Nevermore Park was the last time the public could stroll through an environment infused with the essence of the iconic young eyeglass-wearing aviator known as “Flyboy.” Until this week, when Hebru Brantley’s creation found a new home in the Chicago Children’s Museum’s Art Studio space at Navy Pier.
Numerous Flyboy faces in flight adorn the walls of the studio, and Kirby’s Clubhouse is right outside the studio doors. Designed just for kids, the space and studio provide inspiration and supplies to create, tell and display their own stories. Bright colors, large-scale two-dimensional artwork featuring Flyboy, 3D clouds, vintage toys, and playful objects are integrated into the structure to provide a sense of nostalgia for the older set.
And then there’s the 16-foot sculpture of Flyboy gazing south in a position of power on Navy Pier’s south pier. Called “Le Grand Débat”, the public art installation greets visitors before they enter the museum; the statue was dedicated by Brantley on May 7.
Brantley said her character represents hope, unity and empowerment over power – something “we all need right now”.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but I contributed to my college education by working every year at Navy Pier,” Brantley said at the dedication. “I couldn’t have asked for a better home for my first public statue in Chicago.”
The statue was commissioned by the Chicago Children’s Museum and made possible by a gift from Thad Wong and Emily Sachs Wong of @Properties. Their donation of almost a million dollars made the Flyboy space a reality.
Brantley said thinking about the effect of Nevermore on young people — watching children experience joy, talking with Chicago Public School art teachers, and receiving images of children after going through it — was a reason to create an extension of Flyboy at Navy Pier. He said it “felt good”.
“The most important thing is to allow kids to create in a space that feels creative,” Brantley said. “It’s one of the missions. These images are things that children really gravitate toward, in a real way.
Brantley mentioned he was tagged in so many posts – from fans posing next to the fabricated ‘Flyboy’ outside the museum he was tempted to repost, but held on until the groundbreaking ceremony . “Being able to have those moments where I can take this character into new spaces and really push the intent is always a good opportunity,” he said.
Thad Wong, a fan of Brantley’s work, said the idea for a Flyboy statue was a seed planted years ago. And it all came full circle as a board member.
“It’s always been a dream of mine only because when it comes to Flyboy and the story of Flyboy – he/she/they were born and raised in Chicago, Hebru was born and raised in Chicago. And he has worked at Navy Pier while in college,” Thad Wong said. “Flyboy is basically Chicago’s mascot or whatever you want it to be – the symbolism of childhood and youth, divinity, imagination , freedom, flexibility, flight. The intention was to be such a welcoming symbol that every child, no matter where they come from, what they look like, whoever they are, feels like, “I belong here. I’m glad to see he finally showed up.
Chicago Children’s Museum President and CEO Jennifer Farrington said there was no other option to create the Art Studio space than Hebru.
“Children walk up, stare, and intuitively strike the pose — the pose of power,” she said. “We couldn’t be happier with this. It’s here at least 10 years and we hope for many more.
Erin Harkey, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said Brantley’s characters forever changed the city’s artistic landscape. At the dedication, she said the city was proud to call Brantley “one of us.”
“Being able to ideate in a space is super important, it’s super crucial,” Brantley said, recalling the lack of such spaces growing up in Chicago. “My imagination really blossomed in this space. I’m a 40-year-old man now and still often act like a 12-year-old kid. It’s that expression of youth that I think is extremely important – being able to have reflections of that in this space is extremely important.
Asked about other Flyboy statues in Chicago, Brantley said he was working on them.
“This one’s brother is in Battery Park in New York. It’s all black,” Brantley said. “This one is in color; this one means the most because it’s in my hometown.