Oregon artist goes big at Portland International Airport - OPB

Portland artist Yoonhee Choi has been hard at work creating giant glass wall hangings that will decorate the airport security area at the newly renovated Portland International Airport.

Choi usually makes tiny collages from found materials, but her first public art commission, selected by the Regional Arts and Culture Council and funded by the Port of Portland, will be two glass panels each nearly 56 feet long. Choi joins us to discuss what it means to make art for Oregon’s busiest airport. Half Glass Bathroom Door

Oregon artist goes big at Portland International Airport - OPB

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. When the $2 billion renovation of the Portland International Airport is complete in 2025, the star of the show will likely be the new hand-crafted timber roof. It’s gotten a lot of attention for its construction and design. But there are gonna be a lot of other new things to look at. One of them is being created by our next guest. The Portland artist Yoonhee Choi often makes tiny collages from found materials. But her first public art commission funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council will be about 56 ft long. She’s making a giant glass wall that will decorate the airport’s pre-security screening area. She joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to the show.

Yoonhee Choi: Hi. Thank you for having me here.

Miller: Yeah, thanks for joining us. Why did you decide to apply to make art for the Portland Airport?

Choi: Well, I had been looking for many public art opportunities for many years. But from my own experience, most of the public arts were asking for strict prerequisites like working with certain materials or completing a number of public art commissions over a certain budget. So I was not able to apply for many projects that I was interested in.

But Portland’s Glass Wall RFQ was different. It didn’t require any public art experience, not even previous glass experience, although it is a very high-profile public art project. So it was open to all artists basically, in any medium, in North America. So that was encouraging. So I decided to apply.

Miller: What was your reaction when you got the email that you were a finalist?

Choi: Well, if I think of the day back in January when I got an email saying that I was one of the finalists, I still get shivers. I couldn’t believe it. I had to reread my email many times to make sure that I understood it correctly. As an artist living in Portland and loving PDX Airport, having a permanent artwork in the new building, it’s like a dream. So I was just super excited. But at the same time, overwhelmed, especially when you think about the significance of the new airport buildings, and the scale of the commission. It was too much pressure for me to handle. So I tried to focus on what I can control, try to focus on [the] interview at that time, nothing else beyond.

Miller: Well it worked, because obviously you weren’t just a finalist but you were chosen for this.

There’s a picture of you on your website. It’s taken from above, you’re on the floor, and there’s a full-scale mockup of the design all around you. It fills up the frame, and you’re not that big in the photo. It’s really a huge work that you’re on top of. It looks to me sort of like a whimsical map of an imaginary land. Can you describe what it looks like?

Choi: Yeah, I will try. I like how you just describe it. Definitely that is one way to see it. I want my work undefined, and design it for open ended interpretations. Visually, there are three main graphic layers in my design. One is the color pencil lines, and two layers of the line tape glasses in different scales. These curvy lines came from the idea of a blank parenthesis or unfilled speech bubbles, like a texting bubble on your phone.

Miller: Oh, that then people can sort of fill in for themselves?

Choi: Yeah. So when you think of a million travelers coming in and out of the airport, every single person has their own stories about their own trips. So before and after [a] trip, people change, and their story changes too. When you think about airport, there are endless exciting stories and conversations happening in the airport. So I want to leave my work kind of empty or blank so it can be filled by travelers. If I wanna add more, like this playful abstract shapes responding to these lines, I developed them in two different scales that I call whale and minnow. When I think about a big colorful glass wall in real life, I somehow immediately thought about a huge aquarium pool with the big and small fishes swimming with the other creatures. I really remember watching diverse species in different colors and sizes, various shapes of creatures living together peacefully. And I thought that that’s very beautiful. And PDX is an international airport. My design is intended to welcome all diverse people in multiple cultures from all over the world.

Miller: You mentioned that part of the collage is based on colorful line tape. What is it? And what drew you to use this particular material in the first place?

Choi: Well, I call them vintage line tapes, because no one uses them and no one makes them anymore. But not that long ago, they were a very essential drafting tool in many design fields, including city planning, architecture, and many other visual art professions like making manga, before any computer graphic programs were invented. They are self-adhesive tape. They come in various line tapes, like a dashed line and dotted line, sometimes in the very decorative or repeated patterns.

