Famed artist’s sculpture will greet motorists at Des Moines airport

By: - January 19, 2021 10:27 am

New York City-based artist Alice Aycock plans to install her sculpture “Lift Off” at the new street entrance to Des Moines International Airport later this year. (Image courtesy of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation)

A Des Moines foundation has firmed up plans for an $850,000 sculpture, roughly resembling a tornado, near a planned new entrance to the Des Moines airport.

New York City-based artist Alice Aycock will create the white sculpture, “Lift Off,” which has been commissioned by the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation. The plan is to dedicate the piece in the fall. The work is her first permanent installation in Iowa.

New York City-based artist Alice Aycock plans to install her sculpture “Lift Off” at the new street entrance to Des Moines International Airport later this year. (Photo courtesy of Rutgers University)

The airport had been looking for a splashy art piece to greet airport users as they arrive and leave the area. The sculpture will be visible from nearby Fleur Drive, one of the busiest streets in the city. The art will be near a new entrance/exit to the airport that is part of an overhaul that includes a proposed new airport terminal.

“It will be an iconic piece,” said M. Jessica Rowe, foundation director. “It will inspire at a time when we could all use some inspiration.”

Aycock plans a galvanized stainless steel structure covered by white powder-coated aluminum. The 21-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide sculpture will look different as the light on it changes, Aycock said in an interview.

The piece, which will be immersed in white light at night, is an attempt to capture the movement, energy and power of the wind, Aycock said. For years, she has been fascinated with dust devils, water waves, smoke, tornadoes and other expressions of air movement.

“These things are hard to visualize, because in some cases they are invisible,” Aycock said. “The wind is invisible except when you see it in the trees or in the clothing or in water waves.” 

Aycock said the work will connect to the excitement people feel when a plane takes off. Even after flying four times a month for years, she still relishes the excitement of takeoffs and landings, she added.

Aycock, winner of the Academy of Arts Achievement Award, has installed works at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany, for example. Several of her sculptures are renditions of tornadoes, something familiar to Iowa.

A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Aycock installed works at Washington Dulles International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, the MGM National Harbor in Maryland, Toronto’s Pier 27 waterfront, and in Coral Gables, Florida. She has degrees from Douglass College in New Jersey and Hunter College in New York.

New York City-based artist Alice Aycock plans to install her sculpture “Lift Off” at the new street entrance to Des Moines International Airport later this year. (Image courtesy of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation)

The sculpture in part will be a tribute to the late Johnny Danos, who was a leader in the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and other organizations, and a philanthropist and businessman, foundation officials said. He died in 2018 at age 78.

The public art foundation, created by the Des Moines City Council 20 years ago, eventually became a nonprofit organized under the structure of the Community Foundation. 

Tim Hickman, president of the art foundation’s board, said Aycock had responded to a call for proposals for a major art piece along the Sixth Avenue corridor in 2012. She proposed what the board considered a striking work that would soar over the Des Moines River bridge, but the idea got bogged down in federal and local government reviews and was scrapped. 

The foundation ever since had talked about getting an Aycock work in a highly visible place, Hickman said. They pitched the idea to the airport, which until the pandemic had been gaining business quickly. The airport still plans a new terminal building, but financing for the $500 million project still is about $200 million short.

Hickman said his foundation has raised about 70% of the money for Aycock’s work and plans to proceed. The $235,000 raised for the 2012 project was shifted to the airport project. 

“We have maintained that money for the last 10 years because we were really committed to being able to do a project with this artist,” Hickman said in an interview.

“Lift Off” uses some techniques Aycock has employed in other works.

“In some ways, they might look like a whirlpool,” Hickman said. “She’s very interested in science as a kind of inspiration for her works, so things like whirlpools, or air movement, or the movement of smoke in the air. Fluid dynamics is something she has talked about as something that has inspired her.

“Many of her pieces have this kind of natural spinning sort of feel to them,” Hickman said. “We liked that there are little details you might not have picked up the last time you saw it. And it’s going to look different in the morning than it does in the evening.”

Aycock said the piece will be designed and engineered in New York City. It will be fabricated in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then separated into pieces for trucking to Des Moines. Installation should begin in late spring or early summer and should be done this fall, she added.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.