‘Ode to the Tallgrass Prairie’ by Linda Lighton, one of 28 artists commissioned to create work for the new Kansas City International Airport One Percent for Art project.

Linda Lighton, internationally recognized artist, talks about her new piece, “Ode to Tallgrass Prairie,” created for the KCI Public Art Project, on November 22, 2022 in her studio. (photo by Heidi Nast)

Linda Lighton is an internationally recognized artist, who has worked and exhibited in 13 countries and across the United States. She is one of 28 artists commissioned to create work for the new Kansas City International Airport One Percent for Art Project.

In years past, Lighton lived in the Northwest, where she fell in love with the natural surroundings and studied many of the flora, fauna and mushrooms. When Lighton moved back home to Kansas City, she set her sights on the Tallgrass Prairie with the goal of connecting with it in the same way she connected to the Northwest.

Sketch in progress at KCI

Over the years, she has come to appreciate the beauty and utility of the plants, insects and animals that make up the prairie’s unique ecosystem. When she received the commission for the airport, her subject matter was an easy choice.

The result is a 4′ by 20′ installation comprised of 75 Portuguese terracotta tiles with an undulating surface, reminiscent of the Tallgrass Prairie. These tiles were china painted and fired in Lighton’s studio over the course of five months of intensive work.

Lighton began with a sketch, which she hung at the airport and subsequently decided the scale of the plants, bugs and birds needed to be larger to make them pop from a distance. So, she sketched, added, subtracted and adjusted the image along the way.

Terracotta tiles before china painting

Paired with the piece is a QR code that pulls up a collection of stories and facts about the flora and fauna included in the installation. Lighton and Studio Assistant, Casey Price-Clark, relished investigating lesser-known fun facts and recipes to share. Featured are recipes for traditional maraschino cherries, originally from Missouri, and for popcorn cicadas.

Lighton loved the overall process of bringing the work to life.

“Every single thing I did, I had to learn something,” Lighton shares. “Twenty feet is a big object. I am lucky to have a studio that can accommodate such a large table and easel to work on.”

Challenges included building a 20-foot workbench and spray booth large enough to create and assemble the work.

Bringing a work of this size to completion is no small task. Aside from the danger of tiles breaking, china painting is labor intensive. The wave pattern of the tile was matched together throughout the piece to simulate the movement of wind across the prairie. Tiles had to be numbered and labeled as they were mounted in five 4-foot sections.

20-foot easel with sketch in progress

For each tile, Lighton first drew the design with pencil, then hand- ground and mixed china paints and applied the paint to the tile in layers, firing between each layer of color. Each tile was painted and fired around five times to achieve the depth of color Lighton envisioned.

China paints are powdered, colored minerals mixed with ground glass (glaze) and an oil medium. When fired, the colors fuse into the glaze and the color becomes permanent. “I have been china painting for almost 50 years. To do something that big…to research the many mediums and choose the correct one for each process, was a feat in itself!”

Once the tiles were fired and reassembled, Lighton and Studio Assistant, Eleanor Foy, masked the entire painted drawing by hand to protect the area while the blue sky was applied by airbrush. Masking and removing the adhesive masking took roughly five weeks.

China paints

Edgar Fiero Tiling Service mounted and grouted the tiles to the Wonder Board backing. Each section weighs 160 pounds.

Beniah Leushke Art Service assembled the delivery crates and ensured the tile panels were safely transported. Asheer Akram fabricated and delivered the 20-foot aluminum frame to the airport, where Monarch Fine Art Services installed the frame and panels onto the wall located at American Airlines Terminal A, Gate 10 .

“Ode to the Tallgrass Prairie” represents Lighton’s joyful investigation of the largest tract of prairie land remaining in North America. The images and attached QR code are Lighton’s invitation to the traveler to go on a lively romp through the Midwest’s Tallgrass Prairie and learn about the native species of plants and animals.

–Casey Price-Clark, photos courtesy Linda Lighton

Linda Lighton and Beniah Leuschke with “Ode to the Tallgrass Prairie,” located at American Airlines, Terminal A, Gate 10

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