Sometime in the mid-1960s, a junk dealer in Houston, Texas acquired 12 large notebooks that had been thrown out to the curb after a house fire. Filled with mysterious, double-sided, collaged watercolor drawings, the journals were eventually discovered at the junk shop in 1969 by art history student Mary Jane Victor. Victor attended the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where she worked with art patron Dominique de Menil. After telling Menil about the books, Menil purchased four of the notebooks for the (then) hefty sum of $1,500, and included them immediately in an exhibition at Rice University in Houston. Pete Navarro, a local graphic artist and mystery enthusiast, upon seeing the exhibition — eventually acquired the remaining books, studying them obsessively for more than 15 years. Navarro eventually sold the remaining books to museums and galleries.
It turns out that the drawings/watercolors were the work of one Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830 - 1923). Dellschau was a butcher for most of his life and only after his retirement in 1899 did he begin his incredible career as a self-taught artist. He began with three books entitled Recollections which purported to describe a secret organization called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau described his duties in the club as that of the draftsman. Within his collaged watercolors were newspaper clippings (he called them “press blooms”) of early attempts at flight overlapped with his own fantastic drawings of airships of all kind. Powered by a secret formula he cryptically referred to as “NB Gas” or “Suppa” — the “aeros” (as Dellscahu called them) were steampunk like contraptions with multiple propellers, wheels, viewing decks and secret compartments. Though highly personal, autobiographical (perhaps!), and idiosyncratic, these artworks could cross-pollinate with the fiction of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz. The works were completed in a furiously creative period from 1899 to 1923, when air travel was still looked at by most people as almost magical. Newspapers of that period were full of stories about air travel feats and the acrobatic aerial dogfights of WWI were legend.
Researchers have found no account of a Sonora Aero Club, not in Texas or California. So was this simply a fantasy-fueled creative exercise by a retired man smitten with the wonders of flight? There were numerous accounts of pre-20th century UFOs in the Houston area — so perhaps Mr. Dellschau had witnessed something that ignited his simmering creative soul? The best we can do is speculate on the mystery and be thankful for the Houston junk dealer who saved a piece of art history.
All works are watercolor, pencil and collage on paper, approx. 17 x 18 inches, Images are from various public and private collections, supplied by Stephen Romano, Brooklyn, NY. A book on the images is forthcoming at the end of March from Marquand Books/D.A.P.