$4 million forest walk is now most popular artwork at Hartsfield-Jackson


A massive $4.1 million art installation that simulates a walk through a forest in an underground walkway at Hartsfield-Jackson International has quickly become the most popular artwork at the world’s busiest airport.

The 450-foot art installation titled “Flight Paths” was installed last year in the underground passenger walkway and between Concourses A and B. It came to life in the people-mover tunnel 13 years after it was first envisioned by artist Steve Waldeck.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed this month called the artwork “one of the most spectacular pieces of art in the entire Southeast.”

It’s “both audacious and peaceful,” helping to ease the stress of travelers, Reed said. “This is an expression of our culture.”

It’s not unusual for travelers take to social media to post photos of the illuminated ceiling and videos of their walk through the virtual forest, complete with bird sounds and a simulated rain storm. The tree canopy is made up of thousands of laser-cut aluminum leaves, illuminated by 24,000 LED lights. Thirty-one species of birds that can be heard.

The art project “had an incredibly long gestation period,” acknowledged Hartsfield-Jackson art program manager David Vogt, citing delays due to the struggling economy and other funding challenges.

The budget for the project ballooned from $1.3 million in 2003 to more than three times that amount by the time it was complete, due to increased costs for electrical work with LED lights and to redesign materials to comply with current safety codes.

“I think it’s crazy,” said John Sherman, then-president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, about the price tag. Two Atlanta city council members voted against a 2012 measure for the project when it came with a nearly $4 million price tag, including council member Yolanda Adrean who raised questions about the cost of the piece and other issues.

When the council’s finance committee in 2015 voted unanimously in favor of additional funding to bring the budget to $4.1 million, Adrean said she was reassured that the artist would be able to complete the project thanks to the completion of a 60-foot prototype.

Now, “Flight Paths has become the most popular piece of artwork that we have here at the airport,” said Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Roosevelt Council. The Atlanta airport “introduces Atlanta to the world” and the airport art program “serves as a cultural introduction to the city,” he said.

The stretch of people-mover tunnel with the art installation has also begun to serve an unusual purpose for frustrated passengers: It has become an impromptu place for stranded travelers to stretch out and try to get rest after their flights are cancelled.

This month, Reed and airport officials unveiled an interpretive sign explaining the work, the species of birds heard, how the video of sky and flying birds was created, and Waldeck’s background and vision.

Reed said the art installation helps to maintain Atlanta’s status as the “cultural capital” of the Southeast “It lets travelers know right away, right out of the gate, that Atlanta is a city committed to the arts,” he said.

Waldeck was involved in the installation, but airport officials said his health has declined over the last year due to Alzheimer’s Disease. He was not able to attend the city’s celebration of his work.

Still,  Waldeck had created a thorough blueprint for the ambitious installation and he “was able to realize the master work of his career,” Vogt said. For the many others involved in getting the project completed over a period of years, it “was a labor of love,” he said.

Marc Shellist, who managed the installation for SVI Themed Construction Solutions, said the aim was to “create a journey” and “an immersion event with a changing narrative.”

“It’s not unlike an actual walk through the woods, where things are similar, but never exactly the same,” Shellist said. It’s “a modern, impressionistic forest.”

Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Andrew Gobeil referred to Flight Paths -- often simply called “the forest” -- as “another icon for ATL and for the city of Atlanta.”

The majority of the more than 104 million passengers Hartsfield-Jackson handles in a year are just connecting through the airport, often experiencing Atlanta only between gates or concourses.

Vogt said the aim of the art program is “to make this more than just a pass-through, but an experience, something you remember.”

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AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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