Categorized | Special Reports

Sacramento Airport Art Scores a Hit

Lawrence Argent’s "Red Rabbit", glass-covered aluminum sculpture
Sacramento may be a world leader in political gridlock, but when it comes to art it more closely resembles a speeding bullet train. Last year the Crocker Art Museum tripled its size with a gleaming new structure designed by the late Charles Gwathmey. This year, on October 6, Sacramento International Airport unveiled a $1.3B addition that is the largest construction project in the city’s history. It features major works of art by Lawrence Argent, Donald Lipski, Christian Moeller, Ned Kahn, Camille Utterback, Mildred Howard, Joan Moment, Suzanne Adan, Lynn Criswell and others. All totaled, there are 14 works, two of which will soon be commissioned. They carry a price tag $6 million and collectively represent Sacramento’s single largest investment in public art. 
"Red Rabbit" from the escalator, mezzanine level
Their home, which goes by the deadpan moniker of Terminal B, was designed by Dallas-based Corgan Associates. Its stated goal — “bringing the outside in” — has been spectacularly realized. Louvered floor-to-ceiling windows in the main ticketing and baggage areas, along with skylights on the top floor allow nature to turn this 4-million cubic foot space into a giant light box. As the sun moves across the sky, it continuously reframes and refocuses the building’s arched ceiling, cantilevered side walls, soaring buttresses and vertical support beams. The most dramatic view is from the top of a 3-story escalator, just in front of Joan Moment’s 12 x 18-foot mosaic, A Fragment of the Universe. From that vantage point, looking out through the horizontally bisected windows, you see what appears to be an agricultural landscape rising up almost vertically, as if the surrounding terrain were Napa and not the T square-flat Sacramento Valley. It’s a convincing illusion. If you come here for no other reason than to view architecture and to watch the man-altered landscape around it being transformed by the play of shadow and light you’ll be amply rewarded. 
This drama plays out most impressively on the building’s centerpiece, a 56-foot-long, 19-foot-tall red rabbit by Lawrence Argent called Leap.  Built of glass-coated aluminum and assembled in visible sections with black-painted edges, it looks like an outsized bunny dressed as Spiderman. It hangs from the ceiling by steel cables and appears to be diving into a granite-and-bronze suitcase that rests on the ground floor. Like Argent’s giant blue bear, which peers into the windows of the Denver Convention Center, Leap, by itself, it is not a life-changing experience, nor does it pack the intellectual wallop of Argent’s highly variegated (sculpture, painting, installation, drawing, photography) studio work.  That would be a tall order for any piece of public art given the bureaucratic gauntlet these projects must survive to get built. But, situated as it is — before a bank of escalators that spans nearly its entire height – the Red Rabbit, as it’s called locally, provides one of the most visually arresting conveyance experiences you’re likely to find in any airport. As such, it will likely become Sacramento’s new mascot. It may also, over time, acquire deeper, darker shades of meaning, as travelers in these economically distressed times wish that they, too, could escape life’s travails by jumping down a rabbit hole. 
Joan Moment, "A Fragment of the Universe", mosaic
“The energy in an airport is unlike any other place,” says Argent speaking by telephone from his home in Denver. “It’s an orchestra of different emotions,” not all of them pleasant. “I wanted to create a moment of connection that can enliven that moment of passage, undermining trepidations and channeling them into a moment of fantasy and play.” On the practical side, the rabbit’s sheer mass coupled with its strategic placement at the juncture of most of the airport’s main functions, means that from almost any angle, “you see where it’s going, and it’s where you’re going.” (Watch Lawrence Campling’s documentary of the Red Rabbit’s installation.)

Bay Area artist Mildred Howard, well-known for glass sculptures, including one made of bottles that recently went up in Palo Alto, takes the substantially tarnished idea of home and gives it a mind-bending twist with a structure defiantly titled This House Will Not Pass for Any Color but its Own. Built of hand-blown slabs of purple glass held aloft by cylindrical red posts sunk into the terrazzo floor, the dwelling, sized and shaped like a bus stop shelter, stands just outside a security screening area. 

