The fighter plane models that Guillermo Rojas Bazan builds are good; perhaps too good. "I am very impressed with the models in the photographs you sent," a collector wrote. "I only hope the photographs are of your models and not the real thing."
The problem with photographs of Rojas Bazan's models is that, unless there is something in the picture to indicate scale, you can't tell that the models are models. Blame it on Rojas Bazan's painstaking attention to detail. If it was on the original, it is on the model. And that includes grease and exhaust stains, faded markings, worn upholstery and other signs of wear and tear that are found on the original.
These models are fine art, requiring the same level of skill necessary to create a museum-quality painting or sculpture. Some might scoff that they're "just model airplanes," but that's like saying Mozart's string quartets are "nice tunes." We're talking the Mozart of modeling here. And, when Rojas Bazan can find the time, he creates his masterpieces for private collectors.
Rojas Bazan lives with his wife, Clarisa, and their 10-year-old son, in a working-class apartment complex in Royal Oak, Michigan--thousands of miles and a world away from their native Argentina. They have come to this Detroit suburb by a circuitous route and due to complicated circumstances. Although the ending hasn't been written, this is a story Hollywood would love.
Rojas Bazan was born in Buenos Aires in 1949. His father was a skilled modeler who made models for his son and the neighborhood kids, and Guillermo quickly took up the hobby. As he grew, he explored various mediums for the airplanes he built, finally settling on aluminum, which, he explains today, is easy to work with and gives his models a realistic finish. "Not like shiny toys," he says in his heavily accented English.
Originally employed in banking, Rojas Bazan left the field in 1980, when the quality of his models led to a job with the Army Air Force Museum of Argentina as an aircraft illustrator, draftsman and exhibit designer. Museum officials asked him to make aluminum models of virtually every airplane in the Air Force's history, and to design the display for them. Interbranch competition being what it is, the Argentine Navy had him do the same for its ships.
One of Rojas Bazan's favorite stories from his museum days involves two generals and a jet. The general in charge of the museum told Rojas Bazan to make a model of the British Harrier jumpjet that had flown against the Argentines in the Falkland islands war, because it was a part of the Air Force's history. Rojas Bazan made a typically beautiful and detailed model. One day, a new commanding general came through the museum and spotted the Harrier. Saying, "That's an enemy plane," he took it out of the display case and stomped on it. "Such a small mind," Rojas Bazan says.
In 1988, Rojas Bazan moved to Spain to be closer to the European demand for large-scale, collector-quality models. Advertisements in European aviation magazines quickly brought in customers with commissions. It was through an advertisement in Fly Past magazine that Chuck Austin, an American involved in aviation art, discovered Rojas Bazan's work. But before that relationship could develop, another did. Rojas Bazan met and married Argentine-born Clarisa and moved with her to Israel, where she was a social worker. Officials at the Israeli Air Force museum hired him to do for their museum what he had done for its Argentine counterpart. The Rojas Bazans were living happily in Israel, but, except for the museum commission, Guillermo's career was stalled. He needed to do something to kick start it.
At that time, Austin began corresponding with Rojas Bazan, and over the next few months, Austin convinced the couple that moving to the United States was an important career move. The reasoning was that it was the best place to find people able to afford the $10,000 and up that his models cost.
The Rojas Bazans sold everything they owned and moved to New Jersey to be near their new mentor. Unfortunately, the relationship with Austin didn't work out, and the couple, with little command of English, were on their own. Worse, Rojas Bazan didn't have the immigration green card he needed to remain in the United States beyond the length of a tourist visa.
Although Rojas Bazan was not widely known, he had a small following of collectors in this country, and was known to people in the esoteric world of expensive, one-off models. One who knew of Rojas Bazan's work is Gary Kohs, who owns Fine Art Models in Birmingham, Michigan. He tracked Rojas Bazan down, learned of the couple's plight and made them an offer they couldn't refuse: Rojas Bazan would make the most detailed 1/15-scale airplanes ever executed, and Kohs would have them replicated by craftsmen in the Ukraine to be sold in limited quantities. The plan had precedent: Kohs had previously hired others to create model ships that were reproduced by craftsmen in Latvia and other parts of Eastern Europe.
This arrangement wasn't what Rojas Bazan envisioned when he made the decision to come to the States, but he was in no position to promote himself, so the family moved to Michigan.
Clarisa meets me at the door of their apartment building in Royal Oak. I follow her upstairs and am introduced to Rojas Bazan. He is a big man with longish hair and a thick mustache. His eyes are a deep brown, his grin wide and his handshake firm. I think I was expecting a small man with delicate fingers capable of the incredible detail work I had seen in photos. Rojas Bazan seems more suited to working with machinery than with modeler's tools.
We chat for a time, Clarisa filling in when her husband's newly learned English lets him down, and then I ask where his studio is. He smiles, and asks me to follow him.
