Killing Time, Killer Horses and Killer Apps in Airport Art

Big Blue Horse on Pena Avenue entering Denver International Airport
Big Blue Horse on Pena Avenue entering Denver International Airport

Anyone who has had to kill time between connecting flights or has been marooned in an airport has cause to celebrate art in airports. This post will be devoted to some of the more memorable permanent pieces I have seen on my way from here to there.

Although I used to travel frequently for various jobs – particularly wearing a groove between San Francisco and San Diego – I don’t fly much anymore. These days, most of my travel takes off from Sardy Field in Aspen, Colorado,  a sweet little one-runway airport so small that they wheel mobile staircases up to planes to allow you to disembark. No jetways here. (For direct flights, I usually drive to Denver, home of the big blue horse at left. More about that later.)

Because of lessening travel, my memories of airport art tend to be a bit dated, and I asked friends on Facebook to nominate some of their favorite pieces to be featured in this post. My thanks to all of them.

Hot Stuff at O’Hare

Neon at O'Hare in Chicago
Neon at O’Hare in tunnel leading to the United Terminal

With a tip of the hat to my friend Alexei Folger, the Travel Oracle, I will begin my tour of memorable airport art with an installation of neon spaghetti that I remembered, but was unable to place.

Alexei, who provides tech support to Filemaker databases all across the US and who has a permanently-packed overnight kit always at the ready,  reminded me that this art lights up the ceiling of a tunnel connecting concourses in the United Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Brachiosaurus at O-Hare Airport. Photo by Team Farkle 7

My Facebook friend Alexander DeWolfe also loves this kinetic display. To really appreciate this installation, which is by Michael Hayden and is called “The Sky’s the Limit,” go check it out on YouTube. Alex reminded me that as the waves of light travel along the tunnel with you, changing to reflect a spectrum of colors, they are accompanied by Brian Eno’s music.

Another surprise awaiting the weary traveler just beyond the neon tunnel is a 72-foot long brachiosaurus.

Although he’s there more in the service of science than art, this Jurassic vegetarian looms upward in a gesture that I find both startling and artistic. I usually think of a concourse as a long, horizontal box, but I find myself staring at the space between my head and the skylights silhouetting the dino’s head, impressed with the verticality of the space. The brachiosaurus comes from Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and s/he stands beside the museum’s store at O’Hare.

I Am Afraid of the Big Blue Horse

Blucifer could kill again. Image by unknown photographer/artist.
Blucifer could kill again! Image by unknown photographer/artist on Facebook.

These days, if I need to travel far, I usually fly out of Denver International Airport. Which brings me to the blue horse pictured at the top of this post.

This horse rears up along Pena Avenue on the way into DIA, and he’s inspired a kind of a cult following. There’s actually a Facebook group called I Am Afraid of the Big Blue Horse at DIA! At one point, before Facebook changed formats and confused things, the group had roughly 10,000 members.

Not to be outdone, Calgary’s Airport also has a big horse. Looks far more benign than DIA’s; maybe she’s a mare? Photo by Calgary Daily Photo.

Nicknamed “Blucifer,” DIA’s  32-foot-high sculpture is officially named the “Blue Mustang.” He is listed as one of the Top 5 Bizarre Art Displays on Yahoo and has also been cited by CNN as one of the nation’s top pieces of airport art.

This very anatomically-correct (!) stallion was commissioned two years before DIA opened, and he was created by New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez in 1993.

But here’s a spooky fact: Blucifer killed his creator.

On June 13, 2006 a large section of Blue Mustang  fell onto Jimenez and severed an artery in the artist’s leg. The sculpture was finished by studio assistants and family members.

Perpetual Motion in Boston

I’m captivated by this art work every time I see it, no matter how much time I have spent tracking little balls making their way through this kinetic sculpture. Located at Logan International Airport, the sculpture was created by George Rhoads and is called “Exercise in Fugality.”

Exercise in Fugality
George Rhoads’ Rube Goldberg device at Logan Airport. Photo by Coebabelghoti.

At a time when I was making repeated trips to Boston, I actually looked forward to having to kill time in the airport because it gave me time to stare at what must be the killer app of Rube Goldberg variety.

Clearly, I’m not the only person to have this response.

Below one of several YouTube videos of this sculpture – a medium that communicates the wonder of this artwork far better than the still photo at right –  Darealfiberoptix has written:

“When I was a kid, my mom lost me at an airport somehow.  It took a couple hours to find me and I was just standing in a trance watching the mechanical complexity. I had never seen anything like that before. I was blown away.”

Kicking Calder Around in Philadelphia

“As far as permanent installations go, I think the Calder mobile at Pittsburgh International Airport will always be my favorite,” writes my interior designer friend Wendy Hoechstetter.

Alexander Calder's mobile entitled "Pittsburgh." Photo by Elston's photostream.
Alexander Calder’s mobile entitled “Pittsburgh.” Photo by Elston’s photostream.

“I’ve always been a Calder fan, in part precisely because of this very piece, which figures prominently in my early memories, when my father used to take us out to the airport on weekends to watch the planes. It doesn’t stand out as much in the current newer terminal as it did in the smaller original one, but it’s always a sign that I’m home once I see it.”

