Wings and Canvas : Master Artist James Dietz at Air Venture 2015
When the EAA moved to Oshkosh from Hales Corner, they built a magnificent facility, a combination of an Air Museum with an Educational Center, opening in 1983. In all of the planning, someone thought that it may be a good idea to have an area dedicated to the artwork of aviation. Throughout history, art has documented man’s life and his achievements. In the case of aviation, there has been a lot of art produced. The EAA went as far as to promote aviation art; doing exhibitions and shows; and granting awards to those who achieve greatness in this medium.
Over the years, James Dietz has distinguished himself as a superlative artist. The EAA has seen fit to name him a “Master Artist” in 1992. They had several shows dedicated solely to his own work. Including the current exhibition “Wings and Canvas: the WWI Aviation Art of James Dietz” was produced by the “Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum”. This exhibition is currently in Oshkosh for the next few months. It was opened by Jim to a standing room only crowd of fans.
Still, Jim didn’t become a success without painting outstanding art that has won a long list of awards and has caught the attention of a longer list of corporate clients and private collectors. He was born in 1946, and unlike a lot of “Sunday Artists”, actually went to art school. He moved to Los Angeles and had a successful career painting automobile ads, book covers, and movie posters. One of his best known early works was a commission by Warner Brothers in 1978 to produce a portfolio of artwork for “Superman the Movie”. He even did a Star Wars oil painting for George Lucas, which would have to be the rarest of all Star Wars memorabilia. He moved to New York and expanded his career, and eventually settled in Seattle which is now home.
His work moved to WWI aviation where he could concentrate more on people. A lot of artists can paint airplanes (and also there are a lot who can’t paint airplanes), but painting people takes real talent. Look closely at some of the people in a Dietz painting, they really stand there and talk to you; you can see them interacting with each other, there is action going on at every corner of the canvas. Human involvement sets him apart from any other artist. Every time you look at a Dietz painting, you see something different and that’s what sets it apart from the rest.
Along with people there are two other elements that appear in his work. Strange as it may seem, they are cars and dogs. The cars come from his long association and love of automobiles. These are generally not simply “cars”; but great cars, some shown as commandeered for military use during a war. Jim can always explain in detail how and why he chose this particular vehicle to be parked on the airfield, or strategically placed on the canvas. Dogs also seem to show up in real war and Jim adds them in too. Of course he doesn’t pick any dog, he usually uses his current family pet. He has a style all his own and once you look at a few of his paintings, you can spot his work from across the room.
Jim has also painted WWII scenes, as well as modern combat. He found that military units wanted art to document their involvements in recent conflicts. Their members wanted to show their family and friends what they had been through. While Jim’s art isn’t cheap, it’s not really that expensive either and an organization can arrange to sell prints to pay for the original. That puts a lot of his art in places where it may not otherwise be seen.
Jim estimates that he has painted over 1000 canvases, which doesn’t include countless sketches used to study and compose his paintings. As with any good artist there is a backlog of work for him to do. There is a lot more to his work than simply slapping paint on canvas. He researches elements of each painting, uniforms, weapons, aircraft, etc. He also has reenactors wear the uniforms while he shoots reference pictures so he can show what the clothing looked like when someone was actually wearing it. He makes several very detailed sketches of the proposed painting. After Jim and his client “tweak” it to their liking, he sets to work. It takes about 6 weeks of painting to finish the canvas. When it is finally done, he paints his trademark DIETZ at the bottom.
Of course my first pieces of aviation art were from him. “Gone West” (WWI aviators at a fallen comrade’s grave) and “The Old Hand” (a tired WWI pilot posing with his plane after a mission). They still hang in my living room twenty five years after I bought the prints.
Dietz’s last major exhibit at the EAA was in 1998, it was a “one man show” consisting of his art alone. His latest painting at the time was called “Tough Day”, a somber rendition of German FW-190 pilots swapping stories near the end of the war. I had pretty much made up my mind to buy the original, but didn’t run it past the wife for her blessing. I was standing next to Patti Dietz as Jim gave his presentation. There was a question from the audience about how he painted it. The original sketches were there and as he explained the process, the next question was, is it for sale? Jim said that a German museum and an American collector were both interested in it. Well this is the EAA convention and there are a lot wealthy people in the audience and this man expressed an interest in “my” painting. I shouted out “I’ll take it” and pointed at the painting. I’m guessing that in the art world things are a bit more reserved , than my country auction style. There was dead silence. Everyone looked at me like I just stepped out of a flying saucer. You could hear a pin drop. Jim simply said, deadpan; “I think the American collector just bought it”. My wife liked it and put in the living room. I liked it enough that I commissioned Jim to paint a companion piece “Too Late in the Day” with radar equipped Me-262 night fighters to compliment it.
Jim travels a lot, and you may find him out in the field with an Army unit. For that matter the field may well be the desert or in europe. Some years back I was scheduled to be in Seattle, I called and asked if I could stop in. He said he was going to be in France for a couple weeks. Eating snails and guzzling French wine I thought; nope, researching, photographing, and sketching the country side for some new WWI paintings. Next time I’m up there I’ll plan it better to catch him at home. He takes WWI aviation seriously enough that he landed a cameo role in Peter Jackson’s movie King Kong. He was the pilot who shot King Kong off the Empire State Building. The role was a reward for counseling Jackson on the correct color schemes for the aircraft in the movie. No other aviation artist has shot a big ape off a building on the silver screen before.
You never seem to be able to get away from James Dietz. I’ve seen his originals hanging in the San Diego Air and Space Museum and countless other places. I was invited to Willis “Bill” Allen’s “Allen Airways Flying Museum” at Gillespie Field outside of San Diego a few years back. Honestly, it’s more a “man cave” with flying classic airplanes and real museum quality exhibits than a typical aviation museum. So I’m looking around and there is a Dietz original on the wall in the bar area. I snapped a photo and sent it to Jim and asked where I was. The response was quick and said “Bill Allen’s place”. As an example of the following Jim garners; Willis and Claudia Allen supported this exhibit with original art and aviation artifacts.
Driving to Oshkosh this year, we stopped at the Indianapolis Speedway Museum, as we walked around, my son said “Dad, there are two of Jim’s paintings”. Sure enough there were a pair of magnificent works of art, stealing attention from all the classic race cars. I’ve been all over America and I run into Jim’s work everywhere.
After Jim left the dedication of his exhibit, I hung around for a while, watching people look at the art. They looked at it a lot more intently, with more comments than they seemed to have with the real airplanes in the museum. The area was standing room only as people took in his work. They all looked like they enjoyed it. I know that feeling since I’ve enjoyed it myself.
You can reach the author Mark Hrutkay at TNMark1@GMail.Com. I’d like to thank James Dietz for sharing his valuable time for an interview; Dick Knapinski at the EAA for his assistance. I’d also like to thank Zach Baughman of the EAA for doing a magnificent job actually hanging all the art for the exhibit and getting it spaced perfectly, and level, it takes a lot of talent to do that. Thanks Zach.
Jim’s website is at http://www.jamesdietz.com/ and commissions are available.
A short video of the exhibit at the EAA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnOj4auO_H0