“It’s a straight line and a curved line,” says San Francisco artist Amy Ellingson. She’s pointing to a 109-foot length of wall in San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3, where her massive, 1,100-square foot mosaic mural, Untitled (Large Variation) ceremoniously watches over passers-by.
This is starting to feel like a trick. With our noses close to the thousands of tiny ceramic tiles in an assortment of colors, it’s hard to find a place for your eyes to rest, let alone decipher clear shapes. Ellingson is known for her smart approach to creating abstract work. It begins with extensive planning on Photoshop, before switching over to paint on canvas, or, in this case, large-scale mosaic. Whatever her medium, her preferred mode is “energetic.”
“You’re looking at a grid like this,” Ellingson explains, miming a simple right-angled box with her hands, as we take a couple of steps back. “If you connected the corners with a curved line instead of straight lines, it just becomes a different kind of form.” It’s a deceptively simple premise for a mosaic that’s startlingly complicated. We take a few more steps back.
“There’s kind of a matrix form,” she says, motioning to the clearly outlined ovals around the base of the piece. “That's the matrix for every shape in the image. I put them through filters, and stretch them, and pull them, and chop them up, and drag them around, and make them bigger or smaller — and so every image is basically built out of this single form.” This idea of borrowing shapes from the same family seems to be the trick to keeping Untitled so cohesive, so orderly. We’re standing at such a distance now that the lines could be read across the wall like text. The repetition is soothing. The softness of the shapes are feminine. It seems like a misprint, but this gargantuan piece — done in sharp oranges and lime greens, no less — is calming.
“I just wanted to create a language of pure abstract form that didn’t really reference anything specifically,” she says of the forms. “However, what I hear all the time when people are looking at my work is that people see a language reference.”
She’s been asked if her work has roots in everything from graffiti to Hebrew to Arabic to ancient cuneiform. It’s no stretch: Letters in any language boil down to mark-marking.
And it makes sense that the San Francisco Arts Commission would choose to commission this sort of piece for an airport. (The city of San Francisco has it’s own Art Enrichment Ordinance overseen by the SFAC. Part of this program is the Public Art Ordinance, which dictates that 2 percent of construction costs for public building projects goes toward some sort of public art piece. Ellingson’s Untitled — which was officially unveiled at the beginning of this month — is just one of many SFO projects.) If any public space is a metaphor for cultural cross-pollination or human connectivity, it’s an airport.
“The stuff of letter forms is just lines and curved lines,” says Ellingson. “That’s universal.”
Amy Ellingson’s Untitled (Large Variation), in San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3.