Blaine Siegel lives in Allison Park, but his family is mostly in Miami, so he’s a fairly frequent flier. Still, his thoughts about airports and air travel were greatly expanded after he became Pittsburgh International Airport’s first-ever artist in residence, in February 2018.
Siegel’s job was to create interactions with both travelers and airport workers that would produce, a year later, an artwork that reflected the people and the place. The final work — a series of three large abstract paintings created with the airport’s runway paint crew — was hung last week. But his journey there was considerably more circuitous than is most air travel.
Siegel, 45, applied for the residency partly because he liked the idea of incorporating art into everyday life. “I’m always curious how everything functions and everything works,” he said in March 2018, weeks after he began the residency. “I get to really explore the guts of the system in ways I wouldn’t otherwise. And I think the opportunity for creating art from the everyday, particularly in a place like this, that has the resources that it does, is a very unique opportunity.”
With the residency he might have gotten as much as his curiosity could handle. The airport sprawls over 8,800 acres and is home to some 5,000 workers; last year, it hosted almost 10 million travelers. Early on, Siegel worked at the airport about two days each week. There, staffers showed him around, from the air-traffic control tower and the in-house fire department to the on-site apiary and even the storehouse, where supervisor Patsy Perrone gave him a tour.
“What you’ll find in the airport warehouse is everything needed to run the Airport Authority, from toilet paper, to flags, to electrical items for the runway -- lamps, transformers,” said Perrone. “We have paint in stock for all the colors the Authority uses throughout the airport. We procure lumber for the carpenters, and that goes along with screws and nuts and bolts. And that goes along with electronics, [for] the electricians, plumbers. So just about anything you can imagine buying, including furniture and office supplies, comes through this warehouse.”
“You guys are like the endocrine system for the airport,” Siegel told Perrone. He was thinking about the airport as a living organism, constantly renewing its energies.
One day, Siegel went out on the tarmac with a baggage-handler for Southwest Airlines. “They put a vest on me, they put earplugs on me, he told me to keep my hand on his shoulder, and then I got to go out with the guys as they were guiding the planes out,” he said. “It’s a remarkable experience, the sense of scale you have next to a plane. You feel so miniature and so small. And then this whole area of the tarmac, no one is allowed out there. And it felt very much like looking out over the ocean, looking out over a place that you cannot attain. And it was a pretty profound experience.”
As he immersed himself, Siegel started feeling like part of the team. He got a uniform made – a dark-blue mechanic’s jumpsuit with its own original, retro-style logo, reading “Air Pit.” That was also the name he gave the first studio space the airport found for him, a room officials at the 25-year-old terminal believe was once a meditation space for travelers. (The carpet squares were a mosaic of blue sky and white clouds.)
The studio was on the mezzanine level, allowing Siegel to see almost everyone who visits the airport. “I’m kind of like one of the birds who sneaks into the airport and I get to watch everything from up high,” he said.
The airport already had lots of art, including that famous mobile in the airside terminal by Alexander Calder, which hung within view of Siegel’s first studio. (And, yes, the tourist-magnet T. rex skeleton and statues of George Washington and Franco Harris.) But Siegel, a multidisciplinary artist who’s done drawing, sculpture, video, and installation, wanted his art to be site-specific – a work inspired by his interactions with employees and travelers at Pittsburgh International. If possible, it would even be made out of materials found on site.
Ideas abounded, including one that would make Siegel’s efforts literally transparent to travelers. “We’ve toyed with the idea of creating kind of a roving studio, like ten [feet] by ten [feet], out of wood and Plexiglass, that would be kept on airside, that would wheel around,” he said in August 2018. “I could do work in the public realm, but if I wanted to talk or interview people I could open up a side and have them come in.”
Other ideas included a performance-based work, which would involve workers pushing around the terminal a giant sphere made of detritus from the airport’s operations, a la Sisyphus, to suggest the endless nature of the work that sustains the facility.
Ultimately, Siegel was most attached to an airport function that drew him in early on: the paint test pad, a two-acre patch of asphalt on the airport’s remote, northeastern corner where workers test the gear for painting lines on the runways.
“If you see satellite images, it’s this giant oblong circle, and it’s just color upon color overlapping,” he said. “I have a ton of imagery on my Instagram feed. I’m fascinated by it. It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.”
The stripes are painted mostly by a 40-foot-long slow moving truck.
“It’s yellow, black, white, they do red -- red is less frequent – but it’s all infused with reflective glass beads, so that when light hits it, it gets really brilliant,” said Siegel. He viewed the patterns as a kind of found abstract art.
“It’s constantly evolving, and constantly changing,” he said. “So I wanted to capture that energy directly as I could short of getting in and scraping it all up and gluing it on to something.”
Working closely with the paint crew, Siegel carpeted a section of asphalt with roofing shingles and reclaimed vinyl wallpaper over which the crew could simply paint as it usually does. The workers, he said, “think I’m crazy, because I find the paintings so beautiful, but they go out of their way to help me out.”
“When he first came over, we kind of didn’t understand what he was doing,” said Philip Jandrokovic, a line-striper. “And then he started to lay down his canvases, and we ran ’em over, and we were like, ‘Oh, all right, it’s kinda making sense now!’”
Siegel did some cutting and reassembly of the materials in his second studio, a larger former terminal space used for storage. There were some delays involving fabrication and installation of the final work that caused Siegel’s residency to run a few months over schedule. But the finished product made paint crew guys like driver Brian West feel differently about their jobs.
“We just thought it was for the FAA and the airport, but now I guess more people can enjoy it,” said West. “Now it’s an art project, it’s not just for pilots.”
The three 23-foot long paintings – series of bold, overlapping lines in multiple colors -- were hung on three big concrete joists in the main food court. Travelers walk right under them, past the lines of folks waiting to order at McDonald’s or Steel Cactus. The installation is right around the corner from the Calder mobile and other new, commissioned airport artworks, including two mannequins wearing gowns fashioned from up-cycled materials mistakenly left at the airport, by Pittsburgh-based designer Tereneh Idia. It's planned to remain up for two years.
Rachel Saul Rearick was hired as the airport’s first full-time arts and culture manager around the same time Siegel began his residency. She appreciates how his work joined the airport’s “hidden” sides with its public face.
“Blaine’s had the opportunity to really go behind the scenes and kinda make the invisible seen,” she said. “So I think it’s really exciting and interesting … even for myself and other employees, we’ve learned things we didn’t know about other segments of the airport.”
Travelers interviewed three days after the art was installed also seemed pleased.
“They’re really cool,” said Jessica Frey, a South Hills resident embarked on a business trip to Chicago. “It’s abstract, but it’s trying to look like a cityscape, or at least that’s my interpretation of it.
Like Frey, Stephane Griffin noted that the painting’s color scheme – though accented with some fluorescent-orange luggage tags -- recalled the city’s sports teams.
“It seems like with these that he’s a Steeler fan, ’cause it’s yellow and black!” said Griffin, a TSA employee from Aliquippa preparing to fly to Dallas.
The colors, however, are coincidental: Black and yellow are simply hues that airport paint crews use a lot.