The artist, wearing a mask, applies red rhinestones to a butterfly in the painting.

Hee Sook Kim Brings Beauty to the Airport

The professor of fine arts’ latest commission is a site-specific installation in Terminal C of the Philadelphia International Airport that was designed to bring joy and color to weary travelers.

When Hee Sook Kim last heard from her dentist it wasn’t regarding her teeth, but her art. Arriving in the wee hours of the morning at Philadelphia International Airport for a 6:30 a.m. flight, the dentist was delighted to be greeted at her gate by a colorful, 20-foot-long print covered in hand-applied rhinestones made by her patient, and sent her an email letting her know. 

“Seeing my work unexpectedly around the gate was her reward for getting there early in the morning,” says Kim, a painter and printmaker who has been a member of the Haverford College faculty for almost 20 years. “I am lucky to have my work at the airport [so] I could give this kind of joy to exhausted travelers.”

Her piece at the airport, known as “Everlasting Playground,” is a new addition to Terminal C—next to gates 28 and 31—as of September. It was initially commissioned by Leah Douglas, director of guest experience at the airport and the curator of exhibitions, in September 2019, and was scheduled to be on view starting in March of this year. However, like so many things, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the project. When Douglas reached back out in February 2021 to restart the collaboration, Kim had only a few months to prepare the site-specific artwork by May for its debut. 

The professor of fine arts began by painting a smaller (40”x120”) version of what is now “Everlasting Playground.” That work was then scanned, enlarged, and printed on canvas fabric, and rhinestones were added by hand. Kim’s students Shreya Singh ‘22 and Sam Berg ‘21 worked with her over three days in a workshop at the airport to collage all the gems onto the reproduced image.

“It would have been impossible without their help to recreate it in three days,” she said. “… After the main work was done, the image panels were installed on the site, and we worked four more hours to add stripes of shimmering rhinestones at the site. Travelers were passing by, commenting, ‘Beautiful,’ which made me very happy.”

“Everlasting Playground” is quite large—almost 6-feet tall and 20-feet wide—and, as is Kim’s style, very colorful. It uses a Korean folk painting style, inspired by the longevity paintings of the Joseon Dynasty, to depict a tranquil spring scene replete with pink-flowering trees, rolling green hills, sparkly butterflies, soaring birds, and glittery-gilled fish swimming in a river. The bright, cheerful colors and nature imagery are meant to calm stressed-out travelers and add a spark of joy to the monotony of air travel. 

“I included actual places in the work, such as waterfalls and streams from Wissahickon, Ridley Creek, and French Creek where I often hike, peaks and fields from Hawk Mountains and World’s End, in addition to the area of Philadelphia city,” she said. “Birds, like cardinals and hawks, and ducks, from our backyards and ponds and fish, like trout, are found in this imaginary landscape.”

Kim, whose artmaking had been affected by the solitude and stress of COVID lockdowns and a life lived onscreen, was inspired by the hope and brightness of springtime outdoors.

“We need to play like free-spirited kids in a playground with friends and animals,” says Kim. “When you wake up with a plethora of birds’ songs in the morning, you truly feel alive. Changing greens from various sprouts in early spring make you feel refreshed and that magical wonder of tiny seeds is the power of life. Greens, pink, yellow, white flowering trees greet you in your walk. Crocuses and dandelions in your steps lead you to open fields for hopes for brighter futures. Circling hawks in the deep blue sky makes you look high up further with more imaginations. … Yes, spring comes after winter and fall follows summer. The Sun and Moon still come every day and assure our existence on earth. Nature is our steady hope no matter what.”

Kim hopes that the brightness and levity of “Everlasting Playground” acts as a balm for all who see it—especially those who come upon it by chance in the course of their travels over the next three months. (It will be on view through February 2022.)

“I am highly honored to have my work in the airport for six months so that travelers can be surprised, excited, or feel playful looking at my work, especially during this difficult time,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to cheer up their spirit with the colorful image and shimmering stones.”

And for at least one dental professional—as well as numerous others who have enjoyed the piece since it went on view in September—that’s already been true.