For local artist Elaine Balsley, her love for creating paintings and sketches of aircraft and the people who flew them was birthed by her pilot father and an uncle killed in World War II that she never knew.
“My dad taught light plane flying when I was a kid,” she said. “He’d take me up and sometimes let me fly the plane, but later on I couldn’t afford to become a pilot or get a pilot’s license. Back then lessons were $20 a hour.”
She said her father would sometimes take her and her cousin up in what she described as “one of those little tail-dragger planes” from a rough grass runway near their home in Pittsburgh, treating the children securely strapped into the rear seat to loops, barrel rolls, stalls, and barnstorming their neighbor’s homes while waving the wings.
Of course, she said, this was before all the restrictions and regulations that are in place today.
Later in life, she said that while employed in the logistics area of the Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, her commanding officer recommended she submit some of her art to the Pentagon-based Air Force Art Program, which began in 1950 as a means of telling the story of the newest branch of the armed services through the medium of art.
She said one thing that sparked her interest in painting vintage aircraft was visiting the Valkyrie Café at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which she said she would visit occasionally for lunch and is literally lined with paintings of aircraft on display, including a large mural on one wall of the one-of-a-kind prototype XB-70 Valkyrie bomber.
In 2008, she donated an acrylic painting to the Air Force program of the engine cowling and propeller of a Seversky P-35 that she created from a photograph taken at the museum, which according to information there was the first single-seat fighter plane to feature all-metal construction, retractable landing gear and an enclosed cockpit.
Officials from the Air Force accepted her and other artists’ creations at a formal dinner and ceremony she was invited to attend that fall at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C.
She loaned additional paintings and sketches in 2010 and 2013 to the Air Force and some are currently hanging in the Air Force Materiel Command Headquarters Building in Dayton, she said, with one in particular that depicts a full view of the entrance to the building hanging in the Command Section.
Balsley and her Orchard View studio are well-known throughout the region for art classes for budding artists held there and at White Fence Gallery in Washington C.H., and for her original arts and craft creations along with home accents like those available at the recent Cabin Fever Arts Festival held at Southern State Community College.
She said she was the guest artist late last year at the internationally known Thompson House Gallery in Georgetown, home to John Ruthven’s works, and will also be at that village’s bicentennial celebration June 21-22.
The accomplished artist said for the past few years she has been exchanging her brush for a word processor to paint the story of an uncle she never knew, but who in some ways she felt allows her to continue his dream.
She said her book will be about William James McQuoid Jr., or Billy, as he was known to his friends, who had been accepted to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie Mellon University, during the 1940s to study fine arts.
“I got to know him through the letters he sent to my mother and my aunt, which were kept safe by them over the years,” she said. “But he left college to join the Army Air Corps to fight for our country.”
She said before entering military service he was already quite the artist and possesses the only surviving example of his skills, a watercolor painting, which hangs in her home.
McQuoid became a B-17 Flying Fortress tail gunner and, according to americanairmuseum.com, the website for the American Air Museum in Britain, he was killed on a mission when his plane was shot down by enemy aircraft and crashed near Friedrichshafen, Germany, in 1944.
Although unable to confirm it officially, she said her mother once told her his plane had been named “Flak-Happy” by the 10-man crew.
“My mother and aunt were both artists,” she said, “and Billy mentioned he wanted to be one in his letters. I think that’s why I love art so much — I’m somehow continuing his dream.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.