Sandy Kunze admits to some confusion when Bruce McFarlane first raised the possibility of doing art works for the Calgary International Airport.
“Bruce had come into my Galvanized Gallery in Wynndel two or three times and one day he asked me, ‘Would you ever consider doing a commission?’ My first thought was not really, thinking that maybe he wanted me to paint a portrait of his grandmother or something!
“I used to do those (commissioned portraits), but I was horrible at it!”
Eventually, McFarlane was urging Kunze to put in an expression of interest.
McFarlane was then the airport’s director of air terminal development and a new international terminal was moving toward the construction phase. What turned out to be a $1.6 billion project would have a significant budget for what McFarlane describes as Themeworks.
Those first conversations took place in 2012.
“Sandy was just starting to move to larger format panels at that time,” said her husband, Dirk. “One of the airport’s architects had bought one of Sandy’s pieces, so it was easy to be intrigued with the airport connection.”
Sandy sent in an expression of interest, which led to an invitation to make a formal proposal for a piece with a specific theme and size.
“We had to come up with a full blown concept,” Dirk, who prepares all of the panels his wife paints on.
“I didn’t want to do a mural,” Sandy said, which turned out fine, because McFarlane didn’t want a mural. “My original idea was to create a sculpture of panels, with some sticking out in front of others, but then how to light them became an issue.”
“Eventually we came up with a montage of stand-alone pieces that also work when they are all put together,” Dirk said.
The panels would be large, because the final piece had to be 10×36 feet, with a sturdy steel frame holding it all together. Mountains in Banff National Park would be the theme.
The use of large panels presented a big challenge. Sandy always paints from the real thing—still life models are carefully arranged before she puts brush to surface, and she loves to paint out of doors, or plein air.
“If I am on site the scale of the mountains is much more accurate in perspective. I wanted the feeling and energy of the area. When you sit outside and paint, you are hearing all the sounds, and they become part of the painting.
“Or maybe it’s just an excuse to get out into nature,” she laughed.
It also meant getting family members out into nature because large panels and a selection of paints and brushes had to be hauled up into the mountains, sometimes for several kilometers.
“Five or six multi-day trips were made. I worked on groupings each time, trying to get enough of images onto the panels so that I could bring them home and finish them.”
Dirk was the main “Sherpa”, as Sandy refers to the family members—her sister, Dirk’s brother, their son, Brody. Dirk fashioned a wheeled cart to help haul the panels. (A video on the Kunze Gallery website illustrates the process.
As Sandy worked, McFarlane, who had already bought the Erickson property to which he and his wife Renata have now retired, often dropped by.
“We had no real sense of the place where the paintings would be installed, so Bruce was a great help describing the perspective. There were some reject panels because the perspective just wouldn’t work, and some of those are for sale in the gallery,” Dirk smiled. “But we don’t call them rejects!”
“We got pretty lucky,” Sandy recalled. “My studio just happened to be about the same size as the Themework—how fluky is that? I just had to clear out the space and start to work.”
The trips to Banff were made over two summers. Her original plan was to paint in all the seasons, so that viewers could take a virtual year-long trip as they looked at the piece. To that end, she even contacted helicopter businesses and a dogsled company to see if getting to the sites she selected was feasible.
“We eventually figured out that the multi-season concept wouldn’t work—it’s hard to paint in the cold and snow, and some of the locations are closed outside the summer months,” Dirk said.
As work progressed, Sandy faced another challenge. She had signed a confidentiality agreement as part of her commission contract, and couldn’t tell anyone what she was working on. It was a job artists dream about, and she had to keep quiet. Luckily, she had a fellow artist to commiserate with. Her friend Stewart Steinhauer was sculpting two bears which would be situated in front of her painting.
Finally, 2015 came along and it was time to ship the finished project.
“Getting them out of the studio and to Calgary without doing any damage? That was scary,” Sandy admitted. “It was a huge relief when they were finally out of my hands.”
“It was a relief because we no longer had any liability for the piece, but we would still have to set them up,” Dirk said.
Eventually, a long 12-hour day finally completed the installation, amid the chaos of a building filled with trades workers, who came in handy when last minute adjustments to drywall and painting had to be done.
“They weren’t really ready for us to install, but it got done,” Dirk said.
When Steinhauer’s granite sculptures were in their place at the front, they could finally stand back and envision what the public would see.
On October 1, Sandy and Dirk Kunze and Stewart and Cindy Steinhauer were among 1,500 invitees to a sneak preview of the new international terminal, a month before it would open for business.
“That was the best part for me,” Sandy grinned. “I had been kind of wondering what to expect.”
Guests were welcomed with an ovation from a couple hundred “White Hats” the famed volunteer Calgarians who greet visitors and give directions at the airport. The White Hats lined a 100-metre-long red carport. Guests were given souvenir boarding passes, proceeded through security and then welcomed once again, this time with glasses of champagne.
Acrobats hanging from the ceiling performed routines while dressed as pilots, flight attendants and travellers. Dancers performed, video of a jet flying to familiar places around the world was projected onto the walls, stilt walkers wandered around, speeches were made.
“And we finally got to meet the other artists,” she laughed. “Here we all had been, doing our thing for so long, and now we were together. We even got to meet the mayor!”
The location of the Kunze-Steinhauer Themework required permission to access, and eventually the Creston contingent made its way to it.
“Our space is so serene and comfortable, Sandy said. “It’s not in your face. And it feels like Stewart and I have our very own gallery in Calgary!”
The Kunze Gallery, on Canyon Street beside the red grain elevator, is open weekends. More information about Sandy’s own works, and those of other artists whose work is shown in the gallery, can be found at kunzegallery.ca.
(This is the second part of a series. Stewart Steinhauer’s story is next.)