Karin Schnell, char of the Airport Arts Commission, stands in front of the airport's new art installation, "The Birds in Flight," at Terminal C at John Wayne Airport. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Coastline Pilot / December 29, 2011)

JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT — The "Flight of Ideas" art installation noiselessly crowds the airspace above the baggage carousels at the new Terminal C here.

This is where the old Terminal B garage stood before construction crews razed it to clear the way for Terminal C — the main piece of John Wayne Airport's $543-million improvement and renovation program — which opened in mid-November.

In assorted sizes, shapes and colors, the sculpture's 21 individual pieces together resemble a flock of flying mechanical birds. They seem to float in the air as they dangle from a 100-foot truss suspended from the terminal's barrel vault ceiling. Their bodies are made of aluminum, and their colorful wings and tail fins are plexiglass cutouts imprinted with sections of actual FAA aeronautical charts.

The sculpture in Terminal C (one of three contiguous terminals housed in the Thomas F. Riley Terminal building) is a milestone for JWA. It is the county-run airport's first acquisition of a work of art.

For $50,000, the airport commissioned Kansas City, Mo., public space artist Beth Nybeck to create "Flight of Ideas" for the opening of Terminal C. The proposal by Nybeck, whose portfolio includes works commissioned mostly by towns in the Midwest, was selected following a competition that solicited more than 20 proposals from artists nationwide, JWA officials said.

The Nybeck work is one of at least two physical components integrated into plans for the new terminal that represent an expansion of JWA's 21-year-old art program.

The county Board of Supervisors-appointed Airport Arts Commission worked closely with the architect to ensure that spaces for displaying art were incorporated into the building's design, said Karin Schnell, the commission's chair.

"I think it humanizes the whole experience of being in the airport ...," said Jeffrey Frisch, the airport's art program coordinator who is an artist in his own right.

"To me, as an artist, [it is] a very important part of the travel experience because it takes it out of just the bus station realm and really puts a high cultural polish to the experience," he added.


'O.C.: Destination Art & Culture'

Frisch and Courtney C. Wiercioch, JWA's deputy director of public affairs, were taking a reporter on a tour of the art spaces in the airport's non-restricted areas in Terminals A, B and C, which the public can access without a boarding pass.

The tour did not include a visit to the Vi Smith Concourse Gallery, located beyond the security checkpoints and near gates in Terminals A and C. The gallery is now displaying two professionally curated photographic exhibits: a display of photographs by Carolyn Russo that capture aesthetic features and angles of airplanes and other aeronautical relics housed in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum; and an exhibit tracing the Boeing Co.'s history in California.

After seeing "Flight of Ideas," the next stop was in the carpeted walkway connecting Terminal C to Terminal B.

Eleven wall-mounted cases that line the curving corridor, which is glassed in on one side, comprise the second new piece in the JWA art program. The space was set aside in the airport's upgrade specifically to promote Orange County as a destination for the arts and culture, JWA officials said.

The 11 cases displayed large, art-quality photographs of ancient Chinese artifacts currently exhibited in the "Warriors, Temples, and Tombs" show at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

The corridor wall is prime space for commercial advertising, but JWA Director Alan L. Murphy lobbied county officials to use it to boost O.C.'s nonprofit cultural arts and institutions, Wiercioch said.

She also noted that, while public construction projects by law sometimes can require that a percentage of taxpayer dollars be spent on incorporating an artistic element into the project, John Wayne Airport did not legally have to meet that requirement in building Terminal C.

Yet JWA officials felt that the aerial gateway to the county should serve as a booster for the O.C. arts and cultural scene.