Let’s talk about art, humans. All the humans. Louder now. Help me out. – Wolfram F. Niessen, John Cullen Nugent and the life-size aluminum alloy sculptures of whooping cranes created for Regina Municipal Airport

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One of the two life-size aluminum alloy sculptures of whooping cranes created by Wolfram F. Niessen for Regina Municipal Airport, Regina, Saskatchewan. Anon., “Regina Honors the Whooping Crane.” The Ottawa Citizen, Weekend Magazine, 18 November 1961, 38.

Let us indeed talk (read?) about art, airport art to be more precise, my reading friend.

When the Second World War came to an end, in 1945, the terminal buildings of Canada’s largest airports were by no means huge buildings. Indeed, one could argue they looked a lot, and felt a lot, like bus depots. As the accumulated desire of passengers to travel was released, these terminal buildings became busier and busier. In 1946, approximately 837 000 people travelled by air in Canada. By 1956, approximately 3 924 000 people did the same – an increase of about 16.7 % a year. Understandably enough, Canada’s airport terminals quickly became inadequate. They were deemed to be antiquated, disgraceful and / or embarrassing.

As a result, Canada’s Department of Transport (DOT) launched an airport terminal building project in the mid-1950s. Said project led to the inauguration, between 1958 and 1968, of 8, I think, large buildings of this type located in large airports in Alberta (Edmonton), British Columbia (Vancouver), Manitoba (Winnipeg), Newfoundland (Gander), Nova Scotia (Halifax), Ontario (Ottawa and Toronto) and Québec (Montréal). No less than 14 mid-size buildings were constructed in 14 mid-size airports.

And yes, the National Aviation Museum, as the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, was called when it opened its doors in October 1960, a happy event commemorated in an October 2020 issue of our absolutely banger blog / bulletin / thingee, could be found in the terminal building of Uplands Airport, near Ottawa, but I digress.

The management of DOT made sure the 22 new terminal buildings completed during the 1950s and 1960s would not be antiquated, disgraceful and / or embarrassing. Indeed, each of them was designed by local architect firms, under the supervised of DOT’s chief architect between 1952 and 1967, William Alexander “Alex” Ramsay, as complete International Style packages which would raise the reputation of Canadian airports both at home and abroad. Each terminal building package included distinct contemporary design furniture and commissioned works of art work developed in conjunction with the look and feel of said building. One could argue that the goal of the airport terminal building project was to portray Canada as a modern, sophisticated and united yet diverse country.

Would you believe that part of Ramsay’s personal archives is with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum? Would I lie to you, my reading friend? Come on, answer the question.

From the looks of it, half of one percent of the construction costs of the airport terminals was allocated to these works of art. Said works were produced by well-known Canadian artists.

Sadly enough, at the time, some people expressed displeasure at the idea that taxpayer money had been used to acquire works of art when many rural communities lacked such practical necessities of life as roads and airstrips. Other people expressed displeasures at the idea that taxpayer money had been used to acquire abstract works of art. Sigh.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of similar people, such opinions might perhaps bring to mind 78 words from the world-famous 1943 novella The Little Prince by Count Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry:

I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: ‘I am busy with matters of consequence!’ And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man – he is a mushroom!

One could argue that the airport terminal building project came as a consequence of the ground breaking 1951 report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, also / better known as the Massey Commission, after its commissioner, Charles Vincent Massey, a gentleman mentioned in a May 2019 and October 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Other consequences of the Massey Commission included the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, the founding of the National Library of Canada, today’s Library and Archives Canada, the preservation of Canada’s historic places, and the transfer of federal moolah to Canadian universities.

And yes, in 1951-52, parroting his usual provincial autonomy routine, sorry, sorry, ever watchful in his defence of said autonomy against the evilness of the federal government, the Premier of Québec, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, a person mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018, formally prohibited the management of Québec’s universities from resorting to said moolah for the management of their institutions. This situation changed only after the death of the blue boss, in September 1959, and the defeat of his party in the June 1960 general election.

Before I forget, it was / is all too true that the Massey Commission’s interest in refinement and taste was a tad elitist. It was equally true it had precious little to say about the preservation and promotion of Indigenous art and culture. This being said (typed?), its report was / is / will continue to be a landmark moment in the cultural history of Canada.

One of the consequences of the Massey Commission was the magnificent and huge nonfigurative / abstract mural which adorned the walls of the main terminal at Winnipeg International Airport between 1964 and 2011. Known as Northern Lights, it was designed by well known Canadian artist John Graham.

Despite strenuous efforts by art lovers and other people, Winnipeg Airports Authority Incorporated seemingly did not see the need to install Northern Lights in the new terminal building officially opened in October 2011. The municipal authorities were seemingly by and large equally indifferent. Dare one ask if the people involved in these decisions were red-faced gentlemen? You might but I will not.

In the end, Graham’s epoch-making mural was donated to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (Hello, MMcC!), where it was / is stored.

As fascinating as Northern Lights was, is and will be, the work of aeronautical public art I would like to bring to your attention today hailed from Regina, Saskatchewan. It was on display in the sculpture court of Regina International Airport.

Said work of art was comprised of a pair of life-size aluminium alloy whooping cranes, one of them in flight and the other in the process of taking off.

When Europeans launched their devastating (genocidal?) invasion of the Americas, in the 1490s, the whooping crane, one of two species of cranes native to North America and the tallest (up to 1.6 m (5.25 feet)) bird on the continent, could be found across North America. As of 2021, barely 600 of these magnificent beings, either wild or captive, were still sharing the Earth’s biosphere with us.

Why did the whooping crane almost go extinct, you ask, my reading friend? Just look in a mirror. Homo sapiens took over much of its habitat. Not only that, but our species also mercilessly hunted whooping cranes for their meat and feathers. More red-faced gentlemen perhaps? Sorry.

