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Airport Expansion Includes New Artwork

Jim Campbell's "The Journey" lights the way through Terminal Two at San Diego International Airport.
Jim Campbell's "The Journey" lights the way through Terminal Two at San Diego International Airport.
New Art for the Newly Expanded San Diego Airport
Airport Expansion Includes New Artwork
The $1 billion expansion of the San Diego International Airport opens in just a few weeks. The largest construction effort in the airport’s history will include new artwork for the expanded gates and food court.

Hurry up and wait. That's how most people spend time in airports. Travelers rush to gates, then search for ways to occupy their time until boarding.

Since 9/11, moving through an airport is more cumbersome and stressful. Constance White believes putting art in a bustling airport can make a difference. She manages the art program at San Diego International Airport.

"Art," White says, "creates a calming distraction."


Whenever there’s new construction at the airport, 2 percent of the budget goes to art. Ten new gates and a food court in terminal 2 are set to officially open to the public on August 13, and there will be art in all of them. There are a total of ten new pieces, the budget for which totals $6 million and is funded through airport user fees.

A Ribbon of Light

Lighting the concourse across multiple gates is "The Journey," by San Francisco-based artist Jim Campbell. White, the airport's art program manager, calls it a light ribbon suspended from the ceiling. It's composed of 37,000 LED light pendants hanging row after row for 1,000 feet. That might seem like a lot of wattage, but Campbell assured me via email that it's not. He says the output can be handled by one circuit and uses as much energy as one and a half toasters. Campbell, it turns out, studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Shadows of birds fly intermittently along the light ribbon — It's a surprising feature. The first time I saw them, I stopped in my tracks, waiting for them to repeat their flyover. Soon, additional shadows will be added to the piece.

"People will dance all the way through the ribbon. People will swim through the ribbon, and you’ll see the birds playing with the people as they're interacting with the light," White explained.


A Cloud of Crystals Over Food Court

Stuart Keeler's "Taxonomy of a Cloud" will hang over the new food court in Terminal Two.
Stuart Keeler's "Taxonomy of a Cloud" will hang over the new food court in Terminal Two.

Construction in the new food court, dubbed Sunset Cove, is just winding down. That’s where Canadian artist Stuart Keeler has hung his chandelier-like sculpture called "Taxonomy of a Cloud." A series of short, connected steel pipes form what looks like an airborne erector set. Hanging from its center is a shower of 35,000 Swarovski crystals that capture and reflect light.

"The artist was thinking about light and air. It’s so special in San Diego. People are mesmerized by the atmosphere and the environment here," White said.

Keeler was also inspired by clouds. "Stuart would come to San Diego and sit, and look at the sky, look at the clouds," White explained.

Keeler was especially enamored of lattice clouds, which are found in warm coastal climates. The lattice formation in his sculpture emulates the structure of those clouds. It's especially impressive to stand directly under this piece. How often do you get to stare up into a stream of Swarovski crystals?

Art For The Bathrooms?

One of the video mosaics in Erik Carlson's video installation titled "Donde Esta?"
One of the video mosaics in Erik Carlson's video installation titled "Donde Esta?"

There’s even art in the unlikeliest of places — the bathroom entrances. Rhode Island artist Erik Carlson has created a series of video mosaics that respond to movement. A layer of "smart glass" covers each video piece. When there's no one moving around it, the glass become opaque; shrouding the video behind it. When someone approaches, the image appears. "I wanted to create an artwork that has a sense of reveal to it," Carlson explained.

He chose iconic San Diego scenes to film, which naturally included surfing. "I’m not a surfer and I’ve never filmed surfers before," he said.

After watching a few surf films, Carlson wondered how he would capture the surfers with his camera. Finally, he discovered a solution.

"I went out onto one of the piers where I was parallel to where the surfers were," he said. "I immediately noticed this really interesting back and forth. The waves were coming in, the surfers were paddling out. I’m also a musician, so I tend to look for rhythmic things that loop and cycle like that."

There are video mosaics featuring skateboarders and a sunset scene. Each hangs in the center of the bathroom entrance, with the video blurring and crystallizing as passengers enter and leave.

Carlson hopes the series called "Donde Esta?" will remind passengers what the environment and community is like just beyond the airport walls. "I think the artwork represents what it’s like, in a compressed way, for a visitor or someone who’s just moved here, to discover these details about San Diego," Carlson said.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a popular spot in between the restrooms featuring Carlson’s pieces. It's a different kind of bathroom - what the airport has called a "pet relief station" for traveling dogs. It looks like a regular bathroom, except for the patch of fake grass with the bright red fire hydrant in the middle. That fire hydrant has become a popular photo op.

It’s just one more visual surprise, among all of the artwork, that passengers will discover in the newly expanded airport.

Corrected: April 19, 2024 at 6:05 AM PDT
KPBS news assistant Dillon Scalzo contributed to the video report for this story.