HIGHLIGHTING PROCESS: FABRICATING HOBBY AIRPORT'S INTERNATIONAL CONCOURSE ARTWORKS
Alex Irrera, Civic Art + Design Assistant
To seal the deal for the Hobby International Concourse commissions, there were many contracts to be signed: those between Southwest Airlines and Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) and between HAA and the selected artists. Once the ink on this contract pile had dried, it was time for the artists to return to their studios. The project had entered its fabrication phase—where the ideas pitched by the artists to the selection panel began to take physical form. As the artists commenced their unique processes of creation, HAA’s Civic Art + Design (CA+D) department was at hand to provide assistance. Rather than getting down into the paint, electrical wiring, or concrete that each artist was working with, CA+D team members played a managerial role—consulting regularly with the artists, making visits to the artists’ studios or fabrication sites, and managing communications between the clients—Southwest Airlines and Houston Airport Systems (HAS)—and the artists to ensure a flow of materials, feedback, and funds to support the clients and artists towards meeting their shared deadlines.
As the CA+D Project Manager for the Hobby International Concourse commissions, Mat Kubo was the HAA team member most involved with the “ins and outs” of fabrication for these seven artworks by Christian Eckart, Chris Sauter, Krista Birnbaum, Henrique Oliveira, Kia Neill, Libbie Masterson, and duo RE:site. Kubo made time for regular studio visits with each of the artists, sometimes accompanied by HAA’s Director of Civic Art + Design Sara Kellner, HAS Public Art Program Director Pam Ingersoll, or HAS Public Art Program Curator Tommy Gregory. For example, Kubo visited the steel manufacturers for RE:site’s display case Time in Motion (which recounts the history of Hobby Airport) and paid a visit to Christian Eckart’s dichroic glass manufacturing company outside of Austin. Kubo and Gregory even traveled as far as Sao Paolo, Brazil, to check in with Henrique Oliveira and see his painting Travessia in development.
By nature of their design and function, some of the artworks involved a less physical production process than for others. To create Krista Birnbaum’s piece Roadside Attraction and Kia Neill’s Language of Evolving Trails, the artists worked at computers. They went through processes that—despite being non-traditional—are certainly fabrication, Kubo notes. Birnbaum and Neill then worked with subcontractors to print and (in Neill’s case) to frame the artwork. The more “physically demanding” works also relied on the support of professional teams. After Chris Sauter finished designs for his sculptural bench Airport Seating (Somewhere Between Here And There), he brought in a project manager who then hired three more contractors to do the concrete, steel, and lighting work. Public art pieces can pose new challenges—such as monumental scale or utilitarian function—for artists, which is why many (wisely) bring in specialists.
Some of the most exciting moments, according to Kubo, are when preparation pauses and the pieces are actually assembled into place. There can be an element of graceful choreography to this—as when Libbie Masterson laid out all of the bits of colored glass for her mosaic work Ethereal Sky. She then worked quickly to epoxy them into their final composition through a single time-sensitive process.
Another interesting aspect of the fabrication process can occur when an artist creates a never-before-seen tool or material. Reasons to do this might be to achieve greater efficiency in fabrication or to create a particular unique or customized look. As an example, Christian Eckart has had all of the hardware for his forthcoming dichroic glass sculpture Cloud Room Field custom fabricated out of extruded and machined aluminum—neither of which exist in off-the-shelf products. Similarly, artist Chris Sauter constructed complex rail and jig systems for the LED arrows that now surround his concrete benches. The steel rails were constructed to hold the malleable LEDs and the jig was created to hold the rail pieces in place while they were being welded and to ensure their safety during transportation. Cut by computer numerical control (CNC), the jig system was made up of 20 to 30 pieces that fit together with keys—like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Kubo recalled the quality of the system saying, “My background is in woodworking and steel fabrication… [And] this was the most complicated single use jig that I think most of us [on site] had ever seen.”
The best public art pieces are the ones that don’t “show their bones”—the ones that don’t reveal the stress and struggle that went into making them. But these artworks often appear simple precisely because of the immense amount of planning and teamwork that fostered them. With the artists and their subcontractors, clients Southwest Airlines and Houston Airport Systems, and the helping hand of HAA’s CA+D department all behind them, the new Hobby International Concourse artworks have come to beautiful and elegant fruition.