SEA Airport Is Basically an Art Gallery
Beauty-starved travelers, this is for you 😍
March 17, 2023
Your skin’s a mess. Your phone’s dying, and you just missed your flight.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport might seem like the last place you’d expect to find beautiful, thought-provoking art. But SEA is teeming with contemporary art from renowned international and local artists, tucked in corners or suspended dramatically from the ceiling. The Port of Seattle has an impressive collection of public art which it started accumulating in the late 1960s, the first public agency in the region to do so.
Though some may scoff at the setting, I believe art in airports is needed because it’s precisely where we’re most starved for beauty (and hope!). What better way to take in a sculpture or admire a painting than during the aimless hours before a delayed flight? Art-looking pairs well with a burger from Wendy’s!
Here are just a few of my fav installations you can gawk at in the terminals of SEA.
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📸: Courtesy Port of Seattle | Photo by Spike Mafford
After you’re done perusing the trail mixes at Hudson News in the airport’s North Satellite, stop by Deborah Butterfield’s’ “Blackleaf.” Butterfield is a master of texture and craftsmanship, composing life-size horses out of what appears to be driftwood. However! That driftwood is cast bronze! To create her sculptures, she first composes a model of each piece, intuitively putting together branches and sticks, then casts the model in bronze. She finishes it with a protective layer so you can take in her work outside or inside. Instead of embodying the rogue nature of stallions, “Blackleaf” is more contemplative, with its head down as if it were considering the airport floor with care.
If you’re milling about during a layover or a delayed flight, consider spending some time in the A Concourse’s solarium between gates A9 and A10. You’ll find Peter Shelton’s playful “cloudsandclunkers” installation there—you can’t miss it.
In the corner of the wedge-shaped solarium, Shelton installed black, cast iron “clunkers” that somewhat resemble balloon ties or ceramic vases with their bottoms smashed into one another. These “clunkers” are arranged solemnly on fabricated steps. And just above them are “clouds” made from the same sculpture molds, but instead with translucent fiberglass and attached with wire to the glass ceiling.
“I am very curious about how the two sets of forms generated from the same patterns can have very different material and associative qualities and differently occupy the two very distinct zones of the wedge space,” Shelton said of the work.
Take a moment to feel the sun on your face and ponder the dichotomy between light and dark, stone and cloud, and how an impossibly heavy plane can float in the sky.
If you think airport art can’t be famous, well, think again. Michael Fajans’ beguiling and transfixing “High Wire” painting has caused a stir over the years. Spread out across 11 panels, the photorealistic work depicts a magician making someone disappear (or reappear, depending on which way you’re walking down the terminal) in a box. Simple and inoffensive, right? Wrong!
In 1999, comedian David Cross critiqued “High Wire” during a Seattle gig (“magic is already boring when it’s right there in front of you”), and, in 2001, a flight attendant petitioned for the work to be taken down due to its “spooky vibes.” But, truly, what’s spookier than sitting in a metal tube hurtling hundreds of miles per hour?
“Travelers [having flown by plane] retain, for a short time, the aura of having done something superhuman,” Fajans wrote about the piece. “The traveler has defied the intuitive laws of time, biology, and physics. He or she has moved, for want of a better term, magically.” Voila!
Over in the C Concourse, a clever bit of art is wrapped around the escalators descending to the SEA underground train. It’s Cable Griffith’s dreamy and jewel-like “Cascadia,” a colorful work that adds drama to the mundanity of the escalators. Made of 22 hand-painted glass panels, Griffith painted playful, minimalist symbols and pixelated blocks of color on the glass to depict this mountainous region we call home. He based the work on photographs he took of the Pacific Northwest and video games, merging the digital with the natural. From the pointy evergreens to the wispy, white clouds that lazily float in the sky on a bright spring day, it’s a bit of outdoors indoors.
International Arrivals Facility
I can think of no better thing for my weary eyes to land on after a 16-hour flight than Marela Zacarías’ commanding “Chalchiuhtlicue.” It’s a series of five painted mesh and canvas sculptures installed on top of the baggage claim in the International Arrivals Facility. Taking inspiration from textiles and her Mexican heritage (Chalchiuhltlicue is the name of an Aztec water goddess), the serpentine sculpture is an ode to the abundant natural beauty of Puget Sound. Mainly, this theme jumps out through its color choice: mossy greens, river-like blues and snowy grays, red like the bark on a tree. Ponder it as you adjust to your new time zone and try to remember exactly where you put your passport.
Eyes on the World
You’ve reached the final level of moving through the airport: baggage claim. It’s a deeply chaotic space with carousels making loud noises, errant bags stacked in corners, and people hurrying to get back home. But near baggage claim area #15, a very psychedelic artwork awaits you. Richard C. Elliott’s “Eyes on the World” is made of three layers of reflectors attached to a light box and arranged in a diamond pattern. This pattern makes it look as if something were staring right at you. It’s colorful and entrancing, yet easy to miss in the mayhem of baggage claim. In a way, it’s SEA Airport bidding you goodbye, and promising that it’ll always be keeping an eye out for you. How comforting!
Jas Keimig is an arts and culture writer in Seattle. Their work has previously appeared in The Stranger, i-D, Netflix, and Feast Portland. They won a game show once and have a thing for stickers.