Next time you're at Milwaukee's airport, look down at the intricate mosaics at your feet
Editor's Note: This story originally aired on Sep. 13, 2019.
Imagine you’re rushing to catch a flight at Milwaukee County's General Mitchell International Airport — maybe for business or a long-anticipated vacation. What's on your mind? If you’re Dan Schley, you’re wondering: What’s the story behind the floor mosaics?
"It caught my attention and I thought, 'I’m just going to ask this,' " the Bubbler Talk question asker says.
Dan is talking about a massive piece of public art that spans the floor of Concourse C — the terminal that juts to the northeast at Mitchell airport.
Spokesperson Pat Rowe escorts me to the beginning of the trail of 14 round mosaics. Their sizes vary — from 3.5 to 15 feet — and so do their themes, but all are connected to Wisconsin.
First stop is 'Three Rivers'. The mosaic points to Milwaukee’s location at the confluence of the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee.
From there the observant viewer finds her or himself on a journey along a lush landscape. "It starts out as farm fields and then you can see as it gets closer to the lakefront, these become neighborhoods," Pat explains.
Along the way, an occasional leaf imprint made of bronze punctuates the scene.
Called Aerial Wisconsin, it’s one of nearly 20 projects created between 2000 and 2012 — thanks to a special Milwaukee County program called 1% for Public Art.
Pat remembers it was wonderful watching the mosaic creators at work: "Creative people who enjoyed their work, and it shows … [They] enjoyed having people watch them work."
Calling from their studio in Miami, Florida, artists and partners Carlos Alves and JC Carroll say while they loved interacting with travelers, it made for a more arduous artmaking experience.
"Working in the airport while it’s open, we had to keep all our materials underneath, so it was always up and down, up and down, through the gates, through TSA," Carlos recalls.
Aerial Wisconsin took four years to complete. From 2004 to 2008, the team spent one to three months at a time installing Carlos’ design.
He estimates it’s a fourth of a mile long.
JC says they want to give passersby the feeling they are already on an airplane, experiencing Wisconsin from on high. "There’s a shadow of an airplane and clouds … That’s the idea to cover all the state of Wisconsin like you’re flying over it," she says.
Different colored terrazzo — special flooring made of small chips of stone, including marble — creates the illusion. A crew poured the mixture, section by section. Then at just the right time, they laid countless mosaic pieces in place. They had glazed, fired, cut and finally numbered each tile in Miami, so they would know what belonged where in Milwaukee.
"And a lot of the tiles were different thicknesses so along the way we had to keep everything plumb," Carlos says. "Then we used 15 colors of grout just for background ... Sometimes we’d have two or three medallions going at the same time and we’d run from one the other while things were drying."
A medallion could take up to 20 hours to install.
One of the last elements the team completed was an intricate art mosaic featuring a gleaming white Calatrava. It seems to be made up of countless bits of tile.
It turns out the Calatrava is captured within another mosaic a short distance from Concourse C — where airport meets parking structure.
This project wasn’t part of Milwaukee County’s public art program; it was spearheaded by a local non-profit called SHARP Literacy.
Artist Sally Duback coordinated the installation, titled Communities – Mosaic of Culture. "We decided to break it down into two parts," she explains, "so it’s places in the community, people of the community."
Sally's co-creators were third grade students. Their two big murals hang across from one another — each packed with glittering, gleaming buildings and people. The students drew them and then Sally pulled their drawings together into giant compositions.
She says they created the mosaic by gluing bits of costume jewelry, beads and other found materials in place. "And the glue would stay workable for a few days, so when we would finish an area so you could sprinkle seed beads into it, sprinkle some of this little stuff in there and just kind of press it in."
As people rush pass heading in and out of the airport, Sally says she wishes people would linger a bit to admire the students’ work.
Bubbler Talk question asker Dan Schley says the next time he’s at the airport with a few minutes to share, he plans to spend time with both pieces of public art.
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