Passengers flying in the difficult days after 9/11 were anxious and irritable because of tightened security and fewer flight amenities. The Delta Air Lines flight attendant wanted to do something about it.
So Van Valin reached back to an earlier time -- her kindergarten years -- and pulled out the Crayolas.
"I just put the mats on their trays and threw a crayon down, and the passengers immediately got it," she said.
For six years, travelers on Van Valin's planes have sketched their way over the continent and the Pacific, creating thousands of fanciful, vividly colored crayon drawings on the backs of beverage cart covers.
Van Valin has kept them all. And now she's looking for a place for her unusual collection to land.
"Many of these are very good. They should be on display. A broader audience should see them. Behind every one of these pictures is a story," she said.
Toward the end of each flight, Van Valin and other crew members tape passengers' drawings to the aircraft's bulkhead so everyone on board can see them. She also maintains a revolving display of the pictures in Delta's employee lounge at Los Angeles International Airport.
But she's still trying to find a permanent home for the artwork at LAX.
A few weeks ago, Delta staffers staged a guerrilla gallery in the terminal's corridors, posting passenger drawings on walls and support columns between Gates 56 and 59. They took down the unauthorized artwork at day's end, however, so it would not be confiscated and destroyed by airport officials.
Travelers' reaction to the impromptu show was enthusiastic. The sketches helped brighten the attitudes of passengers soured by "the hassles of going through security," said Ken Gomez, a flight attendant manager for the airline.
For Van Valin, the drawing project was an antidote to the fears and hassles of post-9/11 air travel.
"In the past, people would laugh and enjoy flying, but 9/11 changed a tremendous amount of things," said the 54-year-old, a veteran of three decades of flying.
"It's not as fun now as it used to be."
The idea for the artwork came to Van Valin as she distributed paper place mats to passengers when cutbacks had ended Delta's use of linen tray cloths.
"The first gentleman I put down a paper mat for stared at it and then rolled his eyes," she said. "The look on his face told me: 'This needs a crayon.' So the next week I came back with crayons. The passengers laughed and started drawing right away."
As the sketches were completed, Van Valin posted them on the aircraft's interior walls. When she ran out of tape, she used Band-Aids. Soon, as the plane sped along at 35,000 feet, passengers were moving about the cabin, checking out the pictures and commenting on subject matter and artistic style.
"They were interacting, talking to one another," explaining what their drawings depicted, Van Valin said. "Crayons are nonthreatening. The pictures tell a lot about a person."
Some passengers sign their pictures. Others write their phone numbers on the back when they learn that Van Valin keeps each sketch and displays many of them at the employee lounge. She even remembers which flight some were aboard and what seat they were in. She said passengers draw whatever strikes their fancy.