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Discovering Art in Airports

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Discovering Art in Airports

With earlier check-in times due to increased security measures, passengers have become a captive audience at airports worldwide. While the downside is longer waits, the upside is the push by many airport authorities to make the experience more pleasurable. The installation of public art in airports – architectural builds, sculptures, water features, moving walkways, murals, mosaics, lighting installations and performance art – are miracle workers in making any terminal pop.

And we’re not talking one or two token works here. There are dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of pieces in permanent and temporary installations that are accessible across terminals in a single airport. Many are characterized by their eye-catching scale, purpose-built into their space.

Here are five North American airports worth exploring with your eyes wide open and smartphone at hand.

Miami International Airport (MIA)

The primary mission of the Division of Fine Arts & Cultural Affairs at the MIA is to commission and use contemporary art to communicate culture and “to humanize and enrich the airport environment.” Working through the award-winning Miami-Dade Art in Public Places, these installations represent a diverse group of international artists who bring work out of galleries and museums and into the broader life of the Miami community.

The art is funded through an ordinance passed in 1973 which allocated 1.5% of county construction funds for site-specific, permanent artworks which are intimately linked to the architecture of the site. The airport is one of numerous public sites across Miami-Dade county that takes advantageous of this fund to enhance their artistic vision.

Works to look for:

A Walk on the Beach by Michele Oka Doner
Level 2 (past security)

Long walks along Miami’s beaches observing shells, seaweed, and other marine forms deposited by the tides inspired this monumental site-specific art installation. A Walk on the Beach, a half-mile-long walkway featuring two thousand unique cast bronze elements embedded in a dark gray terrazzo matrix, celebrates the saltwater plants and vertebrate creatures inhabiting South Florida’s shallow coastal waters. Scatterings of mother-of-pearl create a richness of texture and reference the sea foam at the water’s edge.

Años Continuos, 1996 by Maria Martinez-Canas
Level 2 (past security)

Light plays an important role in Años Continuos, a mural composed of sandblasted glass panels filling a 40 by 40 foot atrium space.  Translucent images of maps, travel documents, and cultural symbols are juxtaposed to create a rich visual collage exploring issues relating to personal history, cultural identity, and the passage of time. In speaking of her work, the artist states, “photography for me is ‘drawing with light.’”

Flight Patterns by Robert Calvo
Concourse H, 2nd floor

Artist Robert Calvo investigates notions of time, travel, distance, location, and discovery in his 880-foot-long floor mural titled Flight Patterns. Fascinated with the tension between the impulse to travel and the need to return home, Calvo incorporated powerful symbols referencing maps, celestial cycles, and astrology in his floor imagery. On the stairways to the third level, Calvo inlaid evocative proverbs and poems, gently prompting the traveler to upper areas of the concourse. Executed in over ten colors of terrazzo, Calvo communicates with the traveler, creating a thoughtful environment and, in the artist’s words, “balancing transience and nomadism with domesticity and sense of place.”

Foreverglades by Barbara Neijna
Concourse J, 2nd floor

The vast, compelling work of art celebrates one of the world’s great miracles — the slow-moving “river of grass” we call the Everglades. But the art, which fills much of Miami International Airport’s Concourse J, is in many ways a miracle on its own. Barbara Neijna’s Foreverglades is one of the largest public-art projects ever built, covering floors and walls of two floors of the concourse, filling it with words and images, color and light — and even more, perhaps, with insight and inspiration.

Harmonic Convergence by Christopher Janney

A 72-foot-long window wall with diamond-shaped panes of glass in 150 transparent colors gradually changes its pattern of colors, similar to a rainbow. As short percussion instrumental plays at the top of each hour which is composed of sounds from the Florida Everglades, under the ocean and other natural environments.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Chicago’s airports have long served as a canvas for the City’s public arts with an emphasis on local and global interests. The City of Chicago’s world-renowned Public Art Program is dedicated to enhancing the air travel experience, which is reflected in the permanent and temporary exhibits which include dozens of sculptures, paintings, murals and exhibits.

