The Sky Beneath our Feet by Clayton Merrill at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport

On a Friday morning in late September, as travelers rushed to catch flights or find their ride home, Kyle Cothron paused to admire the swirls of sky blue terrazzo and the intersecting white arcs at his feet in the center core of the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

“It’s really striking,” said Cothron, a former radiology resident at Allegheny General Hospital who moved to Connecticut in April and was returning for a visit.

Cothron’s reaction is exactly what artist Clayton Merrell envisioned with his design of The Sky Beneath Our Feet: a 69,000-square-foot terrazzo art installation of blue skies, horizon, a dozen crisscrossing “flight paths” and the city’s skyline that will officially be completed on Wednesday. It is one of two recent art installations at the airport that aim to give rushing and often harried travelers a reason to stop, catch their breath and take in the spectacular view.

The Sky Beneath Our Feet at the Pittsburgh International Airport
The Sky Beneath Our Feet at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.

Sky Beneath Our Feet spans the center core of the airport’s airside terminal and includes silhouettes from five neighborhoods that Pittsburghers should know well:

• the North Shore with its stadiums and the Carnegie Science Center by Concourse A
• Oakland with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Phipps Conservatory by Concourse B
• South Side including the Smithfield Street Bridge and Duquesne Incline by Concourse C
• Downtown as seen from the Ohio River by Concourse D
• Homestead and the historic Carrie Furnace in the food court area

Bridge in terrazzo floor
One of the many images of Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the terrazzo floor. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh airport.

The terrazzo floor is part of the airport’s $10 million airmall renovation which includes a number of high-end fashion stores, such as Hugo Boss, along with the newest space, Martini. A composite of marble, quartz, granite, and glass chips, terrazzo is a popular, functional and stunning choice for high-traffic spaces, and this one is exceptional in many ways.

Yes, there's now a martini bar at the Pittsburgh Airport
The newly opened Martini. Photo by TC for NEXTpittsburgh.

The Allegheny County Airport Authority initially invited 10 local artists for consideration, based on their past work. The field was then narrowed to three, who were invited to tour the site and submit proposals. It was during the tour that Merrell walked up to a balcony overlooking the nearly circular center core—that area in between Concourses A, B, C and D—and immediately envisioned turning the enormous space into a spectacular vast, blue sky, an extension of the magic of air travel.

It was, he says, “an opportunity to create something that you could walk around and literally get lost in.”

Skies are a prominent theme in Merrell’s art, which has been featured in recent exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C. and the American Embassy in Belize, as well as closer to home in Chautauqua, N.Y.

“When you are a kid, you lay on your back in the grass and stare up in the sky. If you lay there long enough, you feel like gravity is going to let go of you, and you are going to float up to the sky,” explains Merrell, a professor and associate head of the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

Martini bar
The recently opened Martini in the airside terminal core of the Pittsburgh airport. Photo by TC.

His inspiration, he says, came from “just harkening back to that more simple mystery of vast space and being lost in the enormity of something.”

Once he was selected to create a design for the terrazzo floor, Merrell toured the city, taking scads of photos and studying the skylines of various neighborhoods whose silhouettes he could translate into a terrazzo floor. The Forest Hills resident completed his drawings for the five neighborhoods and accompanying clouds during the summer of 2013, while he and his family visited Oaxaca, Mexico where he had lived with his family for a year in 1996 doing research and creative work for a Fulbright Grant.

Once his drawings were complete, Merrell turned them over to the Pittsburgh architecture firm LGA Partners (formerly Lami Grubb Architects), which created the computer-aided design drawings. LGA then turned it over to local contractor Mosites Construction and West Chester-based Roman Mosaic & Tile, which created the terrazzo via Merrell’s specifications.

Clayton Merrell at work
Clayton Merrell, left, helped with the installation of the 69,000-square- foot floor

In recent months, Merrell has spent evenings assisting with the floor installation including the roughly 400 tiny triangles and rectangles that make up the Smithfield Street Bridge. The end result is a wonderful series of Pittsburgh skylines surrounding a sky crisscrossed with flight paths, clouds and iconic flight vessels including the Wright Flyer, the first plane flown by the Wright brothers, a satellite and the space shuttle.

Toby Fraley in his Robot Repair Shop at the Pittsburgh Airport
Toby Fraley in his Robot Repair Shop at the Pittsburgh Airport

Broken robots? There’s a space for that.

On that same Friday morning, farther down Concourse A, Toby Fraley was putting the finishing touches on his latest public art installation: Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Fraley spent his late summer days and nights transforming a space that used to house a bank of payphones into a robot repair shop, his second such effort. For 17 months starting in 2011, Fraley’s Robot Repair was housed in a pop-up space, now Butcher and the Rye, across from Heinz Hall on Sixth Avenue. The exhibit was part of Project Pop Up: Downtown, with a goal to fill vacant storefronts with creative startup businesses, art installations or performances as a means to attract permanent tenants.

The Robot Repair Shop is crammed with fun and interesting objects.
The Robot Repair Shop is crammed with fun and interesting objects.

“The downtown installation had such a great following,” says Fraley, who won the 2012 Mayor’s Award for Public Art for his exhibit. “People actually thought it was a robot repair shop.” When the exhibit ended, Fraley turned to the airport with an idea for a second installation. “Growing up, I was always a big aviation fan. I approached them with this idea and they jumped on it.”

Apparently. The airport authority not only offered the space to Fraley for five years at no charge but also gave him an option to renew.

Fraley, a Washington, Pa. native who now lives in Bridgeville, began work on the airport branch of Fraley’s Robot Repair in May shortly after learning that his Kickstarter campaign, which brought in 233 backers and more than $13,000, would be successful. The art installation, which can only be viewed from behind a window that spans one wall of the exhibit, recreates a Lost in Space-era robot repair shop, filled with robots and robot parts of his own design and creation, including two on the back wall with trunks made from vintage picnic jugs with coffee thermoses for legs.

With Fraley’s exhibit, it is worth taking the time to absorb the effect of the space, nearly every inch of which is now filled with robots or related paraphernalia. Cans of robot-themed paint line one wall next to a senior high school picture of a robot complete with an Olan Mills logo that Fraley recreated. On the opposite wall hangs a picture of Mister Rogers and a robot that Fraley scored on eBay.

After a few minutes, you will notice that some of the robots move their hands with unsettling slowness.

Fraley, a mainly self-taught artist who works in other mediums including electronics and ceramics, has created more than 80 robots on commission including seven for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (six on the second floor and a Penguin-themed robot that travels around the hospital). Other memorable projects include a robot created for an internal project at Google, and another to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Steng Licht, a lighting company in Stuttgart, Germany, his first European commission.

“I like surprising people,” Fraley says of his art and the surprises that can be uncovered with careful attention to his latest exhibit. “They discover it, which is amazing.”

Heidi Brayer

Heidi Brayer is a writer and editor at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute. One of her favorite pastimes is sneaking D's hotdogs into Sunday night movies at the Regent.