Terminal Paradise: Local artists earn international viewership at KCI

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Hong Chun Zhang with Kansas Braids and Grass Style, 2022, Charcoal on paper. // Courtesy photo

The new KCI terminal, which opened February 28, 2023, offers more than an upgraded parking garage, new metro restaurants, and gender-neutral bathrooms. Twenty-eight artists were selected from thousands of applications to create artwork for the airport. Nineteen of those artists are local, and nine are world-renowned. 

During the Community Open House event ten days prior to the grand opening, the front desk attendants provided a magazine about the new airport terminal. Although it delivers a short segment on the artwork, it emphasizes non-KC artists such as Jill Anholt and Nick Cave. However, artists in Kansas City are equally deserving of recognition.  

One KC artist, John Louder, invites airport goers to preview the very landscape they will see from the sky above the metro. In a series of four oil-on-stretched-linen paintings, he renders views of environments with various seasons, weather, and times of the day. One fascinating aspect of his series of paintings is that each work is organized as a diptych, giving the viewer two options for understanding the space and the landscape: one aerial and the other at eye level. 

“These paintings are a celebration of the rural environment that KCI  travelers experience both on the ground and overhead. Hopefully viewers will be stimulated to take a closer look as they travel,” says Louder. 

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John Louder, Sight Lines, Flight Lines, 2022, Oil on Stretched linen. // Photo by Ashley Lindeman

In breaking down what this public art commission process entailed, all the artists worked with the Build KCI team, which stipulated size restrictions, a $20,000 budget, and even some safety equipment on their walls, such as defibrillators and fire extinguishers. Each artist was given a contract over 10 pages long that detailed state tax, city license to liability, and safety insurance. The payments, distributed quarterly in four equal segments, covered expenses related to the creation and delivery of the artwork. 

“I felt the application process was fair, clear, and transparent. The selected artworks reflect the diverse voices and inclusion from the KC region,” says Hong Chun Zhang, a world-renowned local artist. “Even though artists were not paid enough given the time and material, the exposure to a broader audience at the airport was my main purpose for participating and creating the work outside of traditional gallery or museum space.” 

Zhang’s charcoal-on-paper work, Kansas Braids and Grass Style, combine her characteristic depictions of long black hair with the native grasses and wheat of Kansas and Missouri to make a statement on cross-cultural exchange as well as her identity of being a Chinese immigrant in the midwestern states. Because she knew her works would hang on a dark gray wall, she chose black and white charcoal on paper to create a contrasting and eye-catching effect. 

“The Chinese fine-style painting technique with scrolls at the ends gave more depth, layers, details, and eastern art aesthetics,” says Zhang. 

All artists worked with Public Art Administrator of Kansas City, James Martin, and Holly Hayden, consulting artist with Paslay Management Group. 

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Kati Toivanen, I Spy Carry-on, 2022, Digitally composed photographs. // Courtesy photo

Kati Toivanen, another local artist and a professor of studio art at UMKC, says, “They did a wonderful job laying out the project development and production plan, which had four deadlines for specific intermediary targets.” Every three or four months, Martin and Hayden conducted studio visits and noted their progress, ensuring they were on track to meet deadlines. After the selected works were completed, artists were responsible for framing their art and hiring professional art handlers to pick up and deliver the finished work to the new terminal. Build KCI oversaw the installation once the art was on site. 

Regarding the protection and preservation of public works at KCI, Mark Spencer was recently hired as the art program coordinator for the Kansas City Aviation Department. With directorship experiences at Hallmark, ArtsKC, and the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, Spencer appears well-equipped to handle the preservation of the artworks, which are worth approximately $5.65 million in total. 

One might wonder, though, how much of the city’s funding it will take to dust Soo Sunny Park’s $700,000 sculpture Molten Swing in a few years. Even some of the paintings required a different set of protections because they are showcased publicly.

“I don’t normally frame with plexiglass over oil paintings, so the airport public access called for a safer alternative,” says Louder. 

Toivanen submitted a piece entitled I Spy Carry-on for public display in the airport. A series of colorful digitally composed photographs, the work shares some personal aspects of Toivanen’s life. 

“I grew up in Finland and have traveled quite a bit in my life to visit family, much of it with my son. When he was little, my carry-on needed to consider his needs for snacks, entertainment, and other basic needs. The collection of objects in the project reflects this universal experience of family travel. I hope that the project will act as entertainment for both parents and children as they explore and discover familiar objects in the images,” says Toivanen. 

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Soo Sunny Park, Molten Swing (Capturing Light Series), glass and chain-link fencing. // Courtesy photo

In regards to the high-stakes project and pressure artists felt to complete the public commissions, Louder says, “Commissioned works, especially important public venue paintings, are always more stressful because the finished painting comes after the agreement and the large volume of viewers, whereas gallery paintings are the other way around. I can’t deny that I was relieved when I delivered the paintings to the airport and handed them to the art installers hired by Kansas City.” 

“I have completed several temporary public art projects around Kansas City and the region over the years, but this was my first permanent commission, which made it particularly meaningful. As I developed the set of three digital collages, I paid particular attention to the visual flow from one panel to the next for a sense of continuity. I also added lots of color, which is always stimulating at an airport,” says Toivanen, who was elated by the opportunity.

For anyone planning a trip, make sure to get to the airport in time to see all local KC artworks at KCI by: Debbie Barrett-Jones, Laura Berman, Mona Cliff, Santiago Cucullu, JT Daniels, IT-RA Icons, Israel Alejandro Garcia, Rachelle Gardner-Roe, John Hans, Rachel Hubbard Kline, Kwanza Humphrey, Linda Lighton, Kathy Liao, John Louder, Sean Nash, Stephen Proski, Hasna Sal, Kati Toivanen, Bernadette Esperanza Torres, and Hong Chun Zhang.  

Categories: Art