The halls of the Nashville International Airport will be playing host to the inaugural exhibit of artist Alison Fullerton’s oversized encaustic portraits entitled “Fly Girls.” Her creations bring into focus a group of women who bravely flew for the United States Air Force, which was part of the Army at the time, during World War II, but whose story was hidden away in sealed files until the late 1970s. She is helping to finally bring their story into the light. They were known as WASP – Women Airforce Service Pilots.
“…WASP were military-trained and tested, performed competitively with their male counterparts, and yet they were denied the military status they were promised,” explained Fullerton. “Disbanded without benefits in 1944, many of the WASP spent decades fighting for the recognition they deserved.”
Fullerton’s Interest in “Fly Girls”
An Army wife, Fullerton became curious about the women in the military when her husband was stationed overseas and they were living in Stuttgart, Germany. She was shocked to learn that the WASP records had been kept classified and undiscovered for 35 years. Her interest grew into a passion and she contacted the official WASP Archives at Texas Woman’s University and began pouring over their artifacts. Selecting photographs, news clippings, and memorabilia, she was given permission by the archives to incorporate these pieces and ten women’s portraits into her work.
For a very long time, artists have been what Kurt Vonnegut calls “canaries in the coal mine,” those who bring into the light what is wrong with or what needs adjustment in society. Art is a very powerful medium, and as Pamela Copland says in her article on Medium.com, “Art also has the ability to start movements and end oppressive regimes.” Fullerton hopes her portrait series will bring to light the role of these women in the history of the Air Force, and women’s important role in the military period.
Currently, women comprise 18% of the United States military, and when you get to officers, that percentage increases according to Fullerton. Major General Jeanne Holms became the first female Brigadier General in the United States Air Force in 1971. In her book, Women in The Military: An Unfinished Revolution, she discusses that their equality of status is an ongoing issue.
“2016 was the first year that the military lifted the ban on women in combat,” said Fullerton. “Despite that, [I] saw female soldiers still struggling to be treated as equals.”
But there is change on the horizon. As Fullerton began reaching out to different locations to show her work, the response became almost more than she could handle. Said one man at a military museum, “We want this [exhibit]…those women got the shaft.”
“I never thought I would receive this kind of response,” said Fullerton. “So much support. I never thought it would go to the national level.”
Telling the Story
Not only is the project gaining lots of attention, but is has also brought new relationships to Fullerton, with the WASP Archive, and with author Katherine Sharp Laddeck, Ph.D., who wrote “The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.”
“Over eighty years ago these women fought for their opportunity to serve their country as pilots,” said Laddeck. “Alison’s exhibit will inspire new generations to follow their own dreams.”
“These women were fearless, flying Boeing B-17 bombers and towing targets for live ammunition artillery practice in the air,” Fullerton said. “They started as a secret; many men didn’t think women could fly planes. They faced tremendous resistance.”
It is their being women that caused their records to be sealed, and their story hidden away for so long, and yet, Fullerton notes, they have been idols to female pilots in the military for a long time. Whispers of their story have been an inspiration to modern “Fly Girls.”
These WASP flew dangerous missions, and thirty-eight of their number were killed. Yet, while active members of the Air Force, these women were not given military honors, instead the WASP community pooled their resources to pay for these brave pilots to be flown home and buried with dignity.
Expected to follow all of the rules of the military, and going through the same flight training as their male counterparts, they were told to wear uniforms, but had to alter male uniforms to fit their bodies.
When the war was over, these patriotic women quietly stepped aside. That was until 1975, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David C. Jones announced the first test program for women to join the fighter pilot program. It was then that these silent female warriors began to come out and tell their tales.
The second woman to sign up for the program was Cornelia Fort of Nashville, Tennessee. From an affluent family, her father was a founder of National Life and Accident Insurance Company, she was a graduate of Ward-Belmont School and Sarah Lawrence University. Always interested in aviation, she was teaching a student in Hawaii as the Japanese descended upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She saw them attack from the air. After making a harrowing emergency landing with her student in tow, they narrowly escaped a strafing run by a Japanese Zero. Sadly, two years later, she was the first female pilot killed on active military duty.
“Fly Girl” Exhibition Showings
Fort’s is one of the “FLY GIRLS” portraits that will be at Nashville Airport until February 2024. Next, the show will travel to Palm Springs Air Museum and then onto the Army Aviation Museum located on Fort Novosel near Daleville, Alabama. It will return to Tennessee for a solo exhibition at the Customs House Museum and Culture Center in Clarksville, Tennessee in October 2024.
About Alison Fullerton
Though still new to the world of art, Fullerton has enjoyed international acclaim for her encaustic artwork. Leaving the worlds of teaching and professional marketing behind in 2016 to become a full-time artist, she spent three years immersing herself in the world of European encaustics.
Traveling and studying with master artists in various countries, Fullerton’s career as an artist would kick off when finding work in the atelier with German sculpture artist Birgit Feil. Since that time, her award-winning works have been showcased in galleries, museums, and collections across the United States and Europe.
Fullerton teaches and has authored articles about painting with encaustic wax. Her art is frequently recognized by Nashville commuters who’ve seen her work on billboards throughout Music City.