Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds by Haley Greenfeather English celebrates these women with wings. Photograph courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
IT BEGAN WITH 24 WOMEN telling their stories of floating above the earth, guided by the wind under brilliantly colored hot-air balloons. Rebecca Prinster, a curator at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, quickly realized that the experiences she was gathering deserved more than a shelf in an oral history library.
In March, she and co-curator Becky Guy opened a new exhibition, In Their Words: Stories by Women on the Ground and in the Air, on view through 2021. Tracing the role of female pilots, daredevils, and expeditioners, it reaches across the globe and into New Mexico communities. It spotlights women like France’s Élisabeth Thible, who was the first woman to fly an untethered hot-air balloon and even sang an aria in one in 1784. There’s Sophie Blanchard, Napoleon’s official festival aeronaut in the early 1800s. She’s joined3 by New Mexico pilots like Savannah Noel Bradley, who in 2016 became the youngest pilot to rise from the International Balloon Fiesta’s grounds. She was just 16.
A balloon’s trapeze artist and French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard are both celebrated in this new exhibition. Image courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (left), and Science History Images / Alamy (right).
“It took a bit of digging to find objects that tell the story,” Guy says as she stands near an artifact that seems to stop every visitor in amazement. The Victorian-era trapeze dangled from the basket of a balloon, its minuscule seat serving as a platform for women aerialists who performed for crowds below.
“You see that and you’re like, Oh, my God,” says Guy, who came to the project fresh off of helping develop Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas, Nevada, Omega Mart art experience. Elements of that project’s sight-and-sound razzle-dazzle appear in In Their Words. A wall-size mural by Albuquerque artist Haley Greenfeather English (Ojibwe) carries images of women pilots centered on a swirling video display. Nearby, a sensory room by Mirabelle Jones, an artist based in Denmark, combines scraps of the women’s audio interviews with a visual collage of their words, interspersed with the silhouettes of flying birds.
A sensory room by artist Mirabelle Jones combines women’s audio interviews with a visual collage of their words. Photograph courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
“The stories about women’s involvement in ballooning are often overlooked in the fields of adventure,” says Shelle Sanchez, deputy director of the city’s Arts & Culture Department. “They were fearless adventurers themselves.”
Barbara Fricke, an Albuquerque pilot, took her first hot-air balloon ride in 1979, then volunteered to help crew at the Balloon Fiesta. In 1988, she bought her own craft and soon began earning the admiration of other pilots. “It’s the whole thing of ballooning,” she says. “The friends you make, the crew, the beauty of it, and the freedom of floating in the air.”
Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, 9201 Balloon Museum Dr. NE; 505-768-6020
Cissie Kent parachutes from a balloon on August 2, 1890. Courtesy of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
TAKING THE AIR
At the age of 45, Judith Nakamura had a ride in a hot-air balloon. Despite a lifelong fear of heights, she was hooked. She became the only state supreme court judge to earn a pilot’s license, has spent 15 years flying, and is among the women featured in the exhibition In Their Words: Stories by Women on the Ground and in the Air.
It’s so different from what I do in my daily life. It’s an escape from the day-to-day grind. If I was stressed at work, I wouldn’t fly, so I had to put that stress aside in order to go up. It’s a joyful sport—and mentally and physically challenging.
Sound is amplified. You can hear what’s happening on the ground as if it was up there with you. You’re moving with the wind, it’s calm.
I think a lot of women would benefit by being in this sport. I’ve landed in small communities and young girls will come up and say, “I’d like to do this.” Well, they can. It’s achievable here in New Mexico, where so many people are willing to teach you.
I’m still afraid of heights.