WILMINGTON—As travelers hustle through Wilmington International Airport’s new terminal expansion, they’ll also be welcomed by the talent of local artists, thanks to its partnership with the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County. Three new installations will go up in July 2021, created by muralist Jill Webb, as well as sculptors Paul Hill, Greg Hall and Jeff Hackney.
The ILM terminal expansion began in November 2019, though art work proposal requests launched in June 2020 and asked artists to capture the spirit of coastal North Carolina. The arts council put a call out to state, regional, national and international sculpture organizations, and marketed it to reach artists across the Southeast—Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Charleston, and Columbia. By the Aug. 1 deadline, 33 entries shuffled in from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
An artist selection committee from ILM — including business development director Carol LeTellier, airport authority member Julia Olson-Boseman, facilities director Granseur Dick, marketing specialist Erin McNally and TWC architect Brian Wilson — chose the finalist’s work: one 3D sculpture and two 2D terrazzo floor designs.
Floor plans are allocated a budget of $25,000 each and the large installation will be given $200,000. Any monies spent over budget will be the responsibility of the artists.
“The selection committee evaluated submissions based on artistic merit, relevance to the airport, technical feasibility, scale, budget, and maintenance,” explained arts council executive director Rhonda Bellamy, who helped launch the search.
Previously an assistant director and camera assistant in the film industry, Webb began painting murals as a stay-at-home-mom. Eventually, she expanded from private commissions into public ones, and today her work can be seen at Friends School of Wilmington, Cape Fear Academy and in the Brooklyn Arts District.
Webb submitted a geometric design with the intent to ease travelers and welcome them to engage in the art. She mocked up a floor labyrinth with imagery of loggerhead turtles. Webb drew inspiration from the area’s marine life, and began studying the turtles from their nest births to exploration of life in the Atlantic.
“The remarkable journey at the beginning of their lives is well-known and worth contemplating as we travel,” she explained, “and it sure doesn’t hurt that they are cute and well-loved by people of all ages.”
First, Webb scaled the floor site, which will be poured by a terrazzo flooring contractor ILM hires. The labyrinth will be installed in the terminal, post security. She landed on colors inspired by the ocean and sand at Wrightsville Beach, and even suggested sea shells be used as partial aggregate.
“I am very interested in the role that design plays in placemaking and community building,” Webb said of including art in public spaces.
She thought back to mazes and parks she reveled in as a child to encompass the same freedom of play.
“I really love the idea that a labyrinth can invite people to transform this space in the airport into a little park for kids or a meditative space in the midst of a traditionally busy transitional space,” she explained. “I love to imagine that this labyrinth will give some weary or anxious travelers a little bit of peace and fun.”
When sculptor Greg Hall heard about the project, he asked to partner up with his mentor, Paul Hill. They wanted to draw on nature and the beauty of the coast.
“We considered all of the aspects of our community that make it unique, including the flora, fauna, historic architecture, and significant geographical features,” Hall said.
While Hall was driving out of town one morning, contemplating the giant sculpture they would submit, he began to consider the traffic flow of people in the airport. He couldn’t seem to land on an idea that would enhance the space while not blocking views of the airfield.
“It hit me at 3 a.m., staring down a dark empty highway,” Hall said. “Live oaks!”
A staple on the coastline, live oaks often are revered for their sturdy elegance. For Hall and Hill, the creation of “Laurel Oak Tree” would take up a lot of space in its height and branches, while still maintaining a small footprint below, as to not impede airport flow in the atrium, next to “Loggerhead Labyrinth.”
“It provides a unique viewer interaction, as travelers who would normally be scurrying through a busy terminal can pause to immerse themselves in a seemingly natural space while waiting for flights,” he added.
They built a small-scale of the architectural structure that would surround the oak and then made a small tree of aluminum foil to understand its scale.
The next step will be constructing a full-size small branch out of steel rods, using a structural engineer’s eye to make sure it’s safe for public use. Then they will move forward on its base, trunk, and the rest of its branches —”essentially the internal skeleton,” according to Hall.
In the end the tree will measure 20-feet-tall from the floor, 20-feet wide from the left to right and 30 feet from front to back.
They plan to cut thousands of leaves to weld to the branches, each flame-treated as to unveil colors like blue, purple, fuchsia and gold, measuring 2-by-3-inches, a little embellished from the normal 1-inch-by-3-inch leaves.
“Viewers [can] see their shape more clearly from eye level, as well as increase their reflective surface and visibility of their vibrant array colors,” Hall said. “Once the overall skeletal form is complete, the ‘bark’ of the tree will be hand-cut from stainless steel sheets and shaped in sections, then welded to the surface.”
A plaque noting the significance of the Laurel Oak to Wilmington will be made from an actual Laurel Oak burl slab, donated by the Wilmington Forestry Management Supervisor and City Arborist Aaron Reese.
“[It] will be carved to accentuate the natural beauty and grain of the wood, and placed near the base of the tree sculpture,” Hall said. “Due to the rarity of finding a burl this size, the Urban Forestry Division decided to harvest and save the wood for use in a community-based art project after the tree died.”
The finished sculpture will be transported to ILM as 35 separate sections before being installed.
Hall grew up welding in his father’s shop, forging farm equipment and tractors in youth. He studied engineering and architecture, but landed on sculptural art as his major and graduated with a BA from UNCW more than a decade ago. A full-time artist, he met Hill from one of his professors, Andi Steele.
“Over the years, he has mentored me as an artist and allowed me to assist him with many of his public and private installations,” Hall said.
Hill went to college, joined the military and then worked as creative director for numerous advertising agencies before following his passion to become a full-time sculptor and painter. He picked up a torch to do steel work more than 25 years ago. His steel and fused-glass Venus Fly Trap erected in downtown Wilmington is a popular scenic stop on the Riverwalk.
For ILM’s second terrazzo floor design, Hill teamed up with Jeff Hackney for the 2D design of “Venus Flytrap.” It is drawn with deep blues, neon green and pink, and will be visible at the security checkpoint in the center of the main terminal’s high-ceiling atrium.
Since the partnership between the arts council and ILM began four years ago, Bellamy said they have showcased more than 200 artists in solo and group exhibitions. The latest round of installations will be permanent; however, Bellamy said she is confident at what’s to come to ILM.
“Once the dust settles, we’re hopeful we will be offered space to curate more local exhibits,” Bellamy said.
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