Flying can be stressful—navigating a cavernous airport to squeeze into a cramped seat and sit closely confined with strangers in a long, winged tube that remains aloft for hours on end, well…“Flying is famously not an experience we look forward to,” notes Matt Evans of San Antonio International Airport. “But we’re working to reframe that narrative with art.”
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Across Texas, airports have turned to artwork to take the edge off of air travel with displays that entertain, educate, challenge, and soothe jangled nerves. “Art adds a humanizing element to the travel experience,” says Tommy Gregory, director and curator of the Houston Airport System’s Public Art Program. “It warms up a space and lets the passengers know they’re not just a number on a ticket.”
As you might expect, many of these artworks interpret the travel theme. At San Antonio International Airport, Suitcase Wheel, a 16-foot tall ring made of 75 vintage Samsonite suitcases graces the Terminal B ticketing level. Houston duo Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing—known as the Art Guys—created Suitcase Wheel as well as a sculpture titled Travel Light in Terminal E of Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The latter features 360 suitcases made of cast translucent resin with colorful, electronically controlled LED lights.
“Art adds a humanizing element to the travel experience. It warms up a space and lets the passengers know they’re not just a number on a ticket.”
In San Antonio, a dozen photographs of open suitcases by the late Chuck Ramirez—found along the lower departure ramp of the parking garage—provide peeks into anonymous travelers’ personal universes. One photo, titled Granny Goes to Vegas, shows an open suitcase overflowing with items like a scarf, hat, and perfume bottle.
“We want the airport art to establish a sense of place and manifest the culture and charm of San Antonio,” explains Evans, who holds the San Antonio International Airport’s newly created position of Art, Culture, and Music Specialist.
To that end, in January the airport unveiled ¡Adelante San Antonio!, a three-part mural by San Antonio duo Dos Mestizx (Suzy González and Michael Menchaca) in the airport’s new rental car facility. The largest part is a 240-foot mural that introduces visitors to San Antonio and Texas aviation history with figures like Bessie Coleman, who grew up in Waxahachie and became the first woman of African American heritage to earn a pilot’s license, and San Antonio native and World War I flying ace Edgar Tobin.
“The mural’s footprints and river imagery are symbols of the first people who were here for thousands of years before the Spanish colonization,” González says, “and we address the long history of immigration with images of Canary Islanders and Chinese settlers.” Two exterior murals on the building feature eagles and early flight motifs in tribute to San Antonio’s military aviation history. Inside, an interactive kiosk offers a guide to the works.
Also at the San Antonio airport, Alamo City artist Gary Sweeney pokes gentle fun at his adopted home and the Hill Country with Nostalgia, Texas, a series of eight ceramic baked enamel panels with humorous takes on vintage travel decals, located at the entrance to the long-term parking garage. One panel jokes about the hellacious Texas summers. Another declares “FIESTA SIESTA REPEAT” in reference to the city’s popular springtime festival. A panel about the Hill Country boasts, “We have dozens of towns you can’t pronounce,” and points to Boerne and Gruene to prove it.
Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, the state’s busiest, is also known for art, even garnering mention in Smithsonian magazine for its collection. Travelers encountering Dennis Blagg’s 14-by-42-foot painting Cosmic Big Bend Landscape might be tempted to bolt from the ticket hall to the rental car counter and hightail it out to wild and rugged West Texas. The work is made up of 2,355 six-inch panels assembled in a grid system.
Another iconic Texas landscape greets visitors at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. In the ticketing area, Travis County artist Thomas Evans’ Hill of the Medicine Man depicts Enchanted Rock with nine oil-on-
canvas panels. Native Americans revered the pink granite dome near Fredericksburg, and today it forms the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
Gregory notes that Texas artists created three-quarters of the 200-plus pieces in the Houston Airport System. Cindee Travis Klement’s bronze Heritage (Robert Fleming Travis), in the Terminal A connector at George Bush Intercontinental, is modeled from her grandfather’s weathered Stetson Open Road. “As a teenager, I shaped hats at my father’s Windmill Western Wear in El Paso,” Klement says. “I learned that old hats are reflections of their owners. They retain something of the spirit of the person who wore them.”
At Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport, the title of Chris Sauter’s large sculpture, Airport Seating (Somewhere Between Here and There), is descriptive of both its content and function. Placed outside the international arrivals area, the concrete and LED lighting work spells out “SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HERE AND THERE,” and passersby are welcome to sit on the art.
Gregory notes that artists like exhibiting in the airport because it provides an extra platform for exposure. “Many have received gallery opportunities and commissions from people passing through our airports,” he says. González of Dos Mestizx concurs: “This work is not just for the art world. It’s for the people.”