Dellschau was a butcher by trade who, after his retirement in 1899, filled at least 13 notebooks with drawings, watercolor paintings and collages depicting fantastical airships. He lived and worked in an attic apartment in Houston, Texas. Dellschau's earliest known work is a diary dated 1899, and the latest is an 80-page book dated 1921-1922, giving his career as an artist a 21-year span. His work was in large part a record of the activities of the Sonora Aero Club, of which he was a purported member. Dellschau's writings describe the club as a secret group of flight enthusiasts who met at Sonora, California in the mid-19th century. One of the members had discovered the formula for an anti-gravity fuel he called "NB Gas." Their mission was to design and build the first navigable aircraft using the NB Gas for lift and propulsion. Dellschau called these flying machines Aeros. Dellschau does not claim to be a pilot of any of the airships; he identifies himself only as a draftsman for the Sonora Aero Club. His collages incorporate newspaper clippings (called "press blooms") of then-current news articles about aeronautical advances and disasters.
Despite exhaustive research, including searches of census records, voting rosters, and death records, nothing has been found to substantiate the existence of this group except for a few gravestones in the Columbia Cemetery where several of the surnames are found. It is speculated that, like Henry Darger's "Realms of the Unreal", the Sonora Aero Club is a fiction by Dellschau. However, according to UFO writer Pete Navarro, a coded story is hidden throughout the drawings, which he interprets to mean that the Sonora Aero Club was a branch of a larger secret society known only as NYMZA.
The entire body of work was discarded into a landfill in Houston Texas but, luckily was salvaged by used furniture dealer Fred Washington who took them to his warehouse where they ended up under a pile of discarded carpet. Mary Jane Victor, a student at St. Thomas University asked Mr. Washington to lend some of the books to the University for a display they were putting on representing the story of flight. The drawings so impressed Dominique de Menil, the Art Director of Rice University and one of Houston Texas' leading fine arts collectors that she bought four of the books from Mr. Washington. Commercial artist and UFO researcher Pete Navarro acquired the remaining books. The Witte and the San Antonio museum acquired four books each from Navarro. Of the remaining four books, two were ultimately sold to a commercial gallery in New York, one to the ABCD collection in Paris, and one other is in a private collection in NY.
Dellschau's first one-person exhibition "Charles Dellschau - Aeronautical notebooks" and its accompanying catalogue was held in 1998 at the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York City, some 75 years after his death.
Several notebooks are in the collections of museums in Texas such as the Witte (which mounted an exhibition of Dellschau and Da Vinci called "Flights of the Imagination") and the San Antonio Museum (which curated a solo exhibition of Dellschau entitled "Flight or Fancy? The Secret Life of Charles A. A. Dellschau", also shown at the Menillo Museum in Florida) and the DeMenil Museum. Dellschau's artwork is also in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum, and the ABCD Art Brut collection in Paris, which owns an entire book. Dellschau is also in the collection of the High Museum in Atlanta, the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum, the John Michael Kohler Art Center and several prominent private collections in America and Europe. Several Dellschau drawings were put on display at the Museum of Everything, London England in 2009 as well as in Turin in 2010. The American Visionary Museum in Baltimore has shown the work of Dellschau on several occasions and the INTUIT Museum in Chicago will present a one person exhibition of Dellschau's art in September 2012.
Dellschau is buried in Houston's Washington Cemetery in Stelzig Plot A-70. His last name is misspelled as "Dellschaw" probably as a result of the "u" being written with an elongated tail on his death certificate. His grave marker also abbreviates his name as C.A. Dellschaw (sic).
Charles Dellschau's life and art is the subject of a monograph released in the spring of 2013 produced by Marquand Books, Stephen Romano and distributed by Distributed Art Publishers with essays by Thomas McEvilley, Tracy Baker-White, Roger Cardinal, James Brett, Thomas Crouch, Barbara Safarova and Randall Morris. The book has been reviewed positively in Raw Vision Magazine by Tom Patterson, Bookforum, Intuit magazine.
Dellschau is regarded as one of America's earliest visionary artists. His work is testimony to the sense of optimism that new technologies have when they change the way people see the world. Flight, up until that time, had been a metaphor for man's pathos - or his inability to accomplish what he was not meant to. Dellschau's work is also remarkable in that it uses the medium of watercolor brilliantly, often using water as the medium with a subtle tint of color.
The book The Secrets of Dellschau by Dennis Crenshaw and Pete Navarro tells the story of Dellschau and of the secrets the authors write that he hid within his artwork. Pete Navarro spent 27 years studying Dellschau's drawings and writings. According to Navarro, the story of the Sonora Aero Club and their achievements had been cleverly hidden by Dellschau in his drawings using several codes and unconnected sentences hidden throughout the work. Thus, one would have to see ALL of the Dellschaus to understand the narrative.
