He Believes He Can Fly | Our Town | Chicago Reader

He Believes He Can Fly 

A Pilsen artist prepares to launch his work--and himself--into the sky over Lake Michigan

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"This is the amazing transforming flying egg," announces Neville, who'd rather not use a last name. He's standing in the front room of his house in Pilsen, demonstrating a skeletal aluminum-wood structure mounted on a homemade carriage. It's the start of an airplane he'll try to fly Saturday at Monroe Harbor. "Once it's all in place and all the connections are in, then I jump in. I start peddling like hell and I have four guys who will be pushing.

"I'm the team to beat. Look at it. That thing is gonna fly."

Neville's team is one of 37 that will compete in the Red Bull Flugtag ("flying day"), starting at 1 PM. The makers of the energy drink that "gives you wings" created this publicity stunt in Austria in 1991 and brought it to San Francisco last October. This year it will be held in six American cities.

Contestants will take off from a platform 25 feet over Lake Michigan. The planes have to be human-powered and span less than 30 feet. Entrants will be judged on distance, creativity, and a two-minute skit performed just before takeoff. "You'll laugh. You'll fly. Just not very far," according to the Web site at www.redbullflugtagchicago.com. The three best entries will get (respectively) a pilot's training course, paragliding lessons, and skydiving lessons--or cash equivalents for those who lose their enthusiasm for flying.

Most contestants will build contraptions that aren't really intended to fly; they'll try to pick up style points before plunging into the lake. But Neville's team--"Who Are You Calling Chicken?"--intends to score in both distance and creativity. During their two-minute skit, team members will roll out an egg that unfolds into a plane. The four men pushing the craft will wear yellow outfits and Neville himself will be in a suit that he describes as "English gentleman meets mad scientist meets flying bird." A "chicken cannon" produced by a Pilsen artist friend will shoot stuffed chickens into the audience. Neville's girlfriend, Rachel Thoele, an ATA flight attendant who once played bass and sang for San Francisco rock bands, will lead a group of yellow-fur-clad women in a dance routine based on the movements she makes while demonstrating safety procedures to passengers.

"That's the thing about Pilsen," Neville says. "There is no shortage of willing entertainers."

But to Neville it's not just show business. He thinks he's got a good shot at beating the event's distance record of 195 feet. The self-taught "gadgeteer" has spent the past five years building "kinetic devices that do unimportant things."

One such contraption is his whirligig, which sits alongside the egg plane in Neville's front room. It's an assemblage of wheels, gears, pulleys, and levers with a dog riding a bicycle counterclockwise around a Victorian doghouse that turns in the other direction. Wind supplies the power when the whirligig is outside; a battery-powered motor handles the job indoors. Neville used 10,000 parts to build the thing. It debuted at Fourth World Artisans in Lakeview three years ago.

In another room, on a shelf, stand 9 wooden boxes with arms, from a set of 34 "Boxes That Blow Kisses," which appeared in a show at the Peter Jones Gallery last year. When Neville flips the switches, the arms strike the fronts of the boxes and move back out again. A clacking noise fills the room. "When Neville feels bent out of shape and unloved, he has his own audience," a friend explains. Neville adds, "When you have 34 together, it's really a resonant sound. It's symphonic.

"When I had the opening, there were a lot of people. This little boy, six years old, breaks through. He sees the boxes working at the same time, and he screams. He just lets out this emotional outburst, that I haven't seen before and haven't seen since, of joy. They weren't even words, they were just 'Aah!' That is the best compliment I think I've ever received from anyone."

Neville won't divulge his age, hometown, or educational background, but the sprinkles of gray in his sideburns and his articulate manner suggest a thirtysomething with serious liberal arts training. He grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, the son of antiques dealers whose old wooden house was a "cross between a farmhouse and a colonial." When Neville and his older brother visit, his mother will play the "Whatsit" game: she displays a strange object and asks for its name. Last Christmas she sent Neville a small aluminum tube that turned out to be a World War I-era messenger-pigeon cartridge.

As a child, Neville took apart Tonka toys and tried to put them back together. If he couldn't reassemble a toy, he'd make something else out of the pieces. Once he found an old piano in the woods and ripped out the guts to figure out how it worked. "You've heard of good old New England Yankee ingenuity," he says. "The reason that exists is when you have to do without something and you have to survive and you have to get there on your own, you have to be clever and you have to make things out of things."

He attributes part of his drive to his brother's influence. "From him I gained the idea that anything can be done and all I have to do is do it," Neville says. "He could look at something that 99 other people had looked at and said 'There's no possible way,' and he will say 'I know how to do that' or 'I can do that' or 'I will do that.' And he'll get that done. He's also someone who is good to people."

After going to the college he won't name, Neville floated in and out of office jobs and construction gigs while pursuing a career in art. He spent about four years in New York making oil paintings of human figures, but eventually he gravitated toward prints and 3-D pieces. In 1995 he spent four months building 99 paper yellow warblers. He sold 19 and keeps the other 80 in a box.

After New York, he and a friend spent a summer staging baby pig races in California, Washington, and Oregon. Passing through Bakersfield, he wandered into a dog pound and met a "mixture of Chihuahua and some other animal" named Mili. She was in a cage, and the keepers had decided to put her to sleep. "They said, 'Don't even look at the dog. That dog is vicious and will have to be destroyed.' I convinced them to open the cage and the dog jumped into my arms. Their mouths dropped. This dog chose me and decided I had to take it home." Mili lies silently on the floor while Neville recounts the tale. In her honor, he calls his enterprise in gadgetry the Small Dog Theatre Company. The company's first project, Small Dog Theatre number one, was a set of 55 wooden boxes that each contained a running paper dog. He sold 53. The other two are stashed in his workshop.

Neville moved here about six years ago; he says he chose Chicago by throwing a dart at a map. A neighbor got him into his current day job, freelancing on photo shoots for photographers and companies like Crate & Barrel. He handles production-related chores such as building an impromptu scaffold to hold a set of pots and pans, or hanging a picture on a wall without using a nail. "We go into some pretty expensive houses. The danger there is destroying elements of the house. A scratch on the wall is an expensive repair. You can't drop their prized vase. You don't know if that's worth $10 or $10,000. It's kind of a tiptoey kind of thing. I guarantee to my clients that I will take responsibility for everything in the house."

How do you hang a picture without putting a nail in the wall?

"If I told you that, then other people would be able to do that, and I'd be out of a job," he says. "It's an element of magic. You can't give it all away. A magician wouldn't get to Vegas if he gave away all his secrets to the audience."

In Saturday's flying event, Neville will play the part of an endangered chicken. "I realize life isn't what I thought it was and that my fate is to be cooked up and fried and eaten. I've discovered that Lake Michigan is an enormous fryer, so I've devised an elaborate plan of escape. And on flight day, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna escape. It's a classic story of the hero that goes through life thinking one thing and awakens to reality and then has to overcome it. It's got that hero element. It's got the sexy dancing chickens. Hollywood would eat this up."

But any movie producer would notice that the rules of the contest and the laws of physics guarantee a tragic ending--the chicken will inevitably plunge into the fryer.

"I'm not afraid," says Neville. "I've planned for every trajectory from this"--he points his finger straight down--"to hopefully this": straight up. "Unless there's this huge gust and the plane flips over upside down and I land on a completely different vector, chances are I'm not going to get hurt."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard Wilson.

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