Inside the artist’s studio: Leslie Payne

Leslie Payne never called himself an artist. Nor did he call his airplanes, whirligigs, or ships works of art. Today however, his artwork, what he called “imitations,” stand as an important part of the museum’s collection, his machine shop akin to a studio where he once created his artwork.


Leslie Payne's "Airplane Machine Shop Company."
Leslie Payne’s “Airplane Machine Shop Company.”

In 1918 Leslie Payne, then a small boy, attended an airshow in Northumberland County, Virginia that would serve as inspiration for rest of his life.  The World War I biplanes were so captivating to him that in the 1960s, he began making replicas or “imitations” of the planes on his farm.  By the 1970s, Leslie Payne had turned his yard into a makeshift airstrip, with several aircrafts, whirligigs, instrument towers, and the airplane machine shop seen above. He constructed each plane carefully, using plans and patterns for the struts and wings of each fifteen foot aircraft.  The planes were made of found objects, like sheet metal, spare canvas, and remnants of old house appliances.  One plane even had an engine which allowed Leslie Payne, dressed in his aviation suite and goggles, to drive women on fantasy flights around the farm and up the nearby roads.  He would even document the trips in his homemade flight log.

Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop
Leslie Payne in front of his machine shop

Leslie Payne was not a traditional artist.  You will not find brushes and stacks of stretched canvas in his Airplane Machine Shop, no easel or palette knife.  You will find paint in greased cans, coils of wire, wheels, chains, and hammers amidst screws and bolts, stacks of rusted metal on a work table and floor.  In the 1970s, you could find Leslie Payne in his studio, not wearing a smock but an aviation suit and goggles, tool belt hung around his waist. Though now the machine shop is rust-covered, it remains a testament to the artist’s working method.  His motto, “Safety First: Tak no chances” is outlined on a piece of scrap sheet metal at the front.   Propellers and whirligigs mark his unending interest in aviation, the major inspiration in his body of work.  There are divider note cards and rubber stampers illustrating his meticulous record-keeping; for each faux-flight Payne would ask the girl to type a flight plan on an index card, to be time and date-stamped and filed. The flag represents the patriotic theme carried through all of his pieces, which were decorated in stars and stripes.  In this way, the airplane machine shop is his studio, and it’s preservation in the collection allows us a glimpse into his world, the world of the Airplane Payne.

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