See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | Mirroring Life in a Way, Our New Airport Blends Anxieties and Uplift

Nick Cave’s huge ceiling installation “The Air Up There” comprises dangling cut-metal shapes. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Well, how do you like it now, ladies and gentlemen?

It struck me as inevitable that the new KCI airport would hit some operational speedbumps. It took some time, for instance, to alleviate arrival-lane traffic jams and fix the disconnect between impatient drivers picking up passengers and overwhelmed attendants.

But life goes on, and the airport generally remains a source of civic pride. With its roomy comforts, open-air views and surprising amenities, the place has succeeded at least in improving the “welcome-to-Kansas City” vibe if not the “bon-voyage” efficiencies of leaving town.

Still. I can’t seem to shake some lingering reservations (as it were) about what we have wrought.

One could begin with the original sin that the airport plan omitted anything resembling a convenient mass-transit connection to the heart of the city. We remain beholden to the automobile. No matter the swank cladding of the 6,000-space parking garage, designed by architects at BNIM, it’s still a hulking box of cars. In some views the garage seems to be the main attraction, with the glass, wood and limestone terminal structure demurely waiting to be noticed as a sleek and fanciful appendage.

One might also lament that airport officials, in the spirit of preservation and reuse, couldn’t — or wouldn’t — devise a way to save and repurpose at least one of the original KCI horseshoe-shaped terminals. Of course, they’re saving two of the old terminal parking garages.

Nevertheless, the new terminal, primarily a design-by-committee project led by the formidable firm of SOM, does the job it was supposed to do in its H-shaped array of rectangular boxes. The designers have given their boxes many handsome details — extensive glass; finishes of polished limestone, terrazzo, aluminum and hemlock; and a programmed array of art works from beginning to end.

The $5.65 million public art program is absolutely worthy of applause. What remains to be seen is how the traveling public receives and perceives the installations, large and small. In our short-attention-span culture, can art make a human difference in the airport experience? Will travelers recognize and meaningfully feel the effort to aestheticize a space more prone to commercial and wayfinding signage?

In the entry hall Nick Cave’s huge ceiling installation of dangling cut-metal shapes, titled “The Air Up There,” is a pleasant enough diversion from traveling chaos and anxieties. Nevertheless, its overall effect seems more like three-dimensional wallpaper than an artwork inviting close study — of its geometric shapes, animal cutouts, peace signs and the like — by people on the move.

Leo Villareal’s “Fountain (KCI)” is a 25-foot-tall, electronically controlled shower of flowing LED lights. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Leo Villareal’s “Fountain (KCI),” a 25-foot-tall, electronically controlled shower of flowing LED lights, is a certified selfie magnet. Because of its location at a central nexus just past the security apparatus, virtually every airport traveler will encounter it coming and going. Much smaller than some of Villareal’s other major public installations elsewhere, this one, however, is harmlessly mesmerizing and speaks at least metaphorically to our civic identity as a “city of fountains.”

Nineteen area artists were chosen to create wall art pieces, each within parameters of 4 by 20 feet and installed above the seats in gate waiting areas. Most of them relate to the culture and geography of the region, sometimes overtly, sometimes much more subtly.

One of the more abstract pieces is, to my mind, also one of the more intriguing. Mona Cliff’s “Prairie Confluences” comprises three seemingly random planks of wood arrayed, paradoxically, like clouds — paradoxical because it speaks both of landforms (think Flint Hills) and the sky. The work’s secrets and “confluences” are compounded once a viewer takes a closer look — will they? — and sees the careful beadwork, embedded in beeswax, that rims each wavery piece of polyurethaned wood.

Mona Cliff’s “Prairie Confluences” (above) comprises three planks of polyurethaned wood rimmed with careful beadwork embedded in beeswax, as seen in the detail below. (photos courtesy of Kansas City, Missouri,
One Percent for Art program, 2023)

“That’s a prize for looking closer,” Cliff told me in a recent interview.

All of those physical elements and evocations of the subtleties of the prairie landscape give viewers various ways to enter and connect with Cliff’s art work.

“I can’t control how people perceive the piece,” Cliff said, “but I am creating a vessel to see all of that.”

Cliff draws from her mixed Native American heritage. She learned beading from her grandmother and inherited her collection of materials. After earning a B.F.A. from the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, she drifted for a few years and eventually ended up in Lawrence, where she married and began raising a family. It was only five years ago that Cliff began embracing her impulses as a contemporary artist beyond her traditional beadwork.

In her first major commission she diverged from two-dimensional work and created a pair of wall sculptures for the Kansas City Museum. Incorporating unusually shaped wood planks edged with beads, these were a precursor to her airport piece.

Part of Cliff’s ongoing inspiration comes from admiring the aesthetics of Japanese gardens, which typically involved “working with nature as opposed to trying to control it,” she said.

For the airport she initially wondered if she could fill the allotted space, but eventually, as she laid out what she had in mind, “I vibed with it and they vibed together.”

Now comes the challenge of reaching travelers waiting for their planes to board. Will they vibe with her “Prairie Confluences”? And how will they vibe with the airport overall?

When the poet Naomi Shihab Nye came to town for a reading in late February, I took the opportunity to tap her thoughts as a non-local who had flown into the old airport and out of the new. Her response — granted it’s an unscientific poll of one person: “very appealing and gracious, yummy looking food offerings, user-friendly, great signage, easy to navigate, fabulously intriguing items hanging from the ceiling in ticket desk area, still trying to figure out what they were but liked them — a fountain made of lights! Children will love. Child play areas. It seemed like a space of clarity, good signage, welcoming, whereas old airport felt grim! I really liked it. congratulations!”

Yes, let us pat ourselves on our collective back.

Three Things I’m Looking Forward To

May 10-28: The Unicorn Theatre’s 49th season, a mere 43 of them with Cynthia Levin at the helm, has been ambitious, inventive, topical and generally thrilling. The season’s closer is “Lungs,” Duncan Macmillan’s widely praised and fast-moving serio-comic exploration of the global environmental crisis experienced through the angst and banter of a young couple.

May 30-June 4: I’ve written several times about a cultural renaissance under way in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning with the opening a decade ago of the Woody Guthrie Center. Now, with a companion mecca devoted to Bob Dylan and numerous other civic and cultural projects, the bar continues to rise. A weekend Dylan seminar approaches in early June, attracting scholars and fans from around the globe, but now it’s packaged inside a full-fledged humanities festival called The Switchyard, which will feature poets, writers and a whole lot of bands — switchyard.com.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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