Mildred Howard, "This House Will Not Pass for Any Color but its Own", glass sculpture

Like the Red Rabbit, its appearance varies according to the time of day. It’s both transparent and reflective, and when it reflects light it sometimes does so with blinding intensity. Stand inside and you get a different experience. Metallic-hued strips embedded in the glass appear to be identical, but they are not. As with the exterior, some are transparent and others are reflective. What’s impossible to know unless someone tells you is that those pieces also spell out – in a highly abstract fashion – bits of text from Gold Rush-era letters that Howard sourced from the California Historical Society. It was a way, says the artist, of pulling the past into the future “using the physics of light “as a metaphor” to show us “what’s here and what’s gone. You see your reflection in these fragmented letters and you become part of that experience whether you know it or not.” 

Howard maintains that the building’s purpose is to provide relief to stressed-out travelers, but what it mainly does, through its wacky optics, is shatter the conventional idea of home by underscoring its increasingly provisional nature. To that interpretation, Howard, a former instructor at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, responds: “Anytime you question something it’s good because what I attempt to do is have multiple entry points.” 
Donald Lipski, "Acorn Steam", mixed media sculpture.  The wave form in the ceiling is real, no need to adjust your monitor.
Donald Lipski’s tree-based chandelier, Acorn Steam, located just outside the security area, makes another head-spinning statement with light. A realistic-looking fantasy of three tree trunks fused together and hung with 5,000 hand-cut crystals that glow during the day (and 3,000 LED bulbs that switch on at night), it gives off the crackling aura of 4th of July sparklers. The piece, whose title is an anagram of Sacramento, was built around branch-shaped lengths of aluminum tubing. These were covered with a layer of “poly foam” (for bulk) and then coated with a “paste” of epoxy resin, cast from the trunks of actual Valley Oak trees. The texture of the simulation is uncannily accurate.  (Watch the YouTube documentary video to see the piece being fabricated.)
“When I’m walking through airports, which is something I do a lot,” says Lipski, “I see people pass by art that they don’t even notice; they’re looking for gates and bathrooms.   Everybody’s on a mission. I wanted something that would stop people in their tracks, something that was really grand and that would be transporting.” Lipski who, in 2000, installed a similar piece in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, found those qualities in the majestic Valley Oaks, which he first encountered in Sacramento’s Capitol Park. “It was like being in an arboretum,” says the Philadelphian of the experience he transformed into in a piece of functional art. 
Living Lenses, "Your Words are Music to My Ears", interactive sound installation
Beyond the security area, not far from Lipski’s chandelier, you’ll find an immense silver horn situated in front of a window overlooking the tarmac. The “instrument”, created by Living Lenses (the team of Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelson) is electronically controlled by a computer keypad. Type an email or text message and out comes sound. The output is a bit New-Agey, like the droning stuff heard on NPR’s Hearts of Space, but it’s trippy nonetheless. Whether it remains so over time is an open question. For now, at least, putting your head inside the horn’s bell and watching your face warp like the reflection in a funhouse mirror is certainly a pleasurable diversion. It would be more fun, still, if the controlling algorithm could be tweaked to generate a greater variety of sounds. No matter. Echoing in form the Post Minimalist sculpture of Anish Kapoor, the piece breathes life into the oft-challenged New Media/Interactive category
Camille Utterback and Michelle Higa, "Active Ecosystem", interactive video installation
MacArthur “genius” award winner Camille Utterback’s Active Ecosystem is the other major piece of electronic artwork installed in Terminal B. A collaboration with Michelle Higa, it consists of a series of LCD screens mounted on a glass elevator tower in the ticketing area. It displays a succession of nature images against multi-colored backgrounds, both of which shift to evoke the seasons. It’s a slow-read artwork that rewards a long look, which is not something many works of art can command in this amped-up, hyperkinetic environment. But if you give it only 60 seconds, you’ll find its hypnotic sensuality captivating. 