"In here," he says. "Here" is their bedroom, where a large drafting table is jammed against the wall. There is just enough room to walk between the table and the bed. Resting on the table is a partially completed model of a Navy F-4U1D Corsair. Rojas Bazan says it is the most complicated and most detailed model he has ever attempted. He has been working on it for seven months and figures he has perhaps four more to go. Working, Clarisa adds, means eight to 10 hours a day, often more. The Corsair will be the first model offered in the limited-production deal with Kohs.
The drafting table is virtually empty. The Corsair sits on a stand; there are some pencils, a pair of scissors and a plastic turntable filled with paints, markers and brushes. But where are the tools?
"This is my most important tool," he says, picking up the scissors. "But I also use these," he adds, laying an Exacto knife, a carpenter's awl, a piece of sandpaper, a pair of tweezers, a kitchen ladle and a melon baller on the table. The ladle and melon baller are used for shaping aluminum. It takes a while to sink in--the man who is perhaps the greatest airplane modeler in history creates his artworks with the aid of a melon baller. He almost apologetically admits to one electric device, an air brush on the floor beside the table.
He hands me a small flashlight and asks me to look inside the cockpit. The instrument panel is filled with gauges, each with needles and pointers and each with a glass face. The joystick controller is there. So are the levers, knobs, throttle and pedals. Studying a Rojas Bazan model is the visual equivalent of peeling an onion. There is layer after layer after layer of things to discover. The flashlight reveals intricate detailing under the instrument panel. There are pressurized bottles of whatever they pressurized in a Corsair in snap-fit brackets, each with a label, a screw valve and a tube running somewhere. The wheels for trim control are there, the black paint worn off by the pilot's gloved hand. The stick actually operates the rudder and horizontal stabilizers and, when the wings are added, the ailerons.
Rojas Bazan turns the model over to point out the wiring and plumbing on the underside of the cockpit. Like the cockpit, every feature of the original (he claims, and who is to doubt?) is there. The truly remarkable thing about this particular area of intense detail is not what is there, but that it will all be covered by the plane's skin when the model is finished. The skin, by the way, gets the same detailing as the interior, down to the neatly spaced rows of rivets that Rojas Bazan simulates by tiny indentations, presumably with a carpenter's awl. Epoxy holds it all together.
Rojas Bazan doesn't simply study a picture of a plane, then sit down and make a 1/15th-scale model of it. In weeks of premodeling preparation, he studies all the material on the subject that he can find. In many cases that can include, as it did with the Corsair, the original engineering drawings. The drawings, penned in 1942, were stamped "Secret," lest they fall into the hands of the enemy.
He converted the scale used in the drawings to 1/15th to get the exact dimensions for the model, which the Ukrainian craftsmen then build in sections and in the same sequence as the original. What worked on the factory floor works in Rojas Bazan's bedroom. One-fifteenth scale was chosen, he explains, because at that scale, airplanes of different sizes look proportionally correct when viewed together. Plans call for the creation of a series of limited-production models, and, logically, collectors would buy more than one model and would display them together.
Since the Corsair will be copied for limited production, Rojas Bazan makes two of everything. The duplicates are sent to the Ukraine where they will be copied for the production run. The tail section has already been sent, with the cockpit and the fixed sections of the folding wings to follow shortly. It may take two and a half to three years to complete the production run of 139 copies. (Why 139? That was the number on the first train model Kohs' firm did.) According to Kohs, the limited-production models will cost around $6,500 each. That's more than $900,000 worth of model airplanes. Rojas Bazan says the original should sell for $50,000 to $75,000.
The Corsair is taking as long as it is because of the detail. Rojas Bazan would typically spend about two months on a model of lesser detail, which would sell for $10,000 to $15,000. Over the years, private commissions have come from ex-pilots, owners of restored war birds, war buffs and collectors.
Kohs arrives, and I ask him if it will be possible for his workers in the Ukraine to duplicate the level of detail--and quality--that Rojas Bazan is building into the Corsair. Kohs says yes; Rojas Bazan looks unconvinced. Later, at Kohs' office, I see some of the battleships the Latvian operation has turned out, and they look very good to my untrained eye. But they contain nowhere near the detail of the Corsair. Kohs expects the first dozen limited-production models to be here by Christmas. Then we'll know.
By that time, Rojas Bazan will complete the Corsair and then start on the second model in the series, a Ford Tri-Motor, which will be as intricate and time-consuming as the Corsair. If Kohs' plan works, which is to say, there are customers for the limited-production models, Rojas Bazan will turn out roughly a model a year for 10 years to complete the series. He and Clarisa are assured of a steady and comfortable income without relying on the vagaries of working for individual customers. After the upheaval of leaving Israel and the financial uncertainties of the past few months, there is a certain appeal to Kohs' plan. And then?
"You can't do this work all your life," Rojas Bazan says. "The eyes. In 10 years I want to write books on how to do this, and to teach it." While we are talking, Rojas Bazan has been absentmindedly playing with a small piece of aluminum sheet. As I get up to go, he places it on the coffee table. It has taken on a delicate curve.
There is magic in those big hands.
Mike Knepper is a writer who lives in Connecticut.