The Art of Airport Construction

Professor Dawn Roe turns runway construction at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport into photographic and video art.

A gallery of daily construction images. (Photos courtesy of Dawn Roe) A gallery of daily construction images. (Photos courtesy of Dawn Roe)

Where some see piles of shifting dirt and crushed limestone, Dawn Roe sees mountain vistas and desert landscapes.

Or, more precisely, she photographs those piles of earth and concrete mix in a way that lets the rest of us envision majestic horizons in what has been a busy construction site at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport.

“Those temporary mountains were sprouting up all over the place,” says Roe, who is an associate professor of art and art history at Rollins College.

Roe at work in the studio. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Roe) Roe at work in the studio. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Roe) For the past 15 months, Roe has donned hardhat and safety vest to walk around the bulldozers and dump trucks to get a closer look at the changing spatial environments that occurred almost daily during the construction.

Her work is part of a special project to create an artistic record in response to the feats of engineering that go into the building of the new $790-million runway. Opening on September 18, the runway stretches 8,000 feet and rises 65 feet high, creating an overpass above traffic on U.S. 1.

While some photographers are documenting the building process in the traditional manner, the airport and the Broward County Cultural Division wanted something more. “The airport wanted to support an artist in residence,” Roe says. “They wanted an artistic response to the construction process.”

It was the first time Roe had taken on such an unusual project. “As an artist, I probably wouldn’t have sought a public construction project. I tend to respond to more personal spaces.”

However, when she saw a request for proposals, she was intrigued by the creative possibilities offered in reacting to the shifting construction environment over the course of more than a year. Examples of her current work can be seen at Lee Wagener Art Gallery in Terminal 2 at the airport.

When finalized and approved, Roe’s works will be moved to permanent displays throughout the airport. As part of the project, she also will supply video footage for two kiosks that can be viewed by travelers and art aficionados who visit the airport.

The Broward County Cultural Division, which provided a grant to cover some of the work and expenses, described the project this way: “Often working on location, Roe’s process is generally a combination of research and response. The underlying narratives that run underneath and throughout particular locations influence her interaction with each space. … Roe seeks to draw out the poignancy of fleeting present moments in tangible, visual forms.”

Photos in the gallery collection. (Photos courtesy of Dawn Roe) Photos in the gallery collection. (Photos courtesy of Dawn Roe) Her work required many trips to Fort Lauderdale and included creating temporary studios at the airport in areas open to the public. The workstations drew quizzical looks, but also some discussion from interested passers-by. Though she accomplished part of her work while on sabbatical, Roe said the project has kept her so busy that she feels more like a full-time photographer and researcher.

Returning to the classroom in fall 2015, Roe expects to use the airport experience to show students how to combine research skills and artistic sensibilities. She will also share strategies on how to manage, order, document, and edit such a long-term and large-scale project.

She accumulated thousands of images and hours of video from which will emerge the final displays—the relocation of the 10 light boxes from the airport gallery, two additional large light boxes, one 8-by-24-foot mural and two free-standings video kiosks. All are scheduled to be installed later this fall.

“It was daunting at first,” Roe says, “but it helped me realize that art is about responding to a set of conditions and problems.”