Joan Moment and Suzanne Adan, both painters, created large (12 x 18’) floor mosaics built of tessera glass supplied by the world’s leading fabricator of that material, Franz Mayer of Munich (the same firm that fabricated the glass for Mildred Howard’s piece.) What distinguishes these mosaics is how accurately they convey what the artists do on canvas. Moment’s paintings combine biomorphic and geometric elements, often mixing multiple views of terrestrial and celestial forms in the same work.  Her mosaic, with its multi-colored circles and brilliant blue ground, depicts a fantastical vision of the cosmos. Adan’s cartoonish, figure-based paintings move between child-like innocence and a threatening punkiness, a quality that her mosaic, Flying Colors, leavens with branches and birds whose Pinnocchio-like beaks lend a mischievously playful tone to an otherwise dark vision.
I also enjoyed Marcia Stuermer’s ceiling installation, Migration, at the Customs checkpoint. It consists of 32 translucent panels measuring 64 x 16’ that depict of a flock of Sandhill cranes flying overhead, a common sight in the Central Valley. Because it’s lit from above, the feeling you get is akin to watching Winged Migration from the bottom of a lake. It may not be immersive in the way the IMAX film is, but it’s the closest thing to it you’re likely to experience in an airport.
Suzanne Adan, "Flying Colors, mosaic
Lynn Criswell’s terrazzo-and-steel floor installation, As the Crow Flies, features silhouettes of local birds in aluminum rectangles which are counterbalanced by 18 empty birdcages that hang overhead. Christian Moeller’s monumentally scaled wall work, The Baggage Handlers, runs 150 linear feet along the back wall of the ticket hall.  It renders photographic images of workers’ faces in wood, in the manner of bit-map computer graphics, the contours of which are readable only at a distance.  Not all of the art at Terminal B fares as well.  Ned Kahn, one of the truly great figures in public art, falls flat with a wind-based installation whose reflective metal flaps are virtually invisible from the intended vantage point: the elevated train known as the Automated People Mover. Greg Kondos’ valley landscape painting is an embarrassing boondoggle. Never mind that this locally popular regionalist already has an enormous glass piece installed at Terminal A. Too much apparently wasn’t enough.  Before his retirement, Sacramento County’s former CEO, Terry Schutten, in an extraordinary move, proposed the painting’s purchase to the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. The commission’s approval, though legal, circumvented the longstanding community-based process used by the county’s Art in Public Places program to select all of the other airport artists. Shelly Willis, who directs the program and who opposed Schutten ’s maneuver, says it’s the only instance of a “direct purchase” made during her four years on the job, and only one of a few she’s witnessed in her 25-year career. 
My biggest gripe is that once you move beyond the ticketing /baggage area to the flight gates, there are just too many large tracts of unadorned space. Sure, it’s nice that some of the city’s tonier restaurants set up shop to complement the usual mall fare. But a little more art would vastly enrich the experience. The reason there isn’t more is that the County Board of Supervisors voted, in another perfectly legal maneuver, to cut the project’s art budget in half. (Normally, a “two percent for art” formula applies to all publicly financed construction projects in the area.) 
Still, despite political logrolling, the art on view at Terminal B proves that at least one sliver of government, Sacramento’s Art in Public Places program, can turn heads and sets tongues wagging in a good way. And if that Red Rabbit overtakes the Capitol Dome as Sacramento’s mascot, you’ll hear no complaints from me.
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Q&A with Shelly Willis, director of Sacramento’s Art in Public Public Places Program
Shelly Willis w/Lawrence Argent (in background) installing the Red Rabbit  Photo: Lawrence Campling
David M. Roth: The new airport represents the largest commitment this region has ever made to public art.  For people not familiar with the range of public art in Sacramento, can you put this project into perspective? 
Shelly Willis: There are hundreds of artworks in the City and County collection by important artists residing locally regionally and nationally. The difference between the rest of the collection and this project is the fact that the new terminal will ultimately include 14 artworks at onelocation, many of which are monumental in scale.  There is no other site in the community with multiple artworks of this scale.  
Bringing the outside in. What, exactly, does that mean, and how does the airport art accomplish it?
It’s is a concept the architect devised for the airport’s design. The architect approached the idea literally by using a design on the airport floor that recalls rows from a farm field and a series of arched steel beams that recall a tree canopy. When the artists were commissioned, they were told about the concept and encouraged to think along those lines. It wasn’t a requirement; but most artists wound up incorporating it into their designs. Camille Utterback used images of the river and falling leaves in her multi-media piece. Lynn Criswell used images of indigenous birds in her floor piece; Christian Moeller took baggage claim workers, who typically work outside, and brought them indoors for his piece.
