“You have two experiences in an airport,” veteran public artist Donald Lipski (American, b. 1947) recently told an interviewer when describing the viewer experience in an airline terminal. “You are rushing through and hardly see anything. Or you are stuck here and have hours to kill. To try to come up with something to serve both of those situations is challenging and I love that.” Lipski has focused in recent years on creating commissioned work for public transportation sites: major American airports, bus terminals, and train stations. It is an unusual choice for an artist whose studio work was once composed of isolating found, cast-off materials and for organizing dense, layered installations which were noted for their quirky materials and taxonomic systems. Instead, today Lipski is following his instinct to collaborate with engineers, fabricators, architects, lighting designers, and community groups. He doesn’t blink when confronted with the red tape of transit commission bureaucracy. “Making art in the studio is like being a writer. It is a very solitary thing. You sit there and do your work. Public art is highly collaborative,” he explained.
Lipski has made three major public works in American airports: Miami International Airport, Sacramento Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. There is a pending project at the San Antonio International Airport. The work in Miami, Got Any Jacks?, is a wall piece and consists of five-hundred taxidermied tropical fish arranged in abstract forms. The artist tapped into the local ecosystem and featured sea creatures. Acorn Stream, 2011, in Sacramento, was made of thirty-feet long lifelike tree limbs with Swarovski crystals dripping off the branches to reflect light. In Atlanta, Lipski also chose thousands of elegant Swarovski crystals to install a chandelier of netting and bling, Rebilace, 2012. The planned work for San Antonio, scheduled to open in the next few years , is a wall relief of water-filled glass tubes in the form of a map of the San Antonio river.
Unlike a gallery exhibition in Chelsea or a museum show, it’s unlikely that most visitors to these airports will even know who is Donald Lipski. If ticket holders have time to linger in the concourse, they’ll have the opportunity to think deeply about the meaning of the sculpture, why it was sited where it is, and the materials and process behind the work. As to identifying the artist, Lipski affirms that each site has a wall label or plaque identifying him as the creator. “I don’t imagine that because of all of the tens of thousands of people a day who see my work that my name will become a household name,” he said. The name recognition isn’t what has propelled Lipski to seek and get these commissions. It’s the process, really, and the power of completing work for throngs of travelers. “One of the most beloved pieces of public art is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. People in Chicago call it The Bean. Even people who love the piece don’t know it is Anish Kapoor’s work,” he said.
If fame hasn’t made Lipski’s a household name, that doesn’t deter his pursuit of these projects. What is important to him, he says, is that he’s respected by his artist peers. “Public art isn’t really respected in the art world the way gallery and museum art is,” according to the artist. “I understand that.” Lipski’s work in the public sphere is sure to continue. His talk a few years ago for the public art program in Fort Worth was titled: “Public Art: What the Hell Was I Thinking?”