Pretzels, peanuts and a sky-blue Crayola

Times Staff Writer

It didn’t take long for Jewel Van Valin’s cross-country art project to take off.

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.

“This woman is an actual artist, Barbara Psimis of Florida,” she said, pointing to a delicately drawn koi on view at the Delta lounge.

“Tamara Weston, in her early teens, drew a boarding pass and a Delta plane. This psychedelic sunset was done by Jacquetta White; she was about 15,” Van Valin said.

A 78-year-old, Hansel Stripling, depicted God looking down from heaven on a Delta jetliner, Van Valin said. An elderly Chinese woman, Hong Pu, sketched a scene from her hometown village. Alice Choy, a fashion-design school graduate, drew a self-portrait depicting her in cap and gown, surrounded by flowers. A boy of about 13, Joe Conigliaro, was returning home from Disneyland, so he drew stick-figure depictions of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters.

Passengers never forget Van Valin’s flight -- or their artwork.

“Mine was a little doodle of Honolulu with lots of colorful buildings and the ocean around it,” recalled Julie Smith, a middle school math and science teacher who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. “It was a flight to Maui. I set my book down and started doodling and pretty soon it was time to land.”

Smith, who is in her 40s, agreed that air travel is less enjoyable than it used to be. On her return flight from Hawaii, takeoff was delayed when someone found a suspicious backpack aboard the aircraft. “We went back to the gate, and they pretty much tore the plane’s bathrooms apart looking,” she said.


Leland Horn, an aerospace engineering manager from Colorado Springs, vividly remembers his flight with Van Valin several years ago. His drawing depicted a lighthouse and a bicycle, among other things.

“I’ve traveled all over the world and never had an experience quite like that one,” said Horn, 51. “When she handed us the crayons, we were kind of all looking at each other. She sort of in a teasing manner goaded us into participating. It only took 10 minutes before we were all drawing and we were busy until the descent into Salt Lake City. The time went by so fast it seemed we had just taken off from L.A. It was a good experience.”

All four members of Dan Lawrence’s family sketched their way over the Pacific on a Hawaii trip in April.

“It helped take your mind off the flight,” said Lawrence, a 44-year-old San Dimas graphic artist who drew a dragon for Van Valin.

Delta Airlines President Ed Bastian said he has seen some of the artwork and was impressed by the thought that went into them. “They were sharing times of joy and times of sadness,” he said.

Bastian said he “very much” supports the idea of the drawings being publicly displayed at LAX.


And that may be possible, according to officials of Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that operates LAX. Several past dust-ups over public art in the terminals forced the city to take a cautious approach to LAX displays, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles.

Airport officials said they are willing to work with Van Valin to create a gallery, but that there can be no more impromptu displays of what she calls “Just Plane Art.”

Taping pictures to the walls at LAX won’t fly.