A successful Canadian sculptor, the late William Ayton “Bill” Lishman, also known as “Father Goose,” pioneered the use of ultralight aircraft to guide young birds during their first migration flight, in the hope of reintroducing endangered species to their former habitat. The world’s first guided migration flight was made by Lishman, a colleague and 18 Canada geese, in October 1993, between Ontario and Virginia. This successful and well publicised journey and media event led to the formation of Operation Migration, a registered charity, in 1994. Ultralight aircraft were later used to lead trumpeter swans and whooping cranes.

Lishman’s activities inspired the filming of Fly Away Home. The world premiere of this very popular award-winning American family movie with stunning images of Canada geese in flight took place at the Toronto International Film Festival, in September 1996.

And yes, Lishman was mentioned in April and July 2019 issues of our you know what. Better yet, the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes 2 ultralight aircraft used by this gentleman, who was certainly not a mushroom: a seriously modified American-designed Ultralight Flying Machines Easy Riser, one of the first widely available ultralight aircraft and the very machine Lishman used during his early experiments, and a French-designed Cosmos Écho made up from a wing and a nacelle of the 2 ultralight aircraft used for the world’s first guided migration flight, mentioned above.

Even though the name of well-known Canadian sculptor and educator John Cullen Nugent was / is often / usually associated with the aluminum alloy whooping cranes, these sculptures were in fact created by a Regina naturalist and sculptor, Wolfram F. Niessen, who worked as an exhibit artist at the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, in Regina, an institution known in 2021 as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

The design of the sculptures was based on a concept developed by a Regina professional interior decorator. An interior design graduate (1946) of the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, … Manitoba, and a lecturer there for some time, Elizabeth Victoria “Betty” Gillespie, born Elizabeth Victoria “Betty” Spence, in Regina, saw said concept as a symbolisation of the intersection of the east-west routes of Canada’s main airlines and the great north-south bird migration routes followed by, among other species, the whooping crane.

If truth be told, Gillespie / Spence chose the whooping crane for her concept because of their beauty, power, rarity and uniqueness. In 1961, less than 40 (!) wild whooping cranes were still sharing the Earth’s biosphere with us.

The information used by Gillespie / Spence to prepare said concept was provided by Fred G. Baird, Junior, a whooping crane expert who was also the director of the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History.

The project caught the eye of the local Member of Parliament early on. As a member of the party in power, Kenneth Hamill “Ken” More facilitated things.

And no, neither Niessen nor Gillespie / Spence were mentioned in the article found in the 18 November 1961 issue of the Weekend Magazine of the daily The Ottawa Citizen at the heart of this week’s issue of our you know what.

Indeed, Niessen’s name was nowhere to be seen on the plaque which identified the work of art he had created. The only name on said plaque was Gillespie’s. Niessen was understandably disappointed. Nugent felt that Niessen’s contribution should have been recognised. The director of the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery, a Regina art museum affiliated with Regina College, as today’s University of Regina was called back then, well known abstract artist and teacher Ronald Langley Bloore, was shocked to see on the plaque the name of Gillespie, who was no more than the contractor for the project, but not that of the artist.

Gillespie’s explanation was that Niessen had chosen for some reason or other not to sign his sculptures. She had offered the plaque to Regina Municipal Airport, as the airport was called back then, to provide an explanation of what said sculptures were all about.

The actual production of the aluminium alloy whooping cranes took almost a year. Niessen began this process by modelling the birds in plaster of Paris over a steel frame. These plaster birds were then transferred into wax. Niessen retouched these wax birds before moving them to the St. Mark’s Shop lost wax foundry in Lumsden, Saskatchewan – an establishment unique to Canada whose operator was, you guessed it, none other than Nugent. Would you believe that Niessen’s cranes may, I repeat may, have been the first work of art produced by St. Mark’s Shop?

The aluminum alloy whooping cranes may have gone on display in April 1961.

Born in Krefeld, Germany, in August 1923, Niessen seemingly emigrated to Canada in the early 1950s. Indeed, in 1954, he sculpted one of the 5 plaques depicting the history of the telephone which decorate the building of the Saskatchewan Government Telephones crown corporation, today’s Saskatchewan Telecommunications Holding Corporation, or SaskTel, in Regina. Niessen’s sculpture depicted Alexander Graham Bell talking to his assistant, Thomas Watson, during what could be described as the world’s first telephone call, in March 1876, in Boston, Massachusetts.

And no, Bell was never a Canadian. He was a Scot, in other words a British subject, who became a naturalised United States citizen in 1882. At the time, any person born or naturalised in Canada was also a British subject.

By 1958, Niessen was an instructor at Regina College. He obtained a master’s degree in fine arts from Michigan State University in 1963. By then, he was apparently a display / exhibit artist at the Michigan State University Museum. Niessen taught at the University of Regina, in… Regina, in the early 1960s, before moving to the University of Wisconsin-Stout, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, in 1964. He taught at Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, Michigan, during the 1970s.

Known (legally?) at the time as Ben Monte Auburn Lancaster, Niessen passed away in September 2004, at the age of 81. “Betty” Gillespie, on the other hand, left this world in September 1996. She was 71 years old. Nugent, finally, passed away in March 2014, at the age of 93.

Yours truly would be delighted to inform you that Niessen’s whooping cranes were still on display at Regina International Airport. Sadly enough, this is not the case. The sculptures disappeared at some point, possibly during a mid-1980s renovation. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

Unfortunately, none of 22 aforementioned terminal buildings completed in the 1950s and 1960s remained complete as of 2021. Indeed, few of them still exist. To use words spoken quite often by a late volunteer at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, sic transit gloria mundi.


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Rénald Fortier