wasn’t exactly prepared.

“There are lots of reports that she wasn’t in her ‘right mind’ before she left,” she continues, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “I know she’s a real popular person, but there are a couple things about her that are very dubious in my mind. But it’s great for the drama of the piece. I mean, she was very much a freak. I want her to be a 1930s bad-ass.”

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