Tar Heel of the Week

Some saw only suitcases; he saw a flock

Staff WriterMay 11, 2008 

  • BORN: Dec. 9, 1965, Houston

    FAMILY: Daughters, Lindsay Rose, 5, Emma Claire, 4; former wife, Meredith Roseborough

    EDUCATION: Clear Lake High School in Houston (completed GED in 1987)

    CAREER: Out of high school, worked as a data library tech for the Link Co., a manufacturer of aerospace simulators; 19 years with Southwest Airlines ground crews.

    FAVORITE ARTISTS: Edward Hopper, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keefe, Dennis Oppenheim and daughter Emma Dittman

    BEST ADVICE FROM AN ARTIST: "Dean Henbest, an old cowboy artist, once told me, 'Never give your finished art to your brother. If he commissioned it's fine, but since he didn't, he'll never treat it like a stranger who pays good money for it. And then later you'll see it in the garage behind some folding chairs.' "

    FAVORITE SUITCASE: "As an artist, still the old tweed-and-leather-bound stuff. For travel, as an expert witness to it all, Pelican brand only."

By his count, Dunne Dittman used to hoist as many as 400 pieces of luggage an hour working for a Southwest Airlines ground crew at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

Do that for 19 years, and you would be excused if the never-ending carousel of duffles, suitcases and rolling pullmans flowed even into your off-duty thoughts. Dittman was fascinated by the old luggage, the bags battered by decades of miles and bearing faded stickers from Cairo, Moscow and other faraway locales. They promised the nostalgic story of a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road movie.

Those vintage pieces of luggage inspired Dittman's vision for a work of art that is at once whimsical and striking -- a V-shaped flock of geese made from Samsonite suitcases. The sculpture now hangs high in the atrium of RDU's parking garage and has made the baggage-handler-turned-artist into an airport celebrity. Every month, about 100,000 RDU travelers will pass under Dittman's sculpture "Earlier Flight" as they hurry from the parking garage into Terminal A.

Dittman's installation of 15 geese crafted of stainless steel and vintage Samsonites has hovered overhead since April 16 and is expected to become a permanent piece of the airport's growing collection of public art. The airport people-movers feeding travelers in and out of the terminal limit opportunities for reflection, but the geese 30 feet overhead often provoke a reaction.

"The third day we're here installing it," Dittman recalls, "I'm in a hard hat, and this area's still all roped off. Within five minutes, this guy comes up and says, 'This is beautiful. Cool!,' " Then, not even five minutes later, another guy comes comes up and says, 'They paid [expletive] money for this thing?' "

Dittman laughed as he recounted his critic's profane review.

The sculpture, 56 feet long and 47 feet wide, conjures the image of a squadron of flying toasters from computer screen-savers gone by.

Yet the $56,000 project, commissioned by the airport, grants him the type of exposure many new artists can only dream about. How many other artists can say their installation will be seen by patrons from around the world?

Head in the clouds

Now 42, Dunne was the youngest of eight children growing up in Houston. His father was a NASA scientist who prepared biological experiments for space missions. His father also passed along some of his artistic leanings to Dittman, crafting nature scenes of elk and other wildlife out of cowhide.

From an early age, Dittman was fascinated by hawks and other large birds that cast shadows as they soared overhead.

"Geese to me are just so dramatic," Dittman said. "I know they're probably a problem to a lot of people, but I just love watching them fly. For me anyway, when they're in that V formation, and their necks are stretched out. It's so streamlined."

He tried to re-create scenes of their flight on leather, as his father did, and in wood carvings. But Dittman said he could never solve how to work with a wood's grains and anticipate how wood would respond and change with each carving.

After high school, art was limited to a hobby. His father had advised him early on to balance his art with a career. Dittman worked for about five years as a gofer for a mechanic friend who indulged his love of old cars. He worked several years with a NASA contractor that built flight simulators for the space program. But when the company moved to Binghamton, N.Y., Dittman said, he wasn't ready to leave Texas.

He stayed behind, worked for a bit with a family residential moving company before latching on with Southwest Airlines.

Nine years ago, when the growing airline offered him the chance to move to its new Raleigh-Durham hub, Dittman was ready to come east.

A chance to sketch

The routine of working for an airline ground crew includes stretches of down time between balancing luggage loads on departing flights, guiding arriving flights to their gates and unloading luggage. Dittman used the pauses to hatch his artistic plans. He took portfolios and drawing pads to sketch in a vacant conference room between flights.

Trent Williams, another ground crew member, lived with Dittman for more than a year after transferring from Las Vegas. Williams recalled seeing Dittman wander the airport during breaks.

"He was drawing pictures and always going around the airport and looking at the sculptures, looking at the paintings," said Williams, 34. "He was just going around, seeing what artwork was there and what he could contribute to it."

Lugging suitcases every shift, Dittman started noticing the faded leather or canvas suitcases with stitched leather corners, the ones decorated with hotel stickers from around the world. Soon he was patrolling area flea markets and yard sales on his days off.

Vendors would see him coming and call out, "The suitcase guy is here!" and the vintage suitcases started piling up in his Durham home. He refurbished some, gave them to friends as gifts, and made loftier plans for the ones he kept collecting.

Flight of whimsy

About three years ago, Dittman approached Teresa Damiano, the airport marketing director, to pitch the idea of holding an art show featuring the work of airport employees.

At that time, the airport was also launching expansive plans for more public art, and Dunne ended up coming back with his idea for "Earlier Flight."

The airport authority was primarily reviewing proposals for larger installations from such established artists as Robert Kushner of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is preparing a stone-and-glass mosaic mural for the new terminal under construction. But Dunne's more modest idea also won favor, once he presented the authority some small-scale drawings and a prototype of a suitcase goose.

Tim Clancy, president of Clancy & Theys Construction, was chairman of the authority's ad-hoc committee on public art when Dittman made his presentation.

"The way he first described it, it could have been odd," Clancy said. "But then, anyhow, he came in with this goose and this concept, and it just sort of clicked for us. It's just sort of fun and whimsical."

Some passengers go through the airport atrium parking garage without even noticing the winged suitcases hanging overhead from stainless steel cables. A few paused Wednesday morning, tapped a traveling companion on the arm and pointed upward with a grin. Some offered only a raised eyebrow or disbelieving shake of the head; others plowed forward with heads down, never looking up.

New projects

Near the airport, Dittman still has more than 50 old suitcases in two storage units, which double as his studio. The crayon marks that his 4-year-old daughter scrawled across the bottom of one unfinished canvas, a painting of a green, 1957 Jaguar sports car, convinced him that it's safer to keep his work here than at home.

A recent shoulder injury convinced him that it was time to retire from the airport ground crew, but he manages a new offshoot of his family's trucking business to pay the bills. He has also picked up small art projects, including a series of paintings commissioned by a local collector of vintage cars.

One of the latest paintings for this collector features a Camaro strapped to a rocket booster, blasting off into space.

Local art dealer Wendy Ringenbach has displayed some of Dittman's paintings at her Madison Fine Art gallery in Brierdale Shopping Center.

"Dunne's got a great eye," she said. "His biggest strength is he perseveres, and he's very headstrong. So whatever he decides he's going to do, he's going to do it. It may not be the top-selling piece in my gallery, but it'll definitely catch your eye, grab your attention. And just like those people at the airport, they're stopping and looking, which a lot of art doesn't do that for people."

For now at least, Dittman said he's not thinking of new ways to rehabilitate the antique luggage he can't seem to resist. He figured it was good for at least another flock or two.

lorenzo.perez@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4643

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