Hebru Brantley’s aviator-goggle-wearing ‘Flyboy’ gets his own park, neo-futuristic art installation in Pilsen this fall.
What is it like creating a pop culture mainstay, an image whose iconic persona resonates on walls of buildings in your hometown, sits in celebrities’ homes, and is shown in art shows like Miami Beach’s Art Basel Chicago graffiti-artist-turned-painter Hebru Brantley learned the answer to those questions when his character “Flyboy” — the aviator-goggle-wearing kid — took off (literally and figuratively).
The 38-year-old “kid from the South Side of Chicago” introduced “Flyboy” to the world about seven or eight years ago, when he started incorporating the kids with goggles into his artwork. What started as someone sort of playing in the background or as part of an underpainting slowly built to characters with top billing, Brantley said.
Now, Flyboy will have an entire park named after him on the southwest side of Pilsen this fall. Nevermore Park’s almost 6,000-square-feet of space will house an interactive art installation that takes visitors into the fictional hometown of Flyboy and Lil Mama. The space will be a neo-futuristic take on Chicago — where black culture and heroes are at the forefront. The endeavor, a partnership with MWM Universe and Angry Hero, will be a ticketed experience with a limited run. The narrative-driven installation is about “that sense of childlike wonder, that sense of empowerment over power,” according to Brantley.
“That’s what a lot of this is about. It’s keeping that sense of wonder, holding on to it past the point of childhood into adulthood and passing that on to your children for generations to come,” he said.
Diana Williams, executive vice president of creative at Madison Wells Media Universe (MWMU), said don’t confuse this project with a gallery pop-up. She says it’s a space that will be pushing the idea of “art is for everyone” through a storytelling lens.
“We’ve been working with Hebru over the last year with the continuation of his art and we just came upon an idea on how we can bring his current fans into this world, a type of installation in which you can walk in and you can create your own story and feelings with the pieces that we have provided and the interactivity was a great way to introduce people to the world we’re building,” she said.
We talked with Brantley — a man with a brand, a fan of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'" Raphael, and artist of “The Watch,” a pop sculpture that pays homage to the African-American military aviators who fought in World War II — about what the space will entail and just how big the Flyboy Universe franchise will get. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: You mention narrative. What we’ll discover about Flyboy? Will Nevermore feature his origin story?
Brantley: Nevermore is a (fictional) area on the Southeast Side of Chicago that’s a bit overly stylized and hyper-embellished, and that’s the stomping ground of our main characters and that’s where our stories sort of take place. The installation is just putting the audience, submerging them in that world for however long that they want to get pictures, stand and travel through and engage in that space.
I don’t think that we’re leaning in a sort of formulaic origin story mindset or mentality, I think that it’s more just about giving the fans more — more to explore, more to see, more to participate in. And for those that aren’t familiar, it’s a good jumping-off point. I want to change the sort of negative feeling that people get when it comes to them engaging with the art world, less art theory in a way that things are so subjective that your average person won’t or can’t relate if they’re not coming from that space.
With this, it’s about something that feels relatable, it’s about your childhood, it’s about imagination, it’s about limitations or lack thereof. It’s created with the intent to make those people share in that most sought-after drug, which is nostalgia. It gives you a sense of that, I think. So those who either grew up with heroes that were on baseball fields, football fields, basketball courts or heroes that were on comic book pages or in cartoon strips, it encapsulates a lot of that.
Q: What will we walk through and see as we walk through the park?
Brantley: Some of the locations within the installation are real places in Chicago, but through the installation are a little bit more embellished like Pullman Station, for example. I love the idea of revisionist history (being able to take things that existed and you know, kind of tweak them to suit the needs of the storyteller) and for Pullman, my grandparents and uncle lived over by Pullman, so I was over there all the time — my grandfather constantly giving me the history of that neighborhood and importance of that neighborhood — more than I probably wanted as a kid, but as an adult it sort of served me well and it found a way into my tales. The point of this whole thing is to take some of those things that were important to me and that were important to African-American history and culture within Chicago — the DuSables of it all, the Pullman Stations of it all — and using those in a clever way in which to tell the tale.
Q: Was this something fans were requesting to see or more of an idea whose time was way overdue?
Brantley: I think it’s a combination of a few things: This is the first time that there is any sort of prescribed narrative to Flyboy period, let alone the universe that we’re sort of creating and establishing in this installation. I’ve done art exhibitions, but I wanted to sort of do something a little bit different than your conventional, traditional sort of art exhibitions ... to do something that’s a bit more engaging, a bit more interactive, and giving those people that follow the world and the character that I’ve created an opportunity to engage on sort of a bigger level. Another huge part of that was Chicago. I still feel it gets a little underserved with some of these events, and I’m Chicago through and through (I bleed for it), so what better place to start this next leg of the journey than sort of where it started.
Q: The project specifies the installation as a “reimagining of Black folklore” and looking at superheroes from a different perspective. What does something like this do in reshaping folklore? How will Nevermore Park add to that narrative?
Brantley: I think one of the biggest things is that it’s coming from the mind and the mouth of a black creator and a black creative team where this is something about us and by us. And it’s not in a fake place — it is the South Side of Chicago, it is a space that already exists. It may have some embellished moments or things that happened, but ultimately, a lot of this comes from my experience growing up in Chicago. It comes from the stories that my grandmothers and my aunts would tell me — whether true or false, but again it’s that Black folklore, it’s these wives’ tales, these levels of superstition that come and are sort of embedded in our culture. There’s some real interesting field to mow with a lot of the stuff that I grew up with, again from the sort of more ridiculous side to the more serious, but real stuff that I was told as a kid or came up with.
These characters were created first, and appreciated and grew a fandom strictly off the aesthetics — people were coming to see the artwork, not knowing the narrative, the backstory, the origin of the character but identifying with the essence of who that character was to a point where they felt like a part of their journey was being told through these paintings and I was speaking directly to them. Ultimately, it’s a hero’s tale. To me, it feels like it’s very prevalent, especially right now.
Q: Flyboy’s universe keeps getting better. Will we ultimately be in a Marvel-esque related situation where Flyboy and Lil Mama will be everywhere — video games, Netflix?
Brantley: That would be amazing. I have plans to grow these characters’ world as large as I can possibly grow them. The Marvels of the world, the “Star Wars” of the world — that would be phenomenal. We just all have to wait and see.
Q: Is the plan for this to be taken on tour across the country when it leaves Chicago?
Brantley: My main focus with this whole thing is just to give Chicago something that we don’t normally get or get a first crack at — to engage with Chicagoans, to get enough eyes and to get enough youth out there to sort of show them this other way and show them it’s OK to use your imagination more because I did and this is what it got me.
Q: We need more spaces to tell our story, and it seems like Nevermore Park is doing just that. What are your thoughts on that?
Brantley: I totally agree and I think this is definitely a part of that journey. I’m not waiting, nor asking for that permission to tell my story, to do a thing. I’m sort of making a way to tell my story when and how I want to and be in control of that narrative myself. I hope that this also inspires others to do the same thing. I think that a lot of people sort of wait to have those people help and tell them when they need to tell their stories or when they need to engage at a certain point and with me, that’s never really been my Modus Operandi.