Art on the fly; Through artwork displays, some airports also help the spirit take flight.

QUICK, what's the difference between airports and museums? This summer, visitors flying to Pisa, Italy, will ponder that question when they touch down at Galileo Galilei International Airport. "They've turned the airport into a Nall...


QUICK, what's the difference between airports and museums? This summer, visitors flying to Pisa, Italy, will ponder that question when they touch down at Galileo Galilei International Airport.

"They've turned the airport into a Nall installation," the Alabama-born artist (who once went by Nall Hollis) says of his artwork, which is on display inside and outside the building. "The whole facade is covered with plastic reproductions of mosaics that are two stories high."

Nall's artistic style is surreal; he calls himself a disciple of Salvador Dali. The mosaics look like vibrant building blocks arranged in random patterns -- a look that gives the airport building a cartoonish feel.

Inside each waiting area are silk-screen images on the walls in the style of religious icons. Instead of saints, these faces and bodies -- some bloodied, all exaggerated -- are caricatures of modern-day ills such as "Racism," "Hunger" and so on. Outside are sculptures of enormous birds and picture frames that hint at the "broken" state of world peace.

The marriage of art and airports isn't new, but the idea is starting to take hold on a grander scale. Airport curators say they enjoy the challenge of creating an aesthetic experience for someone rushing to a gate.

"What's exciting is to have a chance for someone who may never see art in a museum walk away from the airport having had the experience," says David Vogt, who organizes art shows for Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Vogt says the airport will open a second airport exhibit space in July to accommodate new shows, such as the debut exhibition of 10 artists who use found materials in creating their work.

Here are some airports where art is breaking out.

Galileo Galilei

International Airport

Nall paints in France, sculpts in Italy and creates mosaics in Morocco. The display, which runs through 2008, includes bronze sculptures "Peace Frame" and "Wounded Dove," images from his "Stations of the Cross" series, and the faux mosaics. The exhibit continues at the Basilica of Assisi, 172 miles away. Delta Airlines started direct flights to Pisa from New York on June 1, but if you don't plan on going you can check out Nall's work at www.nall.org.

San Francisco

International Airport

This airport takes pride in its art program and even has an aviation library and museum -- in the design of a 1930s-era waiting room -- tucked inside its International Terminal.

Curator Jane Sullivan thinks art can soften the airport experience, if folks take the time to look.

"It's a wonderful place for art, particularly because it humanizes the whole experience," she says. "But it's unclear how many people notice.... People aren't here to see exhibits, so it's almost random what people take away."

Current exhibits at SFO: "Collecting by Design: Silver and Metalwork of the 20th Century," which includes 350 works from the collection of interior architect Margo Grant Walsh, is on display through August. "Hmong Textiles" features skirts, baby carriers, funeral robes and other items made by highland people of Southeast Asia, and continues through October. And "Under Water Planet," which displays fish in exotic habitats, is on permanent display. Call (650) 821-6700 or visit www.sfoarts.org.

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport

The world's busiest passenger airport has one gallery at the entrance/exit corridor and a second space planned to open at the end of July. The Atlanta airport has more than 250 artworks in its permanent collection and is always scouting for interesting exhibits, mostly from Georgia collectors and galleries.

Current exhibits: The most popular exhibit at the airport, according to Vogt, is the large-scale stone sculptures from Zimbabwe that play on themes of family and spirituality. The sculptures sit opposite photomurals of the people, wildlife and landscape of the African nation while traditional music is piped in. At the end of July, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center at Jekyll Island will set up an exhibit with live video feeds from the island where travelers can view the turtles. View images of some of the sculptures at www.atlanta-airport.com.

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