Is Sky Harbor Airport's Art Museum Worth Taking a Trip?


Max Lehman's You Scream I Scream We All Scream (2008) at T4, Level 2 is just one of many whimsical displays at Sky Harbor.
Max Lehman's You Scream I Scream We All Scream (2008) at T4, Level 2 is just one of many whimsical displays at Sky Harbor.
Courtesy of Phoenix Airport Museum

Whether you've flown out of the airport to visit relatives in Indiana or just popped in to pick up an out-of-town guest, you've probably been to Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport at some point. But few locals realize the airport has amassed a collection of over 500 pieces of art since construction first began on Terminal 2 in the '60s. The Phoenix Airport Museum at Sky Harbor now consists of more than 30 cases displaying a rotating selection of local and traveling art exhibits, as well as items from the museum's permanent collection.

Sure, it's great to have something beautiful to look at when you're pacing around an airport lobby for two hours worrying about travel size liquids, metal detectors and -- horror of horrors -- potentially delayed flights. But is it worth it for locals to battle crowds and pay $4 an hour for parking just to see airport-quality artwork?

In this case, yes. A two-hour walking tour of the airport's three terminals yielded an unexpectedly delightful assortment of whimsical creations and surreal imagery. The museum's organizers wisely decided to stick with art that's fun and uplifting; a logical move, considering the airport can be a stressful place to be stuck. 

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Take Terminal 3's "Recycle Runway" show, for example. Set in two large display cases near the food court, the exhibit features couture fashions crafted from discarded items such as soda can tabs and junk mail flyers. The level of detail artist and recycling consultant Nancy Judd achieves is awe-inspiring.

While a serious message underlies "Recycle Runway," it's hard not to feel like a little girl looking at a fantastical Bloomingdale's window display when you see Judd's puffy-sleeved Target bag dress or the faux fur made from cassette tape. For Junk Mail Fan Dress, hundreds of catalogue pages, mailings and flyers were individually folded into tiny fans and sewn onto scraps of canvas fabric to create a rainbow hued Spanish-style gown with a flowing skirt and graceful shawl. It's a beautiful piece.

It's also a powerful statement about humanity's wasteful nature. Judd literally turns trash into treasure, showing how with a little ingenuity we can reduce the staggering 100 pounds of trash an average family produces every week. Even more timely is the chic layered Obama Cocktail Dress made from campaign yard signs. With all of the political placards currently blighting Phoenix street corners, you'd think Judd could make a mint sewing more of these babies. Too bad she's not in the retail biz.

Not every show in Sky Harbor's current roster is as creative. The idea behind "Landscape Under Foot," an exhibit of Arizona artists who paint scenic landscapes on location, is intriguing. Yet the images are those we've spotted time and again at touristy Scottsdale boutiques -- dusty canyons, cacti and muted desert colors. Yawn.

It's a stark contrast to Eleanor Bostwick's reversible capes, hung in the ticketing area of Terminal 4. Sewn in fabrics from silk to taffeta to paper, each reversible cape is an explosion of brilliant color. Some are tongue-in-cheek, like "W" Highlights, which features cutout images from W magazine transferred onto fabric and embellished with gold thread. Others are painstakingly crafted, including one that incorporates 10,224 hand-rolled paper beads. (And that's just one side of the cape!) Elegant and theatrical, Bostwick's creations put even Joseph's famed "Dreamcoat" to shame.

Textiles are perhaps my least favorite art form, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the capes and Terminal 4's "Fiber Art Unraveled: Material and Process" show so appealing. This eclectic collection cracked any preconceived notions of what constitutes a "textile." One circular form by Mesa's Stephen Johnson was woven using ticket stubs, while Nick Georgiou's Citizen X featured a life-size dog made out of newspapers and old books.

Is it a groundbreaking use of materials? Maybe not. But even if a technique's been used before, it's interesting to see the juxtaposition of new ideas with old materials -- human spines made from silver-coated wire, photorealistic embroidered portraits, plastic bags woven into a huge coin purse. It proves the human imagination is unlimited, even when you're working within a traditionally constrained art form.


Another standout is "Chuck Jones: An Animated Life," an exhibition of paintings, drawings and animation cels by the legendary Warner Bros. animator. Here, you'll find oil paintings of Pepé Le Pew in a flower field, the Grinch breaking bread with Cindy Lou Who and a comical depiction of Daffy Duck looking sheepish in a green and white jester costume. But the real treasures are Jones' non-cartoon images, which showcase his ability as a fine artist. These works are more muted and personal, with a filmy, ethereal quality that make the viewer feel as if the colors would somehow fade away should a strong breeze blow by. In Seaside, two small figures run on land beneath a towering red rock outcropping, a sailboat visible in the ocean beyond. The piece is joyful and brimming with life. Jones' choppy brush strokes highlight the motion of the figures and the energy of sea, wind and sky. A nearby nude is more serene, the figure draped somberly over a couch with head down as if in mourning. Definitely not the kid-friendly, happy-go-lucky cartoons we're used to.

The opening sequence of the movie Love, Actually verbally paints airports as a place of great happiness, where uninhibited love shows around every corner. "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport," Hugh Grant's narration says. "It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there."

Even the promise of seeing joyful reunions and heartfelt goodbyes isn't enough to incite most Phoenicians to the airport for a look-see, so it seemed unlikely an art collection would draw us there. But after seeing what the Phoenix Airport Museum has to offer, it's worth a visit -- even if you can't afford to fly outta Dodge.

The Phoenix Airport Museum's Sky Harbor exhibits are accessible to the public 24 hours a day. Visit Sky Harbor's website for complete exhibition schedule and information.  

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