Nevermore Park was the last time the public was able to walk through an environment imbued with the essence of the iconic aviator-goggle-sporting youth called “Flyboy.” Until this week, when the creation of Hebru Brantley found a new home within the Art Studio space at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.
Numerous visas of Flyboy in flight don the walls within the studio and Kirby’s Clubhouse sits right outside the studio doors. Scaled just for children, the space and studio offer inspiration and supplies to make, tell and display their own stories within it. Bold colors, large-scale two-dimensional art featuring Flyboy, 3D clouds, vintage toys and playing objects are embedded in the structure to offer a sense of nostalgia for the older set.
And then there’s the 16-foot sculpture of Flyboy that looks southward in a power stance on Navy Pier’s south dock. Called “The Great Debate,” the public art installation greets visitors before they enter the museum; The statue was dedicated by Brantley on May 7.
Brantley said his character represents hope, togetherness and potential over power — something “we all need right now.”
“A lot of people don’t know, but I helped put myself through college by working at Navy Pier every year,” 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 Chicago Children’s Museum and made possible as a gift from Thad Wong and Emily Sachs Wong of @Properties. Their gift of nearly $1 million made the Flyboy space a reality.
Brantley said thinking about Nevermore’s effect on youth — watching kids experience joy, talking with Chicago Public School arts teachers and receiving images from kids after going through it — was a reason to create an extension of Flyboy at Navy Pier. He said it just “felt right.”
“The biggest thing is allowing kids to create in a space that feels creative,” Brantley said. “That’s one of the missions. These images are things that kids really gravitate toward, in a real way.”
Brantley mentioned that he had been tagged in so many posts — of fans posing next to the fabricated “Flyboy” on the outside of the museum, he was tempted to repost, but held on until the dedication ceremony. “To be able to have these moments where I can bring this character into new spaces and really push the intention is always a good opportunity,” he said.
Thad Wong, a fan of Brantley’s work, said the idea of a Flyboy statue was a seed planted years ago. And everything came full circle as a board member.
“It was always a dream of mine only because when it comes to Flyboy and the history of Flyboy — he/she/they was born and raised in Chicago, Hebru was born and raised in Chicago. And he worked at Navy Pier through college,” Thad Wong said. “In essence Flyboy is the mascot of Chicago or what you want it to be — symbolism of childhood and youth, divinity, imagination, freedom, flexibility, flight. The intention was to be such a welcoming symbol that every kid, no matter where they’re from, whatever they look like, whoever they are, felt like, ‘I belong here.’ I’m happy to see that it manifested finally.”
Chicago Children’s Museum President and CEO Jennifer Farrington said there wasn’t another option to do the Art Studio space other than Hebru.
“Children walk up to it, look and they intuitively assume the pose — the power pose,” she said. “We could not be happier with it. It’s here at least 10 years and we hope many more.”
Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Erin Harkey said Brantley’s characters have forever changed the city’s art landscape. At the dedication, she said the city is proud to call Brantley “one of our own.”
“Being able to ideate in a space is super important, it’s hyper crucial,” Brantley said, recalling the lack of such spaces when he was growing up in Chicago. “My imagination really blossomed in that space. I’m a 40-year-old man now and I still act like a 12-year-old kid a lot of times. It’s that youthful expression that I feel is extremely important — to be able to have reflections of that in this space is extremely important.”
When asked about more statues of Flyboy in Chicago, Brantley said he’s working on it.
“The brother to this one is in Battery Park in New York. It’s all black,” Brantley said. “This one is full color; this one means the most because it’s in my hometown.”