Lawrence artist among select few chosen to create art for new Kansas City airport

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence artist Hong Zhang, pictured Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in her studio, learned earlier this month that her artwork depicting Kansas wheat and native grass had been selected to adorn the walls of the new Kansas City airport, which is scheduled to open in spring 2023. About 1,900 artists had applied for the commission, and Zhang was one of only 28 to be accepted.

Of the 1,900 artists from around the world who wanted to see their artwork adorn the new Kansas City airport, only 28 — fewer than 2% — have been selected, and Hong Zhang, of Lawrence, is among them.

“I’m happy to be in this diverse group,” said Zhang, noting not only the intensity of the competition but the opportunity to have her Kansas-inspired artwork seen by countless travelers at the international airport.

Of the 28 artists given commissions, nine will create sculptural art, and the other 19 will create two-dimensional pieces.

Zhang, a professional painter who has lived in Lawrence since 2004, is in the latter group. Like the other 18 artists, she will be given a 4-by-20-foot space on the concourse wall for her creation.

All of the commissioned art, whether figurative or abstract, is supposed to have some connection to area history or nature, said Zhang, whose art has been displayed around the globe and who was one of seven Asian American artists whose work appeared in a yearlong show at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Most recently her work was exhibited at the Royal Palace of Milan in Italy.

Zhang briefly entertained submitting an image of a tornado, Kansas’ most iconic force of nature and one that, with its swirls and textures, was well-suited to the signature motif in her paintings: human hair.

In previous works she has created tornadoes — and other items such as ocean waves, waterfalls, food items and everyday objects — that, when you look closely, appear to be made of thousands of strands of hair.

“Then I thought about it,” she said. “A tornado might not be a good idea for an airport. It might scare the travelers.”

So she landed, instead, on two other Kansas symbols: wheat fields and native grass.

Those more peaceful — and organic — staples of prairie life also lent themselves ideally to the hair motif.

In the two large charcoal drawings that have been selected for the airport, the intricate heads of wheat resemble long braids, and the swath of native grass suggests a dense, windswept head of hair.

“This is a very natural development of my work,” Zhang said. “And it gives travelers a feel for the nature they will see beyond the airport walls.”

Zhang, who came to the U.S. from China in the 1990s, notes that the black-and-white charcoal images also call to mind the tradition of Chinese ink painting and reflect a “Chinese aesthetic of black and white, negative and positive spaces.”

Zhang said she would complete her two pieces by the end of this year, and they will be installed before the airport’s expected opening in spring 2023.

Construction on the new $1.5 billion Kansas City airport, touted as the largest single infrastructure project in Kansas City history, began in March 2019. The single terminal of 1 million square feet will replace the current three-terminal configuration that was built in 1972.

The money for the airport art came from the One Percent for Art program in Kansas City, Mo., which mandates that a certain portion of the budget for public construction be set aside to fund public art. In the case of the new airport, that amount is $5.6 million — the largest in the program’s history.

“I’m very honored and grateful to be a part of this,” Zhang said.


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