But why I was drawn into that is a kind of a personal story. That started with my first pregnancy. Back in 2005, I was taking all kinds of class, like a drawing class, wood bending class, welding class in a very hot summer, hoping to discover my own material to make my own art. But I found out that I was pregnant, and I stopped everything because I didn’t wanna use anything potentially to harm my baby.

Choi: Yeah. So I felt like I was trapped. I thought that I would not make art again for a long time. But when I look back right now, it was kind of a hidden blessing because I had to rethink my material and the art making process with a totally new perspective. So I am looking for a safe material and simple tools that I can work with while I was raising my boy. So suddenly, these old line tapes which were sitting in my toolbox for more than a decade just caught my eyes. It’s self-addictive, so I didn’t need any glue, that means no waiting time and the only tool I needed was an X-Acto knife.

Miller: This reminds me of something that you mentioned on your website in your artist statement. You call what you do broadly, in terms of your search for objects, “trawling.” What do you mean by that?

Choi: Well, trawling is a kind of a visual metaphor. When I think of what I’m doing when I collect my art making material, I kind of see myself like trailing an invisible fishing net behind anywhere where I go, and basically collect a random object without knowing what I’m gonna do and why, but I kind of sit on that until it clicks with me.

Miller: You may pick something up not knowing what you want to do with it? For whatever reason, you just grab it and then hold on to it?

Choi: Yeah, because in a way I work intuitively and follow my curiosity. So there is something that clicks with me at that moment when I discover it. But I don’t really know at that moment. But usually, I spend time with it and play with it. Then all the material comes with their own social context, it has its own story, then it kind of develops. And when I have my own story or things that I want to communicate with the viewer, it becomes art material, and I make them part of my work.

Miller: For so many visitors to Portland and people who now call Portland or Oregon home, the Portland Airport, PDX, is the very first place that they see in the state. Was that true for you?

Choi: Yes, actually. I moved from Seoul, Korea, in 2005 through the PDX Airport, and Portland became my hometown for my whole family.

Miller: What does it mean for you to be creating something - I don’t know how many people go through PDX every year, but tens of thousands, maybe more - that it’ll be one of the first things they see when they arrive or when they leave?

Choi: For me, Portland offered a lot of opportunities for me as an artist since 2005, and it’s a great honor to have my piece in there in a very prominent location. So I want my work [to] welcome all the visitors and immigrants or people who are trying to find a new home with a warm heart.

Miller: I was at the airport recently, and there were hundreds of really stressed-out people, tired people, this was early in the morning in the prescreening line waiting to go through the scanners. This was not an audience that had gone to the airport intentionally to look at art. They were making sure they had their boarding passes and getting ready to take their shoes off and their belts off before cramming themselves into cramped seats and maybe staring at small screens or sleeping. What do you want people to experience as they’re passing by your wall?

Choi: This issue was really well addressed in [the] RFQ, and I took it very seriously in a way, because a lot of people [are] stressed about traveling, and sometimes they have a fear of flying out. So for me, I wanna say that my work is more like a backdrop for travelers and available for them to engage at their own pace. I tried to compose the wall with a lot of open space, which offers a generous breathing room, and also will allow natural light very softly into the area. So I hope this helps people feel relaxed and take their mind off stress, instead of imposing any overpowering image or using intense color, which I think push over people away from work. I really try to compose with intimate scale shapes and using soft color palettes. So I hope that’s easy to take and not forcing them to look at. I hope people are curious enough about this mysterious creature and inspired to get closer and discover things with their own view when they have time.

Miller: When will it be up? When will travelers coming to or from Portland be able to see it?

Choi: It is scheduled to be open to the public sometime in May 2024.

Miller: Yoonhee Choi, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Choi: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Yoonhee Choi is a Portland artist, and she is designing a huge glass wall for the Portland International Airport’s major renovation.

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Oregon artist goes big at Portland International Airport - OPB

Round Glass Tags: Think Out Loud, Portland, Airport, Arts And Culture