Like Miami, the art program is funded by Chicago’s 1% for Art Ordinance.

Look for these installations specifically created for the airport.

The Sky’s the Limit by Michael Hayden

This fantastic art piece is a 745 ft-long kinetic light sculpture composed of 466 neon tubes. The sculpture includes 23,600 square feet of mirror reflecting over one mile of neon. The sculpture is located in the tunnel connecting Concourses B & C of Terminal 1, after the security checkpoints.

Sister Airport Paintings East Hall

The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) has entered into agreements with many airports around the world to share technical, commercial and environmental best practices. They are known as our Sister Airports. To celebrate the countries of our Sister Airports, there are a series of paintings located in the “Sterile Corridors” of the International Terminal 5. There are a total of 12 paintings, with six paintings in each Sterile Corridor. The east Hall features paintings by artists from Mexico City, Mexico; Casablanca, Morocco; Prague, Czech Republic; Warsaw, Poland; Osaka, Japan; and Shenyang, China.

E.B. and Maureen Smith Stained Glass Collection

Located in the Sterile Corridors of the International Terminal 5 is a collection of 48 pieces of stained glass from E.B. and Maureen Smith’s personal collection. Each Corridor features 24 pieces of stained glass, each unique and from different parts of the world.

The Field Museum Brachiosaurus Dinosaur

A skeleton model of a Brachiosaurus dinosaur excavated in 1900 by Field Museum paleontologist Elmer Riggs is located in Terminal 1, Concourse B near the entrance to the tunnel to Concourse C (past security). The model stands four-stories high, and 72 feet long. The exhibit was presented to O’Hare in 1999 by the Field Museum and United Airlines.

I’ve Known Rivers by Alejandro Ramero and Gallery37

A 208-foot long mural painted in acrylics, that brings to life the words and spirit of the Langston Hughes poem, “I’ve Known Rivers” is located in the lower level Pedestrian Walkway tunnel between Terminals 1 and 3. This aesthetically pleasing work was proportioned to approximate the Golden Ratio.

San Diego International Airport

In 2006, San Diego International Airport formalized its Arts Program by establishing an Arts Program Master Plan that created guidelines and policies that were adopted by the Board. The program aims to engage travellers in “innovative, memorable and considerate experiences” that reflect the culture and unique attributes of the area.

The public art, temporary exhibitions and performing arts, including seasonal dance, theater and music concerts, are funded by a 2% art allocation from all eligible on-site construction projects.

To look for:

In Flight

“In Flight” is a suite of four Italian glass mosaic murals detailing a metaphor for the flying experience; a woman in transit, an informal family portrait and a variety of carry-ons are depicted in a renovated rotunda of the airport. As the airport is a point of arrivals and departures from our past, our home, our jobs, and is a place of transition to new connections and opportunities, passers-by may see themselves mirrored in this artwork. It is a mythic point of entry and return.

The Traveler

The progressive presentation of nostalgic images invites passersby to become personally involved as the story develops by way of displaying sentimental snapshots. Located at Terminal 1, Gate 1A, this piece represents a linear story expressed through photographs of Southern California narrated by a single quote – “Though we travel the world in search of the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”


Seattle: Sea-Tac Airport

The Art Walk at Sea-Tac Airport Art Walk is a free, self-guided tour of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s diverse Northwest-inspired public art.

The walking route begins at Central Terminal food court with the piece “In Landing” and terminates at the end of Concourse A with “I Was Dreaming of Spirit Animals at gate A-14. The walk spans 1/2 mile (one way) and features over 100 works of art by regional and international artists.

Click here for the stories of individual pieces within the collection.

Works to look for:

Champion by Peter de Lory

The mosaic column of Peter de Lory showcases one of the defining icons of the Pacific Northwest – a Western Red Cedar.