Christian Moeller, "The Baggage Handlers," low relief wood wall hanging
Let’s talk about the high-profile projects: Donald Lipski, Christian Moeller, Camille Utterback, Lawrence Argent, Mildred Howard, Joan Moment, Suzanne Adan. Give us a quick rundown on what you think are the most interesting aspects of each.
Lipski’s chandelier is constantly changing – capturing and refracting light throughout the day and night.  At times it can look like it’s on fire at other times, cool and elegant.  I like the fact that Moeller’s piece honors the workers – the people behind the scenes who make the airport function. The calming aspects of Camille Utterback’s interactive elevator installation caught me by surprise. It’s like watching fish in a tank – it’s absolutely serene. I like the contrast between the obvious use of the hand in fabricating Joan Moment and Suzanne Adan’s works and all the other works that were created with computer technology. You can sense that every stone was cut and placed by a person. The colors in Moment’s piece pull you in and the details make you want to stop and stay.   As for Argent, the rabbit is what helps activate the space. The angles, the color and black lines reinforce important elements of the architecture. Howard’s glass house is disarming, charming and unexpected – especially since it’s located right before you enter security.
Lynn Criswell, "As the Crow Flies", terazzo and steel floor, suspended resin sculptures   Photo: courtesy of the artist
 Integrating art into public spaces is always a challenge. What was uniquely challenging about this project? 
The quick timeline and airport construction logistics. We developed the art plan and the artist selection process afterthe building broke ground, so everyone — artists, administrators, designers, and construction staff — had to work very hard to stay in sync with the construction schedule.  Also, as you can imagine, security and safety precautions were much stricter, more so than on any other project I’ve managed.  Also, because the project was managed by two contractors, there were two completely different sets of meetings, cultures and processes to work with.
Public art always seems to be a lighting rod for critics and admirers. How have people responded so far? 
No reaction is the worst reaction. I worry when an artwork is installed and nobody says anything.  I’m inspired when art gives the public a forum for discussion. Thankfully, we’ve had a lot of response to this project — positive, negative and everything in between. The big criticism always has to do with money: how much is being spent. Throughout the design and construction phases, people pointed to the rabbit as a symbol of public waste, when in fact the money was private, not public, and the amount of money spent, as a percentage of the total construction cost, was very small. Another response has been “why a rabbit?” or “What does a rabbit have to do with Sacramento?”  What’s really interesting to me is that almost everyone has a different reaction, a different favorite piece of artwork. That, to me, is the mark of a strong public art program. 
[Editor’s note: Funding for the airport came from three sources: 1) bonds, 2) a ticket surcharge and 3) fees levied on airlines, concessions and car rentals.]
Marcia Stuermer "Migration", acrylic ceiling
What do you say to people who ask why spend money on public art when social services are being slashed?
Art and culture are a reflection of a community’s values.  A community without art and culture is empty, soulless.  Nobody wants to live, work, or invest in a community that has no soul. I don’t think the general public has a lot of time to spend analyzing the importance of art in our daily lives, but if they did things would change. As far as comparing art to social services – investing in a community is not a matter of black and white choices.  The health of a community depends on a number of ingredients in just the right proportions. Those ingredients include art and culture along with every other kind of spending.
Speaking of money, I see a lot of space at the airport that could really benefit from art. What are the chances of getting more money for art at the airport?
Two years ago we established a $2M endowment that would conserve and maintain public art and also allow us to commission new works of temporary public art.  I fully expect to begin the temporary public art program at the airport next year.
What role does public art play in a community and, in particular, this community?
Public art is one of the primary ways a community can go from “any town USA” to a place people recognize as unique and authentic. It can have a profound impact on how a community is perceived.  The city and county of Sacramento began investing in public art almost 35 years ago and I think now we are now beginning to reap the benefits of that investment.
About the Author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
Photographs: David M. Roth except where noted.



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