Art From The Air
A $49 demo flight in 1997 ultimately led to a creative career in aerial photography
BY JANN CLARK, Eastern New England Chapter
Margot Cheel is an accomplished aerial photographer. She was an arts major at Middlebury College and stayed involved in the arts in various ways as she raised her two children. As her younger child was preparing to leave for college, Margot happened to participate in a creativity workshop that inspired and encouraged her to take risks. And she did, taking her love of the arts in a new direction.
She discovered that direction one day as she drove home from Maine after dropping her last child off at college and casually noticed the many small airports along the way. When she got home, she went to a bookstore and picked up a book about female aviators.
She read an article in Time magazine about a woman in midlife who, in one small plane flight, found a profound perspective from the views above. Finally, a friend dropped in and talked about her son, an Air Force flyer, who had been urging her to try flying. With all these messages, a portentous adventure was born.
A $49 demo flight at Marshfield Airport in 1997 ignited a passion for flying that has gripped Margot ever since. She started taking flying lessons and soon obtained her private pilot certificate. However, it wasn’t until a fortuitous encounter at a church fundraiser in 1998 that Margot discovered the joy of aerial photography. A pilot had offered to photograph people’s houses from the air and donate his fee to the fundraiser. It was a beautiful autumn day, and Margot offered to go along to help with the photography. The pictures came out great, and people were happy to pay for them. A career in aerial photography was born.
Besides publishing two books of her photographs, Margot has taken aerial photographs for homeowners, real estate firms and environmental groups in the New England states, South Florida, the Pacific Northwest and Ontario, Canada. She has taken photos of Mt. Rainier in Washington State and Mt. Denali in Alaska.
A favorite photo expedition took place in Hawaii at the 99s International Convention in 2010. She and another 99 rented a Cessna Caravan with an instructor, who pointed out sights she wouldn’t have known to look for.
An exciting and challenging photo adventure was the 2013 Air Race Classic, where Margot was the third teammate and photographer in Olga Mitchell’s 1977 Cessna Cardinal. Olga, Eastern New England Chapter, was PIC, and Mary Build, Katahdin Wings Chapter, was co-pilot. there were weather challenges throughout the race, with downdrafts in the mountains at the start, a dust storm just behind them at one departure, and delays on the first day when they reached the airport within seven minutes of the official time limit for the day. they made it, and the next three days of the race as well. Margot took some wonderful pictures and has put them into a slide show for presentations to the 99s, the New England Air Museum, the Aero Club of New England and other groups.
Margot’s Fine Art Aerial Photography (margotcheel.com) has been shown in juried exhibitions and has appeared in local magazines, Cape Cod Life and South Shore Living. She was featured on Boston WCVB-TV’s Chronicle, showing how her aerial images speak to environmentalism (margotcheel.com/press).
Encouraged by many to create a book of her aerials, Margot produced and published Sea and Sand from the Sky in 2012, a full-color coffee table book with quotes from aviators. That year at the 99s International Convention in Providence, Rhode Island, Margot’s book was given as a thank you to all presenters.
Her second book developed through an interesting phenomenon: kids who came to her photography exhibits would often visualize a figure in the landscape photo. Parents might see something else in the same image, and a conversation would ensue. That inspired Margot to create a picture book for children, What Do You See? Finding Shapes from the Sky, in 2016. She initially tested the images on her four-year-old grandson, then found that fifth graders also loved discovering shapes in her photos. Adults generally buy the book for their kids or grandkids but get caught up in the game, so Margot markets the book to “kids from 4 to 94!”
“It’s a way to spark creative imagination, connect to nature and look beyond the first glance – beyond labeling,” says Margot.
Margot first heard about The 99s when a member called to congratulate her on her private pilot certificate. She attended a meeting, where she found a compatible group of women offering mutual support, education and opportunities to be a part of women pilot history. Along with aerial photography and her responsibilities within The 99s, Margot continues to facilitate creativity workshops and mentor people seeking to find and follow their dreams.
She joined the Eastern New England Chapter in 2002 and has been an active member since. She has served as the Chapter newsletter editor back when the newsletter was photocopied, stuffed into envelopes by hand and mailed; as Vice Chair and as Chapter Chair. On the Section level, she is the Oral History Chair for the New England Section, producing video interviews of our oldest members before their stories are lost forever, and is currently the New England Section Vice Governor.
Margot and the New England Section are looking forward to hosting next year’s Air Race Classic terminus in Fryeburg, Maine.