Peter de Lory is a Seattle-based photographer who documents both the natural landscape and the urban infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest. Marrying the inherent contrasts of these two subjects for this piece, Peter photographed the tallest Western Red Cedar tree in the world and wrapped the photograph around a column, suggesting that parallels exist between the natural and the constructed.

Located on Nolan Creek Road near Forks, Washington, the tree stands on property owned by the State School Trust Land and is managed by the Department of Natural Resources. The tree has been saved by loggers in honor of its size and age: 178 feet tall, 19.4 feet in diameter, and estimated to be 1,000 years old.

Flying Fish by Judith & Daniel Caldwell

A stream of bronze salmon swim in terrazzo and curve along the floor of Concourse B.  It consists of bronze fish and leaves indigenous to the Northwest embedded in the terrazzo and meandering down the length of Concourse B. The fish carrying the suitcase is just one example of the many surprises you’ll find as you journey down the stream. It all adds to the whimsical nature of the work which has produced many positive comments from the public; but the best part is watching children respond in such delight as they interact with the artwork and discover those unexpected elements found in the cast artwork.

Pop Can Quilts by Ross Palmer Beecher

The quilts are constructed of soda pop cans and are bordered by tin links arranged into what Beecher describes as a “gum wrapper chain.” Two quilts feature flags and the other two depict quilted heart designs.

“People are humored when they see a common graphic, such as a Coke can, integrated into a grand-scaled banner or quilt […] people marvel at the fun, color, and cheerfulness of these quilts.”

I Was Dreaming…. by Cappy Thompson

Intense color and narrative charm merge together to form a massive stained-glass composition. Inspired by a series of dreams she once had, Cappy Thompson blended “symbolic allusions to modern, traditional, Native American, European, and astronomical sources” to create this piece. The radiant, jewel-toned hues heighten the tranquil surrealism of the characters, suggesting to the viewer that they are simply stargazing into the skies of the Pacific Northwest.

The grisaille technique of applying the gray tracery line was used by medieval European artists to paint the glass panels in cathedrals.

Toronto: Pearson Airport

Toronto Pearson has been building its public art collection since 2000. Eight permanent works reflect Toronto’s role as a gateway to North American air travel with a focus on “the essence of flight.”

Changing exhibition spaces emphasize the collaboration between local and provincial partners, including Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, CONTACT Photography Festival, the Design Exchange, Ontario Crafts Council, Open Studio and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Through its public art program Toronto Pearson “is proud to bring travellers a renewed era of design, amenities and customer service excellence. Designed to enrich travel through Toronto Pearson, an extensive art and exhibition program will offer a unique, uplifting and educational experience to many airport visitors.”

A complete art catalogue is available here.

Works to look for:

Earthbound…Unbound by Ingo Maurer

Since the 1980s, the whimsy and magic of his [Maurer’s] work has been featured in lighting installations, concepts for businesses, private and public spaces, and architectural projects.

Jetstream by Susan Schelle & Mark Gomes

The weather is our national pastime; it is a subject and language shared by all, and a dialogue that is always curious. Speculations never end, and the outcome, more often than not, is a surprise. It is the weather and the visual imagery associated with it that we have drawn from – a lexicon of positive atmospheric phenomena, an area of rich representation and familiar abstraction. Weather and flight are intimately linked, with no translation necessary. Weather is a fact with its own built-in sense of place.”

Aluminum, granite, bronze; Six floor inlays: each 3 metres diameter;
Suspended configurations: 66 x 13 metres

Dinosaurs in Terminal 1

Travel back to a time when pterodactyls ruled the skies instead of airplanes. Our prehistoric installation, “A Scene from the Late Jurassic”, features two incredible dinosaurs courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and is sure to thrill guests of all ages. Drop by Terminal 1 to see a large Allosaurus bearing down on an Othnielia that has fallen to the ground. Amazing!


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