On September 18th, 2013 I was four months away from finishing a year long project when I was asked by a friend and collector, Mattias Larsson, if I would be interested in working on a commissioned art piece. His idea was to take hundreds of boarding pass stubs, frequently flyer cards, frequent hotel stay cards, hotel door keys and credit cards from his extensive travels through the years and mount them all in a shadow box type frame. I thought it was interesting as I had included some airplane imagery and open sky in some of my previous work, primarily as a metaphor for journey and possibility. I considered how I may approach it, and soon realized that it happened to coincide with the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC that happens every three years.
Instead of compiling all the information into one disconnected piece, I pitched the idea to Mattias of gathering all his boarding passes to assemble his likeness from the materials. I then wanted to understand how his collection came about and what flying actually meant to him. Mostly, these items were either from work related trips or a vacation. Going to new places, seeing new things. At first, the flying itself was something he would look forward to, as an aviation enthusiast. Once in-flight it was nice to get served a nice meal, drink and watch some movies — there were no phone or email interruptions. Traveling has changed quite a bit since then.
After collecting all of my and Mattias’s thoughts about flight, I felt there was a poetic and beautiful concept in constructing his portrait using the materials from the more than 1 million miles he covered, capturing the airlines he took and the seats he traveled in. The last 20–25 years would be sitting on this panel in one place and at the same time immortalizing his likeness of who he is today. So I began sketching out some ideas of how I was going to put this together. The boarding passes had a lot of detail in them so I thought a simple composition of his portrait with some sky and clouds in the background would keep the piece recognizable from a distance but maintain the intricacy of the boarding passes up close, giving the viewer an experience from both near and far.
As an artist, I like to think about creating art that can be aesthetically pleasing to the casual passerby, but intellectually stimulating for those who want to stick around and think a bit longer about the work. If an artist can achieve both, I think that’s where the magic happens in art.
The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition deadline is November 30th, 2014 so I had to get started right away planning the composition and the execution of this piece. Mattias had a specific wall space in mind where it would live measuring 78" high and 47" wide, so that was the only constraint I had. Other then that, he was very receptive to any ideas. Still, there’s an intimidating feeling when someone hands over something they’ve collected over two decades and you start thinking about cutting, gluing and painting over it. There were some boarding passes that dated back to 1989 and 1990, up to today, though the majority of the passes would be from 1997-2008 which represents the peak of Mattias’s business travel, both domestic and international.
Inspired by the realist work of artists like Chuck Close, my thought was to pixelate the image into square proportions. Small enough to resolve his likeness, but big enough to read the detail on the boarding passes. I landed on a piece that measures 57 x 37 inches and ended up with a grid of 4,872 squares to define the portrait. At that point, I had the rest of September, October and early November to cut, compose, glue and paint the pieces in order to make the deadline. I’ve submitted work to the past two competitions, unsuccessfully, but the work was traditional oil painting and I wanted to rethink the concept of the portrait this year if I was to submit work again to the competition. In a way, this piece is two portraits in one, in that it’s his physical likeness, but it’s also about all those experiences that shape who he is.
I sat down in front of a box full of boarding passes and sifted through it looking for patterns in type and color. I categorized the boarding passes into groups (blue, orange, white, dark, green, etc.), essentially creating a palette in which to construct the portrait. Turns out there wasn’t enough diversity to give me the fidelity I was looking for in the portrait so I knew I would have to tint the swatches with an acrylic paint to resolve the portrait when the viewer is further away to see it from a distance. I didn’t want to paint the acrylic too opaque or it would obscure the details in the swatch that told the story of Mattias’s travels. There was a fine line balancing the two.
As I worked through the somewhat meditative task of ruling, cutting and mounting of the ticket pieces, I would find my mind wondering since I had to get through so many thousands of them. I began to think about my own journey, the places I’ve been, the art I’ve created, my friends and family. Mattias traveled physically over these years, but working on this piece over the last three months allowed me to travel spiritually and contemplate my own past. In a conceptual sense, all art is autobiographical in some form or another. In some ways, this portrait has become a mirror to me when I look at it, and at the same time it’s still a physical portrait of Mattias.
I once read a quote, but can’t remember the source, that went something like: “A man travels around the world asking questions only to return home to find the answer”. I thought there was a very wise lesson there.
After over 600 boarding passes used, 4,872 swatches cut and 141 hours putting this piece together, I definitely know I’m still on my own journey asking questions, but who knows, I may return back home one day after a million miles of my own to find the answer.
Thank you Mattias for letting me do this piece! It was fun, slightly insane, but mostly fun. ☺