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At the airport: a look behind the scenes at a collaborative art exhibition

Radford University graphic design professor's John O'Connor and Ken Smith installing artwork in a new exhibit at Reagan National Airport

Radford University graphic design professor’s John O’Connor and Ken Smith installing artwork in a new exhibit at Reagan National Airport

The cacophony of the first light birds was silent when our alarm sounded. Even the studio kittens remained enervated as they clung to the last vestiges of human warmth in the bed.

Taking quick showers during in the middle of the night and while drying ourselves drinking hot coffee; putting on clothes laid out before getting a few hours of sleep; and grabbing my ready-to-go backpack felt a little surreal.

The night before Ken magically (for there was a huge amount of the items) filled my little car with exotic tea packages, hard root beer, unheard of magazines, illustrated books (think “Jungle Book”), clever t-shirts, ice cream packages, currently unpublished board games and artful posters. These he had spent weeks collecting (and packing) from Radford University’s graphic design students and recent alumni. And there was his own design work that was also accompanying us on a special mission to Washington, DC.

As we drove away from our peaceful hamlet into the chaos of the big city, we watched the sunrise. We ate the breakfast Ken had packed for us and shared a thermos of more coffee.

Then somewhere around Salem, Virginia, an extremely well choreographed caravan happened. Using amazing technology (can you believe it – mobile phones) and timing, artist and graphic design professor John O’Connor fell in behind us in his vehicle. We drove the remainder of the way in tandem.

At long last (read two months), we had arrived at Reagan National Airport to install a collaborative exhibition between artist and professor Dr. Haoqin Gong from Beihang University in Beijing, China, and Radford’s graphic design program. Dr. Gong is a guest artist at Radford. To make a long story somewhat short, friends of his approached the airport to feature his work, which is a series of monochromatic paintings themed around WWII Flying Tigers from the viewpoint of the Chinese. It is well planned as the Flying Tigers celebrate their 75th anniversary in August.

As in most stories, a plot twist catches everyone off guard. For Dr. Gong to have the show, he needed to fill five showcases with 3D artwork and provide insurance for the work. Enter Radford University master watercolorist and professor Z.L. Feng. It was his brainchild to satisfy the case issue with work from Radford, since Dr. Gong is a guest artist there. Both Ken and John agreed to help.

Then in May, I became involved and handled communications between Feng (who had become a benefactor to the show), Ken, John, the airport and my boss. When I say airport I mean the amazing Margaret Bishop who coordinates the gallery walk shows – and more. It seemed like I talked to all of them everyday for those two months.

So, we found ourselves parking our cars in the cab lane at the airport’s Terminal A; having said vehicles searched or rather sniffed by police dogs (due to heightened security because of the airport attack in Turkey), which only found a few stray kitten hairs in both cars; having assistance and carts provided to help us get the artwork into Terminal A where the gallery is located; and finally installing a show in a pretty bustling concourse.

Dr. Gong’s paintings fill the wall space. In the five showcases, Ken and John share one to exhibit their own illustration and design. The four others cases feature work by Nealon Buchanan, Alyssa Carlson, Ty Cornett, Paul Gartner (shoutout – recent winner of a student Silver National ADDY), Danielle Glumsic, Alyssa Pull Hardbower, Jacob Hardbower, Crystal Jernigan, Rachel Jones, Peter Mattox, Shawna Hession, Emily Martin, Brooke Moody, Erica Smith, Billy Sours and Wendy Viana.

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The Details:

Where: The Gallery Walk (Concourse A) at Reagan National Airport in District of Colombia.
When: Through the end of September
Times: Airport hours

From what I have heard, parking can bit a bit difficult there, but there is the Metro, Uber, Lift and traditional taxis. It is a really great show, both aspects, in a pretty cool space.




The Unwinding Path is the blog of L.S. King – photographer, want-to-be printmaker and sometimes hypnotist. By day she is an arts communications officer at a rural university (translation: photographer, writer, and media content provider), and most of the rest of her time she is an MFA graduate student at Radford University.


  1. Very sweet exhibits!

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