Paper Airplanes: Paintings and Poetry for the Whole Family at Saks Fifth Avenue

Selection of painting and poems at the Paper Airplanes exhibit.
Photo by Anna Rettig

If you would have asked Jamie Kay Lehman ten years ago where she thought her poetry would be featured today, her first instinct wouldn’t be the art gallery on the third floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. She would guess dozens of other places, for that matter. Yet, she and her husband and creative collaborator, Gabriel, have found that it’s the perfect place to display their lively and mischievous project, “Paper Airplanes.”

Sitting across from me on a cushy chair in the gallery, surrounded by a wide array of their work, Jamie recounted the story behind one of her first poems aimed at young audiences.

“It was a rap about bacon, I called it “Bacon Rap,” she explained, chuckling, “and I sent it to my sister, and she had just had a baby, my niece, Josephine. She said that she wanted new children’s books to read, and she really liked the rhyming.”

Jamie continued to write silly, light-hearted poetry and began to conceptualize plots and characters for a story book later on. In a twist of fate, she unexpectedly found the perfect illustrator for her work at an art show in 2013. This was Gabriel Lehman, a painter with a growing following who had left a career laying carpet to pursue art a few years earlier. She was enchanted by the whimsical nature of his work, and asked if he would work on a children’s book with her.

He politely declined.

Selection of photos in the gallery with title card Poetry by Jamie Kay Lehman

Luckily for us, the story doesn’t end there. Jamie pursued the project further and sent samples of her work to Gabriel on Facebook. He agreed to a dinner meeting, an evening that marked the beginning of their creative partnership, as well as their first date. They were married two years later, and have been living in Southern Indiana ever since.

“Paper Airplanes” is delightfully clever, but not so complex that it drives young viewers away. When gallery-goers file in from the escalators, they’ll be greeted by walls lined with canvases, each 16 by 20 inches. Each work is arranged to display the antics of a series of original characters, strung together by an inviting background of hazy blue skies. Framed poems sit daintily below the sprawling formation of artworks, offering kooky interpretations of the scenes above. It’s a quaint location to display works from an unpublished children’s book.

Gabriel’s paintings feature eight original characters, all children, with occasional cameos from Patch, an adorable elephant sidekick. Only a handful of the vignettes feature actual paper airplanes, but the overarching exhibition title is more ingenious than viewers would think from first glance.

Paper Airplanes exhibit at Saks Fifth Avenue

“I put a lot of paper airplanes in, just to keep movement, and it’s a good way to paint the evidence of wind, because you can’t make wind,” Gabriel explained. “We have to put things in the air, in order for there to be movement.”

“And what’s more playful than a paper airplane?” Jamie added.

Jamie and Gabriel’s characters embrace the fabricated wind and weather in their individual scenes. The artist pairs the whimsy of the vignettes with more mimetic subject matter. Characters turn their noses up to broccoli, jump in the mud, or enjoy an ice cream cone (except for the top scoop, which has toppled to the ground.)

In one of the couple’s favorite poem and painting pairings, “Close But Not Quite Right,” a young boy dons his Sunday best, except he’s mistaken the phrase to mean wearing ice cream on his head. With such a variety of whimsical storylines, there’s one for every viewer.

The pair are hoping to find a publisher to help them get the project out of Saks and into print. They’ve self-published stories and illustrations before– in particular, a pair of children’s books entitled Splat and Kitty Calamity– but need assistance handling the demand for their works. The project features 68 poems and 72 panels, including the illustrations that would make up the front and back covers of a potential book. 

You can admire the exhibition, free of charge, at the Saks Fifth Avenue Art Gallery at Keystone at the Crossing through July 5th. To learn more about the couple’s work and explore a shop of art prints, original works, and more, check out Gabriel’s website and Instagram. For inquiries about publication, interested parties can email their questions to artbygabriellehman@gmail.com.