Colonial Arts: Air & Optics

Mount Vernon’s Colonial Market & Fair features dozens of America’s finest historic craftspeople who display their talents and wares. Jon Stealey of Findlay, OH, has participated in the festival since 2013, sharing his collection of camera obscurae with fair-goers.

As a photography and graphic arts professor, Stealey always loved history, especially of photography. His background and passion led Stealey to study Thomas Jefferson's camera obscura at Monticello in 2006, where he was invited to create two replicas of his instrument. 

Camera obscurae, or “dark room,” predates the modern camera, entertaining the public for centuries by projecting still images. Each year, he brings several of his camera obscurae to Colonial Market & Fair for guests to use. These devices come in many sizes, with Stealey's largest “Grand Camera” able to accommodate 12-15 people inside the tent.

In 2015, Stealey added a new attraction to his presentation: 18th-century-style air balloon. He makes each balloon by hand using 50 yards of paper made by a French company whose paper was used in the 1780s for the first air balloons. He sticks the paper together with fish glue and reinforces it with linen thread before drawing designs with black ink. Building each balloon takes about three weeks, but they can only fly for a few days due to wind, dampness, landings, and curious kids.

Over the last five years, Stealey has made 23 balloons and plans to bring five to Mount Vernon this September. During his presentation, Stealey holds the balloon over a smoky fire and fills it with hot air. Once inflated, the balloon rises and Jon releases it, allowing the wind to dictate its course.

“The historical artisans and vendors at the Colonial Market & Fair are a wonderful mix,” said Stealey. “Once on a perfect weather day, I was demonstrating the Grand Camera and saw the Mansion in perfect light and my balloon crew just launching an air balloon off the bowling green. To see the Mansion and my air balloon on the screen in my Grand Camera was just amazing.”

Visit Jon Stealey's Air & Optics in action at Colonial Market & Fair

November 10-12

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