Dellschau's work shows the influence of circus banner painting, in its use of centralized subjects and ornamental borders, and often possesses a jewel-like quality. Reviewing the 1998 Ricco Maresca exhibition, the New York Times said:
|“||…his images define a fleet of craft that, at their most recognizable, suggest eccentric balloons or dirigibles, or flying carriages, and sometimes include pilots and passengers. Framed by further stripes, as well as words, names and numbers, the drawings intimate a universe almost as elaborate as Rizzoli's in a style reminiscent of Monty Python.||”|
Partial list of exhibitions
- "Flight" - University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, 1969
- "Wind In My Hair" - American Visionary Museum, 1996
- "Aeronautical Notebooks" - Ricco Maresca Gallery, 1998
- "Plots and Inventions" - Ramapo College, New Jersey, 2000
- "Visionary Dreamers" - University of Syracuse, New York, 2002
- "Flight or Fancy? The Secret Life of Charles A. A. Dellschau" - San Antonio Museum of Art, Focus Gallery, 2002
- "The Secret Life of Charles Dellschau" - San Antonio Museum, Menilo Museum, 2004
- "Eye of the World: Miniature and Microcosm in the Art of the Self Taught" - Addison Gallery of American Art, Pennsylvania, 2002
- "American Self Taught from the High Museum" - High Museum Annex, 2005
- "Dopes, Dupes, and Demagogues: Viewed by Outsiders" - Louise Ross Gallery, 2004
- "Create and Be Recognized: Photography on the Edge" - Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), 2005
- "Inner Worlds Outside" - Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2005
- "Flights of Imagination" - Witte Museum, San Antonio, 2008
- "ARTnow" contemporary art fair - Stephen Romano booth #21, New York NY, 2008
- "Messages and Magic: Collage and Assemblage in American Art" - John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2008
- "Artists Books Through Time: Vol. 1", Cavin Morris Gallery, New York, 2009
- Museum of Everything", London, England. 2009 -
- Museum of Everything", Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin, Italy. 2010 -
- "Outsider Art Fair", Stephen Romano Booth #11, New York NY, 2011
- Menil Collection, Houston, TX. "Seeing Stars: Visionary Drawing from the Collection" September 23, 2011 - January 15, 2012
- "All Things Round" - American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, 2011 - 2012
- "Darker Stars: The Roots of Steampunk Art", Cavin Morris Gallery, New York, 2012
- "Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined", American Folk Art Museum, 2012
- "Collectors of Skies", curated by Valérie Rousseau and Barbara Safarova, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York 2012
- "Museum of Everything", Paris, France. 2009 -
- "Farfetched", curated by Roger Manley and Tom Pattersen, Gregg Art Museum 2013
- "Restless II", Cavin Morris Gallery, New York, 2013
- "PULSE Art Fair New York 2013", Stephen Romano Booth B6 2013
- "Outsider Art Fair Paris 2013", Cavin Morris Gallery 2013
- Greenwood, Cynthia (December 10, 1998). "Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club: A tale of UFOs, art collectors and the shadows of history". Houston Press. Retrieved October 18, 2010.
Taken at face value, Dellschau's collages document the feats of the Sonora Aero Club, a secretive group dedicated to the creation of "aeros," or flying machines. In code, and bad spelling in both English and German, Dellschau recounted how, in his youth 50 years before, he and fellow club members gleefully ruled the skies of Gold Rush California, piloting fantastical airships of their own invention.
- The Secrets of Dellschau: The Sonora Aero Club & The Airships of the 1800s
- Smith, Roberta (January 23, 1998). "ART REVIEW; Outsiders Come In For Attention". New York Times. Retrieved October 18, 2010.
- Charles Dellschau website, Stephen Romano Private Art Dealer, New York
- THE ATLANTIC: Charles A. A. Dellschau Dreams of Flying: The Amazing Story of an Airship Club That Might Never Have Existed by Rebecca J. Rosen
- DESIGN OBSERVER: Dreams of the Sonora Aero Club by John Foster
- SLATE.COM Steampunk Before Steampunk Existed: Charles Dellschau's Fantastic Airships by Rebecca Onion
- MARQUAND BOOKS/D.A.P. Charles Dellschau Text by Thomas McEvilley, Roger Cardinal, James Brett, Thomas D. Crouch, Barbara Safarova, Randall Morris, Tracy Baker-White.
- Darker Stars: The Roots Of Steampunk Art with Dellschau, Darger, etc at Cavin Morris Gallery, New York, Online Catalog
- Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club THE HOUSTON PRESS by Cynthia Greenwood
- Collection ABCD Paris Charles A.A. Dellschau