Art on the Fly

Not long into a tour of Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal Four (T-4), Lennee Eller changes from the curator of the airport's art program into a disconsolate housekeeper. She can't believe the dust accumulating in the display cases; the chocolate, chewing gum and worse ground into the carpet nearby; the dings and dents left in the bases of sculpture and displays by the careless tides of people moving one way and looking another. The grime and anarchy of the airport's 30 million annual, nerve-racked travelers, she jokes, just might be getting the best of her efforts to run a clean program.

"Don't get me wrong. I love putting on these shows, but I just wish people would be a little bit more careful . . ." Her voice stops dead. And like a cat spying a bird, she squints at a spot on a display case, then noses up to the glass. "Oh, will you look at that!" About five feet four inches above the floor, in an Estee Lauder shade of Nectar or Pink Petal, is a well-formed lip print pouting an affectionate "Ooooo."

It's one of the more overt signs that travelers are loving what Eller and her small crew of helpers are doing to make Sky Harbor's terminals their own kind of cultural departure. In its eight years, Eller's program of changing exhibitions--averaging three major shows and many minor ones a year--has become a bright example of the kinds of diversions that are transforming American airports from purgatories for the deplaned into cheery mall-seums that blend shopping with exhibits playing up the local color. The changing-exhibitions program got under way in 1989, as a spin-off of the Phoenix Arts Commission's effort--begun in 1987--to add to the airport's existing collection of permanent art. The collection totals about 130 works at Sky Harbor's three main and executive terminals and at Deer Valley Airport. Yet the changing shows are what seem to be attracting most of the outside attention. In recent years, the program has drawn airport planners from Austin, Reno, San Antonio, Denver, Seattle and elsewhere.

They and others say that Eller's freewheeling approach is about as successful as any in the nation at giving travelers a sense of where they've landed.

"What makes it so outstanding," says Janet Seibert, who chairs an image committee for the city of Austin and hopes some of Eller's ideas can be incorporated into Austin's new airport, "is Eller's broad definition of what art is. She doesn't let the word 'art' get in the way. She seems to use it as an avenue for people to think about aspects or approaches to culture that they might not find in any one museum. And each one of them sheds a slightly different light on the city's or state's cultural identity." Like other arenas serving the cultural commoner, Eller's program relies on theme shows. They're ideal vehicles for the setting. Unlike museums, airports needn't concern themselves with scholarly weight or content.

"Except when it comes to aviation-related shows," says Eller. "We've had a number of shows from the Pima Air and Space Museum, and I can tell you that aviation buffs read every single label and they're not shy about telling you when something's wrong." When it comes to other subjects, Eller has a knack for cooking up offbeat themes that are just general enough to encompass a variety of approaches to the same idea.

The recent show "Arizona Stories," for example, showcased Arizona artists who have been involved in writing, illustrating or otherwise making books. The show included illustrations and bronzes by cowboy artist Joe Beeler in one gallery and in others. Shonto Begay's paintings for the children's book Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa, illustrations from Redwing T. Nez's Forbidden Talent, and book illustrations by 18 Arizona artists. And the cases within sight of Starbucks contained limited-edition, handmade books and prints from Arizona State University's book-arts program, its Pyracantha Press, and others made by seventh and eighth graders at the Foothills Academy.

Now all of those have been replaced with works from "Outdoor Expressions," a mix of landscape paintings, garden sculpture, photographs of completed projects by prominent area landscape architects, and bird houses by Southwest artists. Eller shrugs at whether this eclectic mix belongs under the heading of art.

Her main mission is to keep travelers engaged and surprised, and provide them with a refuge from the cattle call of flying. At the moment, she has about 15 different spaces at the airport to do that, including a large gallery in T-4--a rarity for airport art programs. Five more spaces will open when the T-3 remodeling is completed in the fall.

Eller's nearly 180 major and minor airport shows and displays in the past eight years have run the gamut of subjects from Arizona glass artists, cowboy boots, the Super Bowl, the NBA's All-Star Game, aerial and other photography, Native American art, sculpture, knives, Japanese swords--none beyond the security outpost--Native American art and handmade paper. Eller has featured kites, basketry, children's art (a small show of ceramics by students at South Mountain High School is now in a case on the A level of T-3) and blacksmithing. Not to mention shows of Arizona rocks, minerals and some of its more bizarre and beautiful bugs.

"I don't know what it is about bugs," says Eller, "you let a few run through the room and people just about keel over. But put them in a box or under glass--dead, of course--and people just love them. Especially foreigners. I think that's probably because you can really tell a place by its bugs." Visitors were so enthusiastic about the display of critters that Eller plans to purchase some for permanent viewing in T-3. Also appearing, probably sometime in the fall, thanks to funding from the Phoenix Arts Commission's public-art program, will be a collection of ceramics. Like the bug display, the clayworks will feature Arizonans.

Airport planners say that such an emphasis on local culture isn't confined to Phoenix. Nor is it particularly new. It's simply become more pronounced as airline deregulation has led airports nationwide to become more competitive about their identities. Airports are using art and related exhibits to set themselves apart from the competition.

"The old view was that airports existed to provide gates and services for airlines," says Ann Hastings, who directs the marketing program at Sky Harbor, which funds Eller's program. "But once people began looking beyond the runways, it became pretty clear that they're more than just gates; they're gateways, really, giving the first and last impression visitors have of an area." So, no "Piss Christ"s, no Mapplethorpes, no flags on the floor. But, take heart. Occasionally, something unexpectedly titillating does appear. A show of photographs by William Wegman, who portrays his dogs in various poses, included a picture of a pooch reclining against a velveteen backdrop.

"A woman called me up," says Eller, "and complained that the dog was naked and acting seductive and lewd. I just told her that dogs usually are naked. The rest of it, I guess, is just a matter of personal taste."

Airport shows are year-round, round the clock. T-4 has the most to see. For more information, call 273-2006.

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