Airport Artists

Memphis International showcases students’ works

By Amos Maki

Several years ago Richard White, vice president of properties and business development at the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, noticed what he thought was a troubling trend.

Memphis International Airport carpenter Fred Pellegra hangs title cards on student artwork on display in the A and B Concourses at the airport. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

On almost every news report White saw, the children of Memphis and Shelby County were portrayed in a negative light.

“About seven years ago, there was a ton of negative press about Memphis and Shelby County kids,” said White. “I knew there were great kids doing great things, and I thought there was an easy way we could show that.”

What White came up with was an art contest where students from every high school in Memphis and Shelby County could get a chance to display their art on one of the largest canvases in the area, Memphis International Airport.

“I just wanted to show we have some really great kids and give them a chance to get a pat on the back,” White said. “There’s no telling what these kids can do.”

The airport recently honored the winners of its seventh annual High School Visual Arts Competition.

“‘Arts in the Airport’ is our way of showcasing the wonderful talents of our local high school artists and musicians, and providing a genuine Memphis feel to our airport,” said Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Airport Authority.

The airport received 273 entries from local students. Of those entries, 45 finalists were chosen and the top three winners, as well as three honorable mentions, were announced earlier this month. All 45 artists will have their art displayed between the A and B concourses for one year. Art supplies were provided by the airport’s community foundation.

Qiu Mei of Germantown High School won first place for a piece called “A Mid-Summer Day in Memphis.” Stephanie Curry of Overton High School won second place for “Night Music,” and Theresa Shealy of Overton High School won third place for “Animal Kingdom.”

“‘Arts in the Airport’ is our way of showcasing the wonderful talents of our local high school artists and musicians.”

–Scott Brockman

Honorable mentions went to Isabel Harper of Houston High School, Brenda Gonzalez of Oakhaven High School and Ragaa Kunda of Ridgeway High School. Gali Du of White Station High School was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from HMS Host/Anton Airfood for a piece titled “Memphis Tradition.”

The Memphis College of Art offered around $240,000 worth of scholarships to six artists.

For years, airports earned a reputation for being drab and lifeless, but that slowly began to change. Airports in cities such as Denver and Atlanta began placing an emphasis on public art as a way to breathe life into the facilities and instill a local touch.

“A lot of the airports around the country were going about decorating the airport with their city’s theme,” said Gregg Coats, visual arts instructional adviser with Shelby County Schools. “(White) wanted to showcase the talent we have in our kids and give kids a sense of pride about the city, its heritage and its artistic heritage.”

While some airports pay professional artists to develop art showcasing that city’s virtues, Memphis International relies on students to showcase the city’s assets.

“Atlanta pays professional artists to do that, but art in this airport is primarily from students in Memphis and Shelby County,” White said.

Having their art displayed at Memphis International means the hundreds of thousands of people who pass through the airport each year are exposed to the students’ art.

“They can really be on the world stage,” White said. “We have a bigger showing probably than any museum in the state of Tennessee.”

The art on display is available for sale.

“We get asked about it all the time,” White said. “The general public calls us and asks how they can buy the art, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the kids.”

Some of the retail businesses in the airport sell items that feature the student artwork, and the funds from the sale of these items are used to purchase art supplies for the contest.

“Each year, we select the artwork that we believe will transition best into graphics for possibly T-shirts, key chains, coffee mugs, postcards and magnets,” said Robin Shipp, who operates seven retail stores at the airport. “We decided to sell goods with the selected art depicted so that we could make this very important program self-sustaining.”

Coats was thrilled that the student artists get to display their art on such a big stage and with the way the judges and airport officials interacted with the students.

“They treat these kids like rock stars,” Coats said.