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New Pittsburgh Airport artwork asks, 'What would your luggage say?'

John Peña sits at a table in the Pittsburgh International Airport car rental area next to a sign reading "What does your luggage think about?"
Blue Sky News
Pittsburgh International Airport
Artist John Peña is soliciting ideas for his new work at the airport, "What Does Your Luggage Think?"

Air travelers know the peculiar, low-level stress of retrieving suitcases from baggage claim — and the sudden cheer of seeing one’s personal luggage tumble onto that slow-moving carousel.

If your bag as it comes into view seems to speak with an eloquence only you can understand, Pittsburgh-based artist John Peña has the artwork for you.

Peña is one of more than a dozen artists creating pieces for the new Pittsburgh International Airport terminal. His work, to be positioned in baggage claim and titled “What Does Luggage Think About?” will consist of four sculptures of oversized suitcases with big word balloons suspended above, each containing a mechanical split-flap display conveying a series of messages attributed to the luggage itself.

But what that luggage will say when the terminal opens in 2025 is largely up to the public. Peña is still crowdsourcing ideas, though he says he’s already got some good ones.

“I hope my zipper holds from being stuffed,” read one of the 150 he had collected as of Wednesday. “Let’s go on an adventure,” went another.

“One person just wrote ‘Wheeee!,’ which I really liked,” said Peña.

On Wednesday, the artist sat behind a display table stationed in the airside terminal near a Martini Bar and a Sunglass Hut, and hailed passersby who glanced his way. A few took him up on the offer to fill out a “What does your luggage think about?” postcard.

“I literally was just reading something about luggage and it said something about leaking body bags in the luggage hold, and you should always make sure you have hard-sided luggage that stuff can’t get into,” said Leigh Frank, of Brookline. “I wrote, ‘If my luggage isn’t worried about it, then I am now!’”

Product designer Patrick Aurelio, catching a flight for Phoenix, got metaphysical.

“I said, ‘I’m closer to the universe than my human, because like most of the observable universe, I’m not alive,’” Aurelio said. “’However, I straddle a line between that which is living and that which is not, because I’m a petroleum product, made of the reconstituted molecules of things that were once alive.'”

Other messages were pragmatic. DeArthur Turner, a fueler at the airport, imagined luggage saying, “Why’re you putting so much junk in here, it’s not like you’re moving.”

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Peña is an artist known for his diary-style comics, and more recently for “400 Million Years of Water,” his public artwork on the new Fern Hollow Bridge. He said “What Does Your Luggage Think About” was inspired by travelers’ anxieties at baggage claim.

“I was trying to think of something playful or a little bit looser that could distract people or engage people,” he said. He’s using split-flap displays because they both allow for messages to change frequently and recall similar boards used in old-school train stations.

Peña held his first suggestion-gathering session this week at the existing terminal’s baggage claim. But ironically, most people were too rushed or preoccupied to participate. The airside terminal session went better.

Peña’s sculptures will accompany baggage carousels on the south side of the new terminal. The north-side carousels will feature Erie-based Fredy Huaman Mallqui’s “Connections,” a series of hand-carved sculptures inspired by seeds as a means of travel.

Other new artworks will include Pittsburgh-based Alisha B. Wormsley’s “Orrery” — an installation in the International Arrivals terminal made from items salvaged from the airport’s lost and found — and “Butterfly Nebula,” an adjacent ceiling sculpture inspired by a model of the galaxy and patterns of immigration into Pittsburgh.

Outdoors, looks for Portland, Ore.-based Adam Kuby’s large-scale “Cross Currents,” a non-repeating abstract pattern cast into concrete form liners that functions as a wall, and Colorado artist Patrick Marold’s “Open Columns,” a series of sculptures consisting of large-scale Corten steel and polished aluminum columns.

At least one other artist is still also soliciting public input for her work. Los Angeles-based Susan Narduli’s “Immersion: A Pittsburgh Sound Portrait” will be an audio installation passengers hear on the escalators in the new terminal. Narduli is seeking audio files of “distinctly Pittsburgh sounds” or ideas for such sounds.

As for Peña and his talkative luggage, he'll be back at the airport 2-6 p.m. Fri., April 19, Wed., April 24, and Fri., April 26. You can also submit ideas online here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: