Janell Olah’s installation at Philadelphia International Airport’s Terminal A

Welcome home

When children arrive from all over the world, their first sight of Philadelphia might just be artist Janell Olah’s along my journey i carry you along. With its bright tones and soft, welcoming textures, this art installation feels like a beacon of welcome in Philadelphia International Airport’s international arrivals terminal.

Olah's vibrant sculpture greets weary travelers in Terminal A. (Photo courtesy of Janell Olah)

International arrivals have been a hot topic at PHL; when the Trump administration announced its travel ban, thousands of Philadelphians flooded the airport to demonstrate their support for refugees and immigrants. At least 5,000 of us—this writer included—spent a Sunday afternoon marching outside Terminal A, demanding the release of several travelers held by Customs & Border Police after having the bad luck to be in the air when the ban took immediate effect. They were released, but the situation remains tenuous and, at least for now, flying is an even more charged affair for international travelers, Muslims, non-citizens, and others.

Art for all

Olah wasn’t able to participate in the protest, but says she supports welcoming newcomers to Philadelphia. When I visited her installation, I couldn’t help thinking of the children and families who face this scrutiny as they enter the United States. After following adults through long journeys and endless drab jetways and airports, the bright pinks and oranges of along my journey i carry you along, in the ticketed-passengers area of Terminal A West, must look like a carnival.

It certainly looked that way to Olah’s audience on Wednesday as she and airport exhibitions assistant Ursula Stuby gave a tour of the installation. Then again, this wasn’t your usual art audience—it was Ms. Brooke White’s first-grade class from Fishtown’s Adaire Elementary School.

Olah, an installation artist who grew up in Lancaster County and is now based in Fishtown, holds an MFA from the University of Delaware and has been creating inflatable art for 10 years. Her son Camper is one of Ms. White’s students; so is my daughter. After learning about how art exhibits work from Stuby and being escorted through security, the class looked with audible glee on Olah’s work.

Joy and journeys

along my journey i carry you along is, as the title indicates, a work about travel. It consists of inflatable sewn vinyl pieces, installed in a glass box with a platform floor that conceals 15 fans and a ventilation system—one of 20 sites scattered throughout the airport that host 40 exhibits a year. Several vinyl pieces are tethered together in a line, with mast-like poles reaching upward into billowing white cloudlike forms. “It’s a train!” one child proclaimed, while another decided it “looks like camping tents.” Others chimed in: “I see a sunrise!” “A circus tent!” “Wagons!” “I think it has a pool that you can swim in!”  Another component resembles a sailboat.

Adaire Elementary School first-graders enjoy airport art. (Photo by Sarah Grey)
Adaire Elementary School first-graders enjoy airport art. (Photo by Sarah Grey)

Olah says the installation took two years to develop, and she worked on the piece with “the backdrop of the refugee crisis ringing in my ears.” Though she didn’t know what would unfold during those two years, she couldn’t shake the images of those fleeing the civil war in Syria for an uncertain fate; she chose shapes and images suggesting such journeys. However, her work isn’t infused with fear and loss but with a sense of hope and calm. Everyone who passes through Terminal A West is in transition, whether they are immigrants, refugees, tourists, or regular travelers. The piece’s location speaks to that: “right there on the other side of security, in the exact place of transition.”

Though the subject matter is painful and often tragic, the installation isn’t somber. “I wanted the people who see this to feel warm and safe and happy,” Olah told the first-graders. “When we go on a trip, we might feel excited to go to a new place, but we might also feel scared or sad about the place and people we’re leaving behind. I called this along my journey i carry you along because it’s about how even when we leave, we’re taking the people we love along with us in a way.”

Her goal, she explained, was for all 2,000 to 8,000 travelers who pass through Terminal A every day—especially the kids—to feel a sense of refuge, welcome, and joy. “If I could help someone caught in the in-between,” she says, “well, that would be amazing.” As Olah’s artist statement notes, the piece “hints at the soft weightlessness of childhood, later bathed in a film of nostalgia.” The translucence of the material, she told the children, “gives you a feeling of mystery and maybe a little bit of longing, too.”

Another kind of welcome

Joy and peace were evident among the children as they explored the art. “It makes me feel like it would rock me to sleep if I lie down on it,” one girl commented. Her classmate, a boy whose family immigrated to Philadelphia from Cambodia, said it reminded him of colors he’d seen while visiting there.

The 16 children also had an opportunity to design their own imaginary exhibit in an exercise led by Stuby, who drew their suggestions onto a worksheet with a blank installation box; their installation would welcome travelers with a Tyrannosaurus rex holding a sword, a giant diamond in its mouth, and a million tiny ninjas on its back. (One child leaned over to Olah and whispered, “You should make that next!”) After learning about the art and eating lunch next to an exhibit of high-school students’ self-portraits in the baggage claim area, the children—and the artist—were treated to a bus tour of the airfield, where they cheered as planes landed, carrying Philadelphians old and new on their journeys.

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