Touring the artworks at the three terminals at Sky Harbor International Airport provides a lesson in Phoenix's progressive sophistication in relation to public art. The big bird mosaic at Terminal Two looks as dated as a Depression-era mural. The big metal turds and huge woven wall hangings at Terminal Three show what happens when you let corporations, not art commissions, select artworks. Still, you can see that some people thought it was important to have art in the airport.
With Terminal Four we may not have arrived, but at least we're coming in for a landing. I went out to the newly opened Terminal Four armed only with a typewritten list of the artworks--I take my research seriously--and no idea what the pieces looked like. Some of the descriptions did not seem encouraging: "abstract aluminum wall relief," "ceramic," "glass mosaic." Sounds all-too-familiar, I thought. What can you expect when you have to please everybody, offend nobody, and run a gauntlet of heterogeneous sensibilities? Then I found myself in the center of the Passenger Level, surrounded by Ron Gasowski's six big black ceramic columns. They rise from the floor to the relatively low (ten-foot) ceiling in two ranks of three on either side of the escalators, and they have undulating profiles, like a stack of tires. Each one is faced with matte black grout and thousands of shiny black ceramic tiles.
The tiles come in every shape you can imagine, depicting palm trees, baby faces, cacti, airplanes, or just featureless shards, sometimes with names incised in them. For twenty minutes, I watched as one person after another approached these stout ebony monoliths, circling them, touching them, and pointing out features to their companions.
From a distance, the columns appear to be smooth, glittering natural formations. As you get closer, the smooth surface breaks up into its flat components, reflecting light from the nearby retail shops. Finally you begin to recognize things, and by then you're hooked. I actually saw adults get down on their knees to find treasures close to the floor.
As public art, Gasowski's columns are a complete success. Though massive, they do not dominate their space, partly because of the low ceiling. And making them black was an inspired move. Multicolored tiles would be tacky and overstimulating. These invite approach. Finally, because they're made of durable ceramic, you can touch them. And let's admit it, everyone wants to touch art.
That's the key to the best of the artworks at Terminal Four: they are viewer-friendly. Locals go to the airport to pick up friends and relatives. They don't want to tiptoe around the implicit haughtiness of museum or gallery pieces. Being able to touch the art collapses the cultural distance we usually feel when encountering aesthetic objects.
But first you have to find them. There were two other ceramic pieces on my list, one by Martha Heavenston and the other by Eddie Dominguez. They were supposed to be installed at someplace called the Infant Care Center. I consulted two of those "You Are Here" map-directories, which were otherwise very helpful and informative. No luck.
So I made my way to the Information Desk downstairs at the Baggage Claim Level. Two very kind women shared my mystification. "I've never heard of an Infant Care Center," said one. We speculated whether the airport may be planning something like that in the future. We consulted maps. Finally I gave up, but as I was leaving one of the women said, "There's a real pretty picture in the women's rest room right around the corner here."
"Can I see it?" I asked.
"I better go with you," she said. I agreed that was a good idea. When the coast was clear, she beckoned me. And there, at the end of an alcove, just before you jogged into the rest room proper, was Heavenston's piece, "The Woman of Nature," placed in the wall above a curving shelf, which I realized was a changing table for an infant. This was the Infant Care Center: a shelf.
It's a shame that (half of) the public can't see this piece, because it's beautiful. It shows a woman looking up into the sky, dreaming about various forms of travel. Created in collaboration with students at Wilson Elementary School, which was demolished for Terminal Four, it is childlike but not childish. Cartoon buses, airplanes, and cars float in a shiny, colorful surface with the rounded, smooth texture of cake frosting. It has the look of a jigsaw puzzle with very large pieces. You simply have to run your hands over it.
But where was the Dominguez piece? I had an idea: men change baby diapers, too. I said to the Information Lady, "You showed me yours, so I'll show you mine," and we went across the hall to the men's rest room.