CoffeeShop Chronicles: The artist who taught pilots to fly

Everyone has a story that should be told about themselves, their neighborhood, or someone they know. Occasionally, I set up at a table in a coffee shop and interview people who stop in. Today, I set up at the SugaRush Coffee Shop on University Avenue in St. Paul. Here’s another story:


When I ask people to let me interview them, many assure me that they’re not that interesting (they’re almost always wrong), but that’s not Melisand Charles. “I’m fascinating,” she told me, just before she proved it.

She comes from a family of artists. Her father was the Dutch composer David Broekman, who scored the music for the 1930 Academy Award-winner All Quiet on the Western Front. Her mother was a sculptor and dress designer. She points out that neither graduated high school.

Charles moved to Minnesota to develop the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Minneapolis in 1975. Now, she lives in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul.

“When I moved here it was a little rougher, but it’s like a little farm town,” she says. “It’s quiet.”

She was trained in fine arts painting and sculpting and printmaking , but she always wanted to make “moving paintings.”

When computers became available, she studied “whatever I could, because at that time — the 1980s — there was very little.” She learned how to use computers and system and then started teaching others.

She worked for Plato, which is now located in Bloomington. The company provides technical-based teaching tools. She was the art director and taught pilots how to fly planes by designing a simulator-like system.

“We had a joke,” she said. “How many artists does it take to fly a plane? All of them.”

One program she designed was to teach pilots what to do when things went wrong. “That was everything that could go wrong with an airplane. I never had any fear of flying up to that time, but once I learned about everything that could go wrong… I figure I’ve had a long life.”

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