Turns out that Calder did call Pittsburgh home – but the city and the airport weren’t always respectful of his sculpture, which is named “Pittsburgh.”  The Pittsburgh City Paper comments, “We’ve treated the sculpture rather shoddily since Calder, a Philadelphia native and one of the foremost American sculptors of the 20th century, exhibited the 28-by-28-foot sculpture in the 1958 Carnegie International. To all appearances, Calder’s black-and-white mobile of aluminum and iron – two distinctly Pittsburgh metals – was a huge success. ‘Pittsburgh’ won the first prize for sculpture at the 1958 International, and it was purchased at the exhibition by one G. David Thompson.”

Now here’s the dirt. Writing on Flickr, Chuck Schneider explains:

Benny Bufano Peace Sculpture
Benny Bufano Peace Sculpture

“County Officials, in their finite wisdom, decided it would be ‘nice’ if the mobile were painted to match the Allegheny County color scheme of green and yellow. This was promptly done.

“Then, in a flash of brilliance, they decided it hung too low, so they hung some weights on it to shift the pieces. This immobilized the mobile, so to solve that problem, they attached it to a motor. All of course without ever consulting the artist.

“Calder, oddly enough, was incensed. At that time in history, however, an artist had very little recourse for such actions. So in a compromise, it was agreed to paint the mobile in a ‘Calder Red’. It wasn’t so easy. When the paint job was finished, the paint had been too thin, and it turned out to be pink.

“It wasn’t until 1979 that the mobile was taken down, repainted, and the weights removed. For a number of years then it was hung in the Carnegie Museum, where it had originally hung in 1958. In 1992, it was back at the airport, looking just like it did before all that nonsense.”

Old Friends & New in San Francisco

The course of public art, like love, never has run smooth. For years, I loved passing by the Benny Bufano sculpture that stood near the entrance to SFO. It has since been moved to near Lake Merced. Bufano’s Peace sculpture was controversial in its time. It was rejected by the patron who first commissioned it. After seeing it completed, decided that he liked Bufano’s bunnies and bears better than this rocket-like political statement.

Hearts in San Francisco is an annual fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital that started in 2004. The hearts are decorated by local artists and placed all over town - including here at Union Square and at SFO - before being auctioned off in a fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital.
Hearts in San Francisco. These hearts are decorated by local artists and placed all over town – including here at Union Square and also at SFO – before being auctioned off in a fundraiser for San Francisco General Hospital.

Beniamino Bufano was a great proponent of public art.  He offered his services to any community that could pay him day wages and supply materials. Of “Peace,” he wrote that he sculpted it “in the form of a projectile to express the idea that if peace is to be preserved today it must be enforced peace – enforced by the democracies against Fascist barbarism. Modern warfare, which involves the bombing of women and children, has no counterpart in a peace interpreted by the conventional motif of olive branches and doves.”

Sanctuario, a mural in the Mexicano Terminal at SFO. Photo courtesy of Jauna Alicia website.
Sanctuario, a mural in the Mexicano Terminal at SFO. Photo courtesy of Jauna Alicia website.

SFO still has plenty of art, including fine changing exhibits. Among those that are installed permanently, my friend Sonnie Willis, a wonderful photographer, nominates as her favorite, “The mural in the Mexicana Terminal at San Francisco Airport.”

Sonnie writes, “I had the pleasure to meet the artist, Juana Alicia, years ago at a school in Marin County. She also worked on the mural for the Women’s Building in San Francisco.”

As Juana Alicia’s website describes it, “The concepts central to our design are the themes of: migration and permanence; movement and stillness; and intimacy within a public space. The airport is often the setting for some of the most dramatic moments and milestones in our lives. In our design we honor the wonderful and significant meetings and partings that happen in the airport, to bring to the foreground and freeze those moments in time, while creating a light-filled context of movement, flow of life and the energy of travel.”


Please share your favorite examples of memorable airport art by leaving a comment on this blog.

5 thoughts on “Killing Time, Killer Horses and Killer Apps in Airport Art

  1. Great article, Nicolette! I never knew all that about the Pittsburgh Calder mobile, but I do remember it being at least partially red. You’ve just solved that mystery of my thinking I had been losing my mind.


  2. What a fun tour of art exhibits. I don’t get to the airport often but at Terminal A at Minetta San Jose Airport there is an art piece that hangs from the ceiling, like hundreds of sheets of paper that electronically shimmers. It always captures my attention and is very meditative. Sometimes that’s just what you need in a busy airport.

    Cheers, Conny

  3. Good morning, Nicolette. I’m Conny (comment above) that worked with you in SF at RIDES, and amongst other fine times we took a watercolor weekend class at UC Santa Cruz. We lost touch over the years, but today when I was reading some highlights from the ALT Design Summit (held this past weekend in SLC) I thought of you again. Just wanted to say Hello and send you the link if you wanted to see it. I can be reached at belleprairie at gmail dot com. I hope this “note” finds you well and happy. Regards, Conny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s