Airport Art Is Taking Off

“Finding the extraordinary in the mundane fascinates me.”

So begins Herb Williams’s artist statement for “Ripple” (2020–22), a series of six creatures sculpted with over 500,000 crayons. It’s installed on black granite plinths beside an escalator at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, where Williams conceives of their stairstep configuration as “a body of dark, cascading waterfalls.”

Rushing to catch a flight, some holiday travelers might mistake the sculptures for mere novelties, or fail to notice them altogether, without thinking about why the artist set the animals in ripples that suggest not only pools of water but also the interconnections between species. Perhaps others will pause to really see them, even making a mental leap to ripple effects wrought by humans bisecting birds in flight while hurling themselves through the sky in aluminum tubes. 

Several of the nation’s major airports, including Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona, have completed significant additions or renovations in recent years. In 2022, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington opened its new International Arrivals Facility, where five painted sculptures by Marela Zacarías hang suspended above baggage claim carousels. And three major airports in the metropolitan New York area are in flux now, as well.

Other hubs, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in Minnesota and Chicago O’Hare International Airport in Illinois, are in the midst of expansions. Denver International Airport, where early commissions of public art included Luis Jiménez’s controversial “Mustang/Mesteño” (2008), a sculpture of a blue horse with piercing red eyes, is undergoing a years-long renovation of its Great Hall, where future artworks will include a massive infinity symbol of multicolor suitcases by muralist Thomas “Detour” Evans. The City of Houston has commissioned new works of public art for both its William P. Hobby Airport and the new international terminal for the George Bush Intercontinental Airport

“Chalchiuhtlicue” (2020) by Marela Zacarías is located in the new International Arrivals Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington. (courtesy Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

From the North Terminal at Miami International Airport to the Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport, there’s more art out there to encounter this holiday season, even for seasoned travelers who feel like they’ve seen every possible iteration of dichroic glass sculptures suspended from ceilings or artist designs transformed into terrazzo flooring. 

Typically, travelers find a mix of works by international, national, and local artists at major airports around the US, although they’ll often encounter regional differences reflecting local geographies and cultures. 

At Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico, for example, public artworks include primarily sculptures, paintings, weavings, and other works by Native American artists. At the Harry Reid Airport International Airport near Las Vegas, Nevada, murals spotlight the Las Vegas Strip and performers in the bygone Folies Bergere. At the Tucson International Airport in Arizona, paintings and sculptures reflecting Southwest landscapes abound. 

Some people merely stumble on these artworks, but others take the time to visit airport websites for art information before they head out, then build in extra time to see pieces placed in myriad settings from entrances to airport restrooms to airport art galleries. 

Most airport artworks don’t strike the millions of people who view them as masterpieces. Even so, they’re worth exploring, if only to discover the extraordinary in the mundane. 

Detail of Herb Williams’s “Ripple” installed in 2022 at the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia (courtesy Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)
“Palimpsest” (2018) by Nick Cave is a multi-story, beaded and bustled tapestry that reveals layer upon layer of color. It hangs in the Multi-Modal Facility (MMF) at O’Hare International Airport and is made of plastic pony beads, shoelaces and nylon fishing net. (courtesy Chicago O’Hare International Airport)
“Westernalia” (2021) by Rachel Slick and Timothy Schirack includes several pieces installed at Tucson International Airport. (courtesy Tucson International Airport)
The ceramic mosaic “Constellations of Connection” (2020) by Greta McLain, with contributions from Natchez Beaulieu, White Earth, and Hapistinna Graci Horne, Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, and fabricated by Mosaika, is located at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. (© 2020 Greta McLain, Natchez Beaulieu, and Hapistinna Graci Horne)
Gay Outlaw’s “Bird Plane House” (aluminum, paint), “Shell” (steel, concrete, paint), and “Intersection” (concrete, terrazzo) was installed at San Francisco International Airport’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1 in 2020 (© Ethan Caplan 2020)
“Water in All its States” (2015) by Paris-based light artist Yann Kersalé was commissioned for Denver International Airport in Colorado. (courtesy Denver International Airport)

Editor’s note, 12/19/22, 1:55pm EST: A previous version of the post misspelled Gay Outlaw’s name. It has been corrected.

Mildred